I have been a student of the Van Duzen River ever since I moved into
the middle of its watershed 25 years ago. During the quiet winter
nights it speaks to me with the power of a constant roar. In the spring
when the color is right, I rattle down it's rapids. There are the
cooling summer swims followed by autumn forays, hopping across on
boulders to look for the remaining resident rainbows or a group of
My interests in floating the lower river was to view some of the recent
bank protection and fish restoration projects that had been completed
in the last few years with the cooperative efforts of local landowners
and government agencies. These projects aim to protect eroding private
lands, while improving fish habitat for the instream migration of
the Steelhead and their cousins, the Coho and Chinook salmon. Good
fish habitat is rare on the lower Van Duzen, with the once deep channel
filled in with sediment and a scarcity of large woody debris to provide
hiding places for the young fish. In summer, the water sometimes reaches
lethal temperatures for salmon and trout, and the flow goes underground
on some of the riffles. The high water temperature benefits the predatory
non-native Pike Minnow, making this part of the river even less available
to the young salmonids.
One of the projects upstream is to direct the river away from undercutting
a grove of two thousand year old redwoods. Several have already fallen
in, now tightly cabled together in a jumble where the power of high
water has broken and twisted the 4-5 foot diameter logs like match
sticks. Before breaking downstream, they pointed at the massive sand
and rock bar that facilitated their demise. The large gravel bar has
been building on the south side of the river, forcing it into the
groves of ancient trees. High winter flows undercut the trees, and
they fall into the river and float into the private lands downstream,
where they are quickly cut up and hauled away to local lumber mills.
The first winter after the downed trees were secured, schools of Chinook
salmon spawners were seen resting under the logs, and later, juvenile
Steelhead trout were observed in the deep pool during the following
summer months. Within an easy walk upstream there are several landslides.
One is notable in it's monumental size, having dropped massive amounts
of mountainside into the river less than ten years ago. An old bent
up culvert and the edge of the remaining forest above offer clues
to the cause.
Floating downstream, we maneuver past the streamside homes of some
Carlotta residents. Some of these landowners were recently advised
by an the adjacent industrial logging company that they should increase
the size of culverts in the seasonal creeks on their property, in
order to accommodate expected larger flows due to timber harvest activities.
Residents are justifiably concerned. I have been attending meeting
of an active group, the Friends of the Van Duzen, where we pour over
maps that describe the diligence of these lumbermen. Our written comments,
aimed at protecting riparian zones and pointing at cumulative effect
that are generally refuted and ignored in the final plan. The state
and federal agencies exercise their turf wars while the ground that
they are mandated to protect get washed out from under us all. We
are deafened by the winter long chatter of helicopter that fly by
our homes lifting trees away from their exposed mountainsides. Yet,
our members presift by conducting water monitoring studies, educating
local students and actively organizing the community around water,
timber and helicopter issues.
Less than a mile from our start, the river cuts into a sandstone cliff
that towers over a new stretch of river bed. It created a 20 foot
high island, the result of another large slide on a small tributary.
It is common knowledge that this region was logged extensively during
the past 100 years. The combination of forest canopy removal, road
construction, the highly erosive terrain and 5-6 feet of annual rainfall,
has caused extensive changes to the lower river channel.
It may be said the I have become overly sensitive to seeing forest
that I have watched grow for nearly half my life being , being clearcut,
burned, and poisoned with herbicides in massive swaths. Yet, the valid
question remains as to whether the current 20-30 year-cycles of harvest
can be sustained by the fragile soils of these mountainsides. Recently,
in a white paper done on the business practices of the company in
question, Michael W. Gjerde, of the office of the State Water Resources
Control Board, stated, "PALCO's has harvested at unsustainable
rates for the entire time that MAXXAM has owned PALCO. In 1987, a
publicly released PALCO timber cruise gave an estimate of 6.5 billion
board feet (bf) of harvestable timber available to the Company. In
1997, the next publicly released timber estimate gave 3.2 billion
bf of timber remaining. This yields an average of 300 million bf/year
for 10 years between 1987 and 1997 - this rate of harvest is equivalent
to a 20-year harvest cycle. A 20-year harvest cycle is not sustainable.
In the 1998 Headwaters deal, an "allowance" of 176 million
bf/year was granted . Dividing this into the 3.2 billion bf remaining
timber gives an average 18-year harvest cycle on 1998 timber volume,
or requires that future harvests naturally decrease rapidly from initial
levels. The MAXXAM PALCO historical timber harvest rates have lead
directly to greatly reduced harvest levels in the 20th year of MAXXAM's
ownership of PALCO. This is not surprising since Redwood and Douglas
Fir trees take much longer than 20 years to grow to harvestable size.
MAXXAM has effectively mined beyond a renewable forest resource level.
This harvesting model puts the forests of PALCO at risk from over
harvesting which would create environmental harm."
The Van Duzen has taken a large share of this form of land 'stewardship'.
Of the 25,000 acres owned in this watershed by MAXXAM, last year alone
showed that there were 32 THP's involving 4,984 acres. As of May 2nd
they have seven plans out for 1,294 acres. The maps show that nearly
all the forests in their 25,000 acre ownership have been entered in
the past 15 years.
As we paddle along, the valley widens past Cummings Creek where the
channel braids out islands from what once were adjoining flats and
pasture. An elderly life long resident described to me how the river
use to hug the south side of the valley in a deep shaded channel.
Today it braids across a broad gravel bar, cutting bare channel banks
along the adjoining pastures, where we soon come to one of the recent
bank restoration projects. Mounds of large "rock points"
and logs are positioned and secured along the river bank, and areas
of willow, alder, and cottonwood have been planted to reduce erosion
and eventually provide shade. The rock/log structures serve to deflect
the high flows, while creating deeper pools for fish habitat. This
project was designed and built, with the support of the landowner,
by a non-profit group of restoration engineers called the Eel River
Watershed Improvement Group (ERWIG) that directs equipment contractors
and crews from the California Conservation Corp (CCC). Most of the
funding came from state and federal salmon restoration bills and bond
measures (that are now drying up) distributed through the California
Department of Fish and Game and the Humboldt County Resource Conservation
District. Meanwhile, the CCC Salmon Restoration Program has been eliminated.
This successful state program has worked for years on projects up
and down the Eel River watershed. It was a match funding generating
program, exceeding it's goals with $43 million of non-general fund
quotas, giving a great education of hands on work experience to thousands
of 18-22 year olds.
Looking