Arcata forest plan proving hard to update

 Kevin L. Hoover
Mad RiveUnion 

ARCATA – What’s harder – wrangling millions of dollars in grants, acquiring vast tracts of valuable land with huge development potential to protect its natural values, engaging hundreds of community volunteers to spend their free time restoring distressed woodlands to create a world-renowned, sustainably managed redwood forest dedicated to nature, recreation and education – or revising a text file?

Evidently the latter, because even as Arcata's forests have vastly expanded in both size and community participation over the last 22 years, their guiding document, the 1994-vintage Forest Management Plan (FMP) has proven intractably resistant to revision, despite the best efforts of its City Hall overseers.

Over the past year, the Arcata Forest Management Committee (FMC) has striven to update the plan, but after multiple meetings and discussions, the plan remains all but unchanged.

FMC Chair Mike Furniss

FMC Chair Mike Furniss

Last week, frustrations boiled over at the FMC’s normally congenial monthly meeting, and there was a lot of blame to go around. Committee Chair Mike Furniss took responsibility, saying that he had “dropped the ball” in not properly managing the overhaul effort. But he also told Environmental Services Director Mark Andre that the committee “is not getting timely data products from staff” with which to reshape the plan.

“We haven’t done anything,” said Committeemember Jana Valachovic. “We changed it from WordPerfect to Word.”

The previous FMC meeting did see creation of an outline for the plan, but apart from minor technical tweaks, the actual natural resource management portion remains all but untouched, and is embarrassingly out of date.

So far, that hasn’t seemed to prevent the city from moving forward with acquisitions and innovations. Still, the current FMC doesn’t include the last two-plus decades’ additions to the Arcata Community Forest and Jacoby Creek Forest, nor their flora and fauna, nor does it acknowledge the many new regulations implemented over the past 22 years.

Though supposedly a “living document” used as the basis for managing a state-of-the-art, sustainably managed forest, the FMP has proven more of a zombie.

Reasons are many. The FMC meets just once a month, and online revision is limited by Brown Act rules preventing serial meetings. The citizen-members are all busy professionals with different professional roles and backgrounds – biology, forestry, hydrology, policy and more.

The FMC, which meets monthly at 7 a.m. on Thursdays, sometimes lacks a quorum. Staff liaison Andre, who is in charge of everything from Arcata’s recycling programs to the Arcata Marsh & Wildlife Sanctuary, sewage treatment, and much more, said that these days, he spends perhaps five percent of his time on forest matters.

So last week, rather than climb the FMP mountain, committeemembers luxuriated in their comfort zone – chewing over their theories of forest management.

With the 2016 harvest now in the works, discussed at length were tree selection, harvest methods and management philosophies. “Ecosystem management is driven by what you leave, not what you take,” Furniss said. “It shouldn’t be driven by money.”

Andre pushed back on the pure idealism just a touch, noting that the forest’s charter requires management that is balanced for multiple values. “Ecological, social, economic – you lose one, the whole thing crumbles,” he said.

As Furniss continued with his ruminations, frustrations boiled over when normally placid Committeemember Russ Forsburg blew up at him. “We hear a lot about what you believe, but we’re a committee,” Forsburg said. “Sitting here listening to you go on and on isn’t going to solve anything.”

“Alright, if you don’t care to hear my opinions …” Furniss began to respond.

“Your opinions become dictates,” Forsburg shot back.

“I have strong feelings about it because I feel like we’re not saying what we’re doing,” Furniss said.

At that, the two spoke over each other until Forsburg proposed a fresh start.

“We’ve gotten the point,” Forsburg said. “You’ve said that many times today, and over many committee meetings and we haven’t even gotten any traction on this plan. Let’s start at the beginning, and start going out and talking about where we see the forest going and try to articulate that.”

“That’s what I want to do,” Furniss said.

After some more argumentative back-and-forth, Forsburg said that while he appreciates the theoretical underpinnings of forest policy, the committee has to act pragmatically, whether it is philosophically perfect or not. “I want to go out and make something that makes sense for this community’s forest with how we perceive this community’s goals,” he said.

“We have to make sure that we’re flexible enough for the next generation of members and foresters to come in and take the work that we’ve done and move ahead.”

That will require balancing stringent ecosystem management with the recreational needs and “emotional values” of the community, all while harvesting a fraction of the annual growth so the forests pay for themselves. Basically, Forsburg summarized, “Don’t fuck it up. Go slow and leave enough options for the next group.”

So, in late May, the FMC will attempt to coordinate some field trips to the forest to evaluate last year’s harvest aftermath and set a course for the future via revision of the mouldering FMP.

Later, Andre said the frank FMC discussion was helpful, if cathartic. “I appreciate the conversation the committee had,” he said. A list of FMP amendments and other data have been compiled, and will be incorporated into the draft.

Bureaucracy notwithstanding, the Arcata Community Forest is moving ahead with expansions. The 58-acre Forsyth Property located east of Humboldt State is now on the market, and while the city hopes to acquire the 48 acres zoned for natural resources, funds for that have not been identified. Still, a key piece of that land is looking acquirable – a two-acre, triangle-shaped parcel on the east side.

That piece will cost $40,000 to $50,000, and is within financial reach, though Andre reaffirmed the importance of donations to the Humboldt Area Foundation-managed Arcata Forest Fund. Its acquisition will also give the landowner some ready cash, and create breathing room for the city to raise the estimated $1 million needed for the remaining 46 acres. At this point, just $400,000 is available.

The “wedge” will link presently disconnected forest roads, allowing improved access for management of the forest.

Meanwhile, the 20-acre, $245,000 Lima property near HSU will become part of the city's forest holdings in the next month or so.

 

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