A partnership between a land trust, a timber company and a community services district is seeking to conserve thousands of acres of timberlands and establish a new community forest adjacent to McKinleyville.
The area between McKinleyville and Fieldbrook has long been considered an important greenbelt that should be shielded from development. All of a sudden, there's a lot of momentum to accomplish that, as the Trust for Public Land (TPL) is working with the Green Diamond Resource Company on a conservation easement agreement for a 3,644-acre tract immediately to the east of McKinleyville, extending toward Fieldbrook.
According to a Green Diamond press release, if an easement purchase deal is forged, then more than 90 percent of the property will be permanently preserved as working timberlands. A separate agreement would lead to the creation of a community forest lining the tract's western boundary along McKinleyvile's eastern edge.
At a Nov. 3 presentation to the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors, Craig Compton, Green Diamond's land and business manager, said that, depending on the amount of funding that can be gained for land acquisition, the community forest area would be between 426 and 626 acres.
The tract also includes 274 acres slated for low density residential development adjacent to the developed areas of McKinleyville's Murray Road and the western border of the proposed community forest. Green Diamond spokesman Gary Rynearson said the areas mapped for residential use have a combination of agricultural and timber production zoning, and the company's press release said those areas will be suitable for "limited future residential development," but the specifics of those proposed developments — what they would look like and who would develop them — remain unclear at this stage.
Compton said the community forest project will take three to five years to complete. His request that the county support grant applications to help fund the acquisition was unanimously approved by supervisors.
The project spurs from a previous working relationship between Green Diamond and TPL on the 1,000-acre McKay Community Forest in the Eureka area. The county owns and maintains the forest, having purchased it last year with $6.8 million in grant funds from various state agencies.
But the county doesn't have the staff to take on another community forest project and won't be taking the lead on this one. That role is being pursued by McKinleyville's de facto governing agency, the McKinleyville Community Services District (MCSD).
It's not a surprising development, as the community forest area is mapped accordingly in the McKinleyville Community Plan and MCSD's master recreation plan.
And the hunt for funding is on. The night following the supervisors meeting, the district's board of directors voted unanimously to authorize staff to seek grants for purchasing the community forest.
"The board is very supportive of our agency taking the lead on this," said MCSD General Manager Greg Orsini in an interview. But he added that the project is being approached cautiously and "a lot of economic questions need to be answered."
One of those is assessing how much the forestland is worth. Another analysis will estimate what it will take to develop or improve trails and maintain them. If the forest is actively harvested, revenue generation will be factored in.
Orsini said that "dual use," similar to the McKay and Arcata community forests, which mix recreational access with timber harvesting, is envisioned. "I think the community is supportive of that, as long it's done responsibly," he said of the logging aspect.
John Corbett, who chairs the MCSD board, has experience with negotiating conservation deals in the McKinleyville area. He was a key participant in the establishment of an educational wetland adjacent to the Dow's Prairie Elementary School.
Corbett said if funding agencies decide the community forest is a worthy acquisition, an appraisal methodology will be worked out and the business of assessing value will follow.
The MCSD board will be thorough and careful, he continued.
"We have a board that takes financial responsibilities very seriously," he said.
Though the project's at an early stage –— when interviewed, Orsini said the effort was barely into its second week of work — there are indications it has strong chances of being funded.
TPL North Coast Program Manager John Bernstein said the agencies that funded the McKay tract purchase will also consider funding the McKinleyville conservation easement and community forest purchases.
The McKay purchase was funded by the state's Natural Resources Agency, Coastal Conservancy and Wildlife Conservation Board. Bernstein said the McKinleyville tract is a good candidate for gaining similar support.
"What leads public funding is largely ecosystem values," he said, adding that Lindsay Creek, which some consider to be the most important coho salmon tributary of the Mad River, runs through the tract.
Bernstein said a potential source for community forest funding is the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund, which uses oil company fees to pay for public recreation projects. "It seems to be spot-on for this type of project," he said.
Bernstein also highlighted Green Diamond's willingness to negotiate conservation deals, "rather than taking the alternate pathway of subdividing for development." In the past, he said, timber companies generally didn't consider conservation agreements.
"Green Diamond has shown itself to be very progressive in thinking of doing these things at all," Bernstein continued. "We've really come a long way and I respect them for that."
At the supervisors meeting, it was noted that if the McKinleyville community forest is fully funded at 626 acres, it will be four acres larger than the Arcata Community Forest.
"Humboldt County has been a real pioneer in creating these community forests," said Bernstein.
Daniel Mintz is a freelance journalist based in Eureka who has been reporting news in Humboldt County since 2001.