From Protest to Citizen Science, Rainbow Ridge Conservation Takes Many Forms

by Caroline Griffith

 

On December 15, Humboldt Superior Court dismissed charges against four elderly Mattole residents, Jane Lapiner, David Simpson, Ellen Taylor and Michael Evenson of the Lost Coast League, who had been arrested in June of 2019 for allegedly trespassing on Humboldt Redwood Company’s (HRC) land on Rainbow Ridge. If convicted, they could have been charged for costs incurred during logging protests, potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The four were protecting “the last, most ecologically significant, intact forest in the north Mattole headwaters.” Rainbow Ridge — 18,000 acres including 1,500 acres of primary, or ancient, forest consisting of Douglas-fir and diverse hardwoods, as well as natural coastal prairies — largely escaped the post-WWII logging boom because of the remote and rugged terrain and its mix of hardwoods and conifers, which made it less profitable to log. Not only is the ridge sacred to local Indigenous people, it is also vital habitat for numerous species listed as endangered or threatened. The Pacific fisher, pine marten, Northern spotted owl, Northern Goshawk, Golden Eagle, coho salmon, Sonoma tree vole, and the rare fungus agarikon (Fomitopsis officinalis) can all be found on the ridge, which is owned by Humboldt Redwoods Company (HRC). HRC is run by San Francisco’s Sansome Partners, of which the Fisher family (best known for its GAP retail clothing chain) are major investors. According to Dun and Bradstreet, HRC’s annual revenue is $73.7 million.

Rainbow Ridge. Source: Lost Coast League

Michael Evenson, one of the recently acquitted protestors, says the protests arose not only due to plans to log virgin forests, but also because of HRC’s use of the controversial “hack and squirt” method in which hardwood trees (which are not logged for profit) are injected with poison. If this doesn’t kill them, they are then sprayed with glyphosate. According to Penn State Extension Office, “Hack-and-squirt, also known as frill and spray, herbicide applications offer one of the most target-specific, efficient, and economical means for controlling unwanted trees. Applications made to undesirable trees facilitate the regeneration or growth of desirable trees in mixed-species stands.” “Desirable” in this case means profitable. HRC manages its forests under a certificate of sustainability from the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). Logging in virgin forests and using herbicide should disqualify any timber company from FSC certification, critics say. As Evenson says, “They are sustaining sawmills, not the life of the forest.” According to the Lost Coast League, “We challenged HRC’s process of designating High Conservation Value Forests (therefore warranting protection under FSC Guidelines and Principles) citing the Northern Spotted Owl as an indicator species of such designation.  HRC ignored that fact.” An appeal with FSC is pending.

The Lost Coast League has been working to save Rainbow Ridge and the Mattole watershed since the 1990s, and is part of a coalition with the Bear River Band of the Rohnerville Rancheria and the Wiyot Tribe. According to Hank Brenard, Director of Environmental and Natural Resources at the Bear River Band of Rohnerville Rancheria, one of the ways they are working to save the ridge is through a “Focal Species” study, documenting the plant and animal species of the surrounding area to show that the ridge, which is privately held but adjacent to publicly held land, is vital to biodiversity and dependent on an intact landscape. “When we talk about the environment, we have a really solid belief that everything is connected in the ecological circle,” says Brenard. “If you are damaging the stream, you are damaging everything. Even the community around it. One of the things that is lost in timber harvest plans is the significance of the land itself.” 

The northwest ridge of Rainbow Ridge is a place where medicine people were trained and the ridgeline holds traditional and religious value for tribal members. The Humboldt Interfaith Fellowship has written to the Fisher family asking them to donate the ridge to the tribe as a Cultural Conservation Forest to be held forever. Brenard says that HRC has actually started giving the tribe access to the land, which they see as a victory. “It’s no longer adversarial,” he says. “It’s really about conserving the community.”

Starting this summer, community members can participate in the conservation process by being citizen scientists and helping the tribe to document species in the Rainbow Ridge area. The Bear River Rancheria website (http://www.brb-nsn.gov/) will have a link where people can submit photos of wildlife and plants. Photos can also be submitted to Brenard at hankbrenard@brb-nsn.gov. “If people see a fisher, we want to know when that was, where that was, to show where they are and what we can do to preserve that species,” says Brenard. People are also encouraged to submit photos of plants, even if they can’t identify them (botanists with the tribe can do that). The tribe collaborates with Lost Foods, a native plant nursery in Eureka, to propagate rare native plants from seeds that have been found in the area. As Evenson, from the Lost Coast League, points out, the added benefit of projects like these is that, “by having people involved in the process, they start spending more time in the hills and streams,” which gets them more invested in the land itself.

The tribe is also working to document the effects of the cannabis boom and would like people to take photos and report any illegal dumping in the area, especially related to cannabis growing. This way, they can document the problem and also get it cleaned up; the tribe has a program to hire members for day labor and can send out a team to address reported problems. 

The Bear River Rancheria is in the process of securing an MOU with the State of California and the Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) to manage all of its ancestral lands, almost 1,800 square miles which comprise nearly one-third of Trinity County, the bottom two-thirds of Humboldt County and which stretches three miles out to sea. They will be starting in the Mattole Valley and Eel River with a fish conservation plan and hope to “take up the slack so CDFW can do other things.” There will be special tribal fishing and hunting licenses for all of the ancestral land. This is the broadest and biggest agreement of its kind, and will happen gradually over then next few years. Also, this past November, the Tribe performed a Salmon Welcoming ceremony at the mouth of the Mattole River, the first time this ceremony has been performed in over 100 years. As Evenson, quoting Yurok Ancestral Guard’s Sammy Gensaw, put it, “The Industrial Revolution is over.  The Restoration Revolution has begun.”