Direct action in Humboldt slowing down tree removal
October 27, 2021 — Community members who love Faulkner Park are considering a variety of ways to protect it from PG&E’s plans to cut dozens of beloved redwoods. The company fears that iconic old trees will fall on its poorly maintained infrastructure.
Steve Wood, who has walked the trails for years, described why the small county park has such a special place in neighbors’ hearts, and how the trees continue to play an important role when they do fall in a natural environment. “This is one of the most gorgeous parts of the park,” he said, pausing near a marked tree. “A lot of wild azaleas here, huckleberry, all kinds of swamp plants, because this is the original Bear Wallow. I guess at one time, there were actually bears that came here and cooled off in the summertime...when these trees fall, they become kind of nurse trees for the azaleas and the trees that succeed them later on.”
Just a few hours away from Faulkner Park, a handful of activists in the Humboldt Redwoods State Park has been dashing up and down Mattole Road for well over a week, halting as much of the work by PG&E contractors as they can. One of them, called Cat, had stationed himself between an old growth tanoak and a large Doug fir on Saturday afternoon, October 23rd, the day before the atmospheric river struck the region. It was already raining steadily. Crews were on lunch, but forest defenders were alert, strategizing how to interfere most effectively.
“We’ve saved a lot of trees,” he reflected. “If we weren’t here, this place would have been pretty decimated. Already there’s a lot of trees down. They haven’t gotten to the old growth, but there’s a lot of old growth marked. We’re just trying to save as many trees as we can, until we can get more oversight.”
Back at Faulkner Park, Jonas Mathie, who enjoys the trails with his dog, also expressed a desire for more transparency from the company. “I would just like to discuss it and find out where their thoughts were and how they came to this conclusion,” he said. “We the people own the park. With PG&E’s track record and not being a fair player, we should all be very concerned by this, and organize accordingly.” He agreed that “obviously” what is missing is a public comment period.
There are no publicly available documents detailing the scale of the company’s timber operations under the enhanced vegetation management program. As of April 2020, PG&E’s near term process for utility maintenance activities to establish best management practices means that the company’s clear cutting (euphemistically referred to as an enhanced vegetation management program), does not trigger CEQA or any permit process. No agency is tasked with issuing take permits or conducting any environmental oversight.
Although it has been well documented that the company’s poorly maintained infrastructure has caused multiple catastrophic wildfires, PG&E has been allowed to craft its own wildfire mitigation plan. And that plan consists largely of cutting down thousands of healthy trees, in waterways, on private land, in public parks, and on steep slopes from the border of Oregon to Bakersfield.
Mendocino County Supervisor Ted Williams, whose district includes Faulkner Park, reported that PG&E representatives promise to share a cost analysis of its plans for the park with the public soon. But the company doesn’t have much of a track record of sticking with its budget, according to Nancy Macy, chair of the Sierra Club’s Utility Wildfire Prevention Task Force, which released a cost-benefit analysis of the program.
“It came out that if you add up the costs of enhanced vegetation management, which is around two billion dollars a year, it costs a whole lot more to cut down the trees and pay the contractors and deal with the slash, than it does to rebuild the infrastructure,” she reported. The task force analysis found that this year, PG&E has already paid two and a half times what it paid for the program last year, which means that, as far as costs go, “we do not know. And that’s the scary thing,” Macy concluded.
Some of the neighbors of Faulkner Park have raised the possibility of direct action, like thirteen-year-old Zane Colfax, whose willingness to build a platform in a tree met with approval from neighbor Michelle Parzik, who lives about two miles from the Park on Mountain View Road.
There is a tree sitter in the Humboldt State Park, but much of the direct action there consists of walking up to crews who are about to cut down a tree and chatting with them, in order to make it unsafe for them to continue working. On Saturday, a forest defender called Farmer led me up a steep slope to meet some of his friends. His description was apt for any number of sites where PG&E crews are taking down healthy trees.
“This could be the poster child for conditions you would want for fire safety,” he said, as the rain intensified. “And they’re planning to remove these mature hardwood trees. That’s going to open up the canopy, a lot of brush is going to come in and it’s going to become an actual fire hazard. And that’s what we’re trying to prevent. We want the lines undergrounded and or insulated. We want fire safety, and part of fire safety is a healthy mature forest without these understory flash fuels that are going to contribute to potentially catastrophic forest fires when the lines do go down. Because they will.”
Farmer and his friends are outnumbered by tree-cutting crews. They spend a lot of time watching trees go down as they try to strategize which ons are most ecologically significant. Still, as he drove his old car from one momentarily successful intervention to the next, Farmer reflected that direct action is having some effect.
“We’re really just a handful of folks,” he said, fastening his seat belt. “But we seem to be accomplishing a lot. They’re very stuck in this area. They haven’t been able to make the kind of progress they were expecting.”