Tasha McKee is standing on a jut of land, her gray-brown hair falling out from underneath a tri-color knit beanie. She's speaking loudly so she can be heard over the babbling of Van Arken Creek, which stretches out in front of her about 15 feet down a steep slope, meandering under Pacific yew, Douglas fir, maple and a few scattered redwood trees. Behind her, the creek's South Fork purls steadily, rushing over knotted redwood roots under a spray of ferns.
McKee is talking about watershed and forest health but she's also talking about her home. She moved to the woods near Whitethorn when her folks packed their station wagon to its roof, leaving just a bit of room for the sleeping kids, and drove north to make a new life for themselves away from the city. One of her dad Bob McKee's first jobs was working split redwood from Van Arken Creek, a main tributary to the Mattole River.
"I've been tromping around these woods since I was a kid," McKee says. "I would just find a ridge and hike it down to the ocean."
McKee, now the water program director for Sanctuary Forest, and April Newlander, the nonprofit's executive director, are taking the Journal on a tour of a section of the 1,300-acre Van Arken watershed that Sanctuary Forest is hoping to purchase from Boyle Forest LP. The nonprofit's ambitious plans would transform the property — a ruggedly steep swath of working timberlands —into a community forest, with watershed restoration efforts to bolster threatened salmonids, sustainable timber harvests and a host of recreation opportunities. But to hear McKee tell it, Sanctuary Forest's push to "save the Van Arken" is about much more — it's about restoring a symbiotic relationship between people and the environment, environmentalism and economic growth, loggers and hippies.
Galen Doherty, Sanctuary Forest's lands program director and McKee's son, pauses a moment to consider the question. It's a couple of weeks before the site tour, and the Journal has essentially just asked, What's so special about the Van Arken?
He starts with what it's not. The Van Arken isn't a pristine old growth forest, like the one at the Mattole's headwaters that Sanctuary Forest formed to save more than three decades ago. The cathedral-like redwood groves that once dotted its landscape have long since been felled. And subsequent decades have also left their mark — with some areas clear cut only to be replaced with plantation-like rows of conifers.
What the Van Arken is, Doherty says, is 1,300 acres of diversely forested land — filled with dogwoods, Pacific yews, maples, ash, oaks, alders, old growth Douglas fir, madrone and even chinquapin — that's been left undeveloped.
"It's a super high priority watershed for salmon recovery and the only tributary in the Mattole headwaters of its size that's free of human development," he says. "There's been logging but there's no people out there and no impacts from upstream landowners."
Sanctuary Forest and other nonprofits have already put in a lot of work to restore the upper Mattole watershed. Driving the roads around Whitethorn, you'll see fences with blue salmon plaques attached to them, a sign that the landowners are working with Sanctuary Forest, which offers water storage tanks in exchange for their pledges to pump water in the winter and practice forebearance in the summer. Meanwhile, the Mattole Restoration Council, another nonprofit in the area, has worked to remove old culverts and decommission logging roads, reducing water runoff and sediment flows into the creeks.
Allan Renger, a supervising fisheries biologist with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, says the entire upper Mattole watershed is "critically important" for steelhead, Chinook and coho, all of which are listed under the federal Endangered Species Act. While all three species are imperiled, coho are of the highest concern to biologists, Renger says, because they occupy a fraction of their historic range. Historically, Renger says, coho were distributed throughout much of the Mattole watershed. Today, he says they mostly stick to spawning and rearing in its upper reaches, the only areas that seem to have the high water quality the fish demand.
"There are a number of factors but water temperature is kind of the leading one — it's a heavy filter on where you can or can't have coho," Renger says, adding that coho are very much in danger of being pushed out of the Mattole. "They are of critical concern."
But the restoration efforts have born some fruit — with the watershed seeing "banner salmon returns" in each of the last two years, according to Doherty, who warns that allowing "more impacts and developments to occur, there's a pretty high chance of reversing that." And that's part of what makes the Van Arken so enticing for Sanctuary Forest. With no development or timber production upstream, Doherty and others feel a large-scale restoration of the creek could prove a boon for salmon.
