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Measure V to play role in lawsuit

Wildflowers in a coastal meadow.
Wildflowers in a coastal meadow, not within the Russell Brook timber harvest plan.

Environmental groups are suing CalFire for approving a timber harvest plan they say violates the nuisance ordinance.

April 18, 2022 — Three environmental organizations are suing CalFire over the approval of a timber harvest plan by Mendocino Redwood Company which they say violates Measure V; would degrade the watershed of Russell Brook, which is a tributary of Big River; and would damage spotted owl habitat.

The Center for Biological Diversity, the Environmental Protection and Information Center, or EPIC, and the Coast Action Group, filed in the Mendocino County Superior Court earlier this month, asking a judge to set aside the approval of the plan.

It’s the first legal challenge invoking Measure V, the 2016 citizens’ initiative which declared that intentionally leaving dead standing trees is a public nuisance. Mendocino Redwood Company, which uses the herbicide Imazapyr in a practice called hack and squirt, or frilling, to kill tanoaks, maintains that the practice is a legal agricultural method under the Right to Farm Act and other local codes.

Tom Wheeler, the executive director of EPIC, wants Measure V enforced. “I’ve been disappointed that Mendocino County has not, on their own initiative, gone and tried to enforce Measure V,” he said. “Because I believe the large industrial timber companies have used their legal muscle to bully the county into not taking legal action against them. And so I hope we can add some legal clarity about how Measure V is applied, and that through our lawsuit we can give the county greater confidence in their ability to litigate this.”

In the summer of 2019, Xavier Becerra, who was the State Attorney General at the time, declined Mendocino County’s request for an opinion on the legality of Measure V, due to an unspecified conflict of interest. CalFire also uses hack and squirt in study areas within the Jackson Demonstration State Forest.

Wheeler elaborated on the role of Measure V in the lawsuit over the harvest plan, which covers 993 acres. “So we are not enforcing Measure V, because we cannot, per the terms of Measure V. The county is responsible for enforcing the nuisance measure there,” he specified. “But we are saying that CalFire, in approving a timber harvest plan that includes hack and squirt, that that is a violation of the Forest Practice Rules.”

But Justin Augustine, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, said the lawsuit is about more than a citizens’ initiative that’s never been enforced.

“Separate from the Measure V issue, we are also pointing out in our complaint and in this litigation overall that this hack and squirt and killing of tanoaks, it’s not just a Measure V problem. It’s an ecosystem problem, because these tanoaks are a major aspect of the integrity of our redwood forests.” While tanoaks are thought to compete with trees that produce high-value lumber, Augustine argues that they also produce up to 200 pounds of acorns a year, which is a vital food source for wildlife.

Regarding the Russell Brook lawsuit, a CalFire spokesperson said in an email that, “CAL FIRE cannot comment on a project that is currently under litigation. The Timber Harvesting Plan was reviewed by an interdisciplinary team pursuant to the Forest Practice Act and Rules, was found to be in conformance with those rules and was determined to have mitigation measures in the plan to ensure there would not be any significant impacts to the environment.”

Measure V was championed by Ted Williams, before he became the fifth district supervisor, while he was chief of the Albion Little River volunteer fire department. It was opposed by Jim Little, the Laytonville fire chief, Bruce Strickler, a retired CalFire Deputy Chief, and Marc Jameson, the retired deputy chief and demonstration forest manager. Mendocino Redwood Company claimed that there have been instances where firefighters successfully controlled fires in areas where tanoaks had been treated with herbicide, including the 2008 Mendocino Lightning Complex fires.

But Augustine doesn’t think the current THP includes enough protection for large old trees that were spared from an earlier plan in 2004. “They’re projecting this idea that, don’t worry, we’ll protect these trees, but they have not disclosed what in fact they are going to do with each individual large old tree. For example, they state in their timber harvest plan, which was approved, that their biologists will determine which ones stay and which ones will go, and to us, that’s really the fox guarding the henhouse,” he said. “And not what CEQA, the California Environmental Quality Act, is all about.”

Wheeler added that the results of surveys for botanical species and northern spotted owls were not made public before the plan was approved. “The public has been denied that opportunity to understand what is at stake,” he complained.

Both organizations have challenged timber harvest plans in the past. “We’ve won some and we’ve lost some,” said Augustine, of the track record for the Center for Biological Diversity. “And hopefully, this one will add to the win bag.”

Local News
Sarah Reith is the lead reporter for KZYX News. She joined the KZYX News team in 2017, and covers local politics, water, law enforcement and the arts in Mendocino County.