On the Journal's tour, Newlander stops on a bridge crossing Van Arken Creek to point upstream to a relatively straight, uniform stretch of water about 150 yards long that, in the direct light of the sun overhead, looks more like a shallow aquifer than a creek. She points out the lack of pools, shaded areas or natural debris. Loggers, she says, have cleared the banks of the undergrowth and debris that would shade parts of the creek and create the natural impediments that would slow the water down and cause it to pool, dropping water temperatures and giving fish crucial places to shelter and rest. Downstream, McKee explains how the lack of felled logs, debris and natural impediments in the creek has caused much of the gravel and silt you'd find in a healthy creek to wash downstream, stripping the creek floor down to bedrock and reducing its potential to fill the forest floor with much needed groundwater.
Active restoration projects — felling trees into the creek in some places and building beaver-dam-like structures in others — would go a long way to slowing the water, creating pools and allowing for the healthy buildup of sediment, dirt and gravel on the creek floor, which would in turn raise the groundwater level and make for a healthier, more fire resistant forest, they say.
Renger says he personally thinks Sanctuary Forest's restoration plans for the Van Arken are significant and worthwhile, adding that his department has penned a letter supporting the project.
But a large hurdle stands between Sanctuary Forest and its plans: money. And lots of it.
It was late 2016, and Sanctuary Forest was trying to spread the word about the Van Arken project, the nonprofit's hope to purchase 300 adjacent acres on McKee Creek and the property's roughly $9 million price tag. Doherty and some others were sitting at a Mattole Creek Tributary meeting, giving the overview when Monica and Colum Coyne stopped them short.
"(Colum) asks, 'How much did you say the property was?'" Doherty recalls. "He's like, 'Well, it seems like it's about $5,500 an acre. I'll fund half an acre this year and half an acre next year.' Another person was like, 'I'll fund an acre, too.' We got home and were like, 'Sheesh. Let's start a fund-an-acre campaign and start promoting that.'"
While the fund-an-acre campaign has, indeed, become the cornerstone of Sanctuary Forest's efforts, the full funding plan is more complex. Doherty says the nonprofit is really only looking to raise about a third of the projected property cost through private donations ($500,000) and pledges to fund an acre (almost $2.5 million). Sanctuary Forest will then look to leverage those funds — about $3 million — to secure a little over $1 million in funding from conservation foundations and the remaining $5 million in state and federal grants. Part of Sanctuary Forest's pitch to fund-an-acre donors is that their $5,500 can essentially help leverage another $15,000 for the project.
In Southern Humboldt, the campaign has caught hold. Doherty says $5,500 donations and pledges — Sanctuary Forest allows donors to pledge the $5,500 over five years, making annual payments of $1,100 or even monthly payments of $92 — have come from all corners. Redway Liquors has funded an acre, as have road associations, families and a reading group from Whale Gulch. The environmental conservation group has also begun to target what at first blush might seem like unlikely allies — cannabis farmers.
More than a dozen cannabis farms have funded — or pledged to fund — an acre, Doherty says, adding that he's begun a branding campaign around the idea, offering growers a "Save the Van Arken" logo to put on their products. The idea, Doherty says, is to give cannabis farmers an opportunity to broadcast their investment in the environment and the community. While there have clearly been — and remain — plenty of bad actors in the industry, Doherty says, there have also historically been cultivators who grew their crops the right way and donated quietly to local causes, never able to be publicly recognized for it. That's changed, he says, and the Van Arken logo is a way for cultivators to get some recognition for their good deeds.
John Casali, who owns Huckleberry Hill Farms just up the road from Sanctuary Forest's Whitethorn office, was the first to jump on board.
"We're trying to change 50 years of perception of cannabis farmers as people who were willing to do all these terrible things to the environment," Casali says, adding that he's trying to carve out a niche for himself as the antithesis of that negative stereotype.
Walking his property — which was farmed by his parents before him — Casali points to two large water catchment ponds that use solar-powered pumps to fill to nine large storage tanks on the hill above his greenhouse. Those tanks in turn then use gravity to water his plants. He says he's working on getting a "fish friendly" certification from the Department of Fish and Wildlife and converting his farm entirely to solar power. The Van Arken logo on his product, Casali says, is a nice way to differentiate it. But ultimately, he says funding an acre was about something more basic.
"There's certain groups in the community, like the technical rescue team and all the volunteer fire departments, who have been protecting this community and doing so much for all of us," he says. "Sanctuary Forest is one of them, protecting resources for the good of all of us."
"I feel obligated to help them," Casali continues, pointing to the Van Arken sticker on a bag of his buds. "That stands for community, for the greater good. And people care that you care about other people."
While Sanctuary Forest's fundraising efforts seem to be bearing some fruit and the nonprofit has charted a five-year plan through 2021 to come up with the funds, there is some urgency, as the ball isn't exactly in the nonprofit's court. The property owner, Boyle Forests LP, has indicated it wants to liquidate its land holdings and has already sold off some other nearby parcels.
"That's been the way the project has been all along," Doherty says. "They want to liquidate all their holdings in the Mattole. If someone else comes along and says, 'Hey, I want to buy it all,' we wouldn't have a project anymore."
Boyle Forests also holds an active timber harvest plan that's been approved for a stretch of the property. With timber prices at a five-year high, driven by a strong economy, that adds to the sense of urgency.
"That's kind of an ominous cloud hanging over," Doherty says. "We need the trees standing to have a community forest."
Tasha McKee is talking as she walks up an old logging road, pointing out aspects of the forest in need of managing. Those groves of conifers to the south need thinning, she says, adding that much of the Van Arken property hasn't "been managed much for about 20 years." The group walks past an old green logging truck that sits abandoned on the side of the road, its cab looking like it was ripped apart by a dinosaur and left to decay decades ago. McKee points to another cluster of trees, noting that she would harvest some of the smaller trees, giving the larger ones room to grow and lessening fire danger.
With people having managed the Earth so poorly for so long, McKee says it can be tempting for people to think that maybe we should just do nothing and let nature take over. But she says that would be like foregoing medical intervention after a botched surgery — with all that's been done to them, some forests need a human hand to heal, she says.
She and Newlander lead a small group down into a second-growth redwood grove that straddles the headwaters of the South Fork of Van Arken Creek. "This is where it's born," McKee says. "Well, it's actually born a little ways up, but it's still a child here."
With redwoods reaching to the sky above her, surrounded by lush woodwardia ferns and the sound of water trickling over a series of fallen trees, McKee launches into a story. This grove, she says, is where she brought the first group of Van Arken donors for a picnic. The group spread out, plopped down and was happily munching away when a groundwater spring burbled up to the surface.
"It was like, 'Oh, the forest is talking to us. It wants us to save it,'" she says with a laugh.
A bit later, back on the logging road and heading back to the car, McKee takes a more serious tone. She talks about her childhood and adolescence, when she saw protesters and loggers square off and a community grow rife with animosity and resentment, everyone feeling someone was trying to take away what was rightfully theirs. She says she sees the Van Arken as a new model. She sees it as place for people to come ride mountain bikes and hike; a watershed that will help restore salmon populations, which will help sustain fishermen and their families downriver in Shelter Cove. And she sees it as a place where timber will be sustainably harvested to be trucked to small but bustling mills nearby to be turned into specialty beams, fancy trim or artisan tables.
"I always wanted to see a day when we could turn it around," she says, "when people could work driving a logging truck and everyone could be proud of them."
Thadeus Greenson is the Journal's news editor. Reach him at 442-1400, extension 321, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @thadeusgreenson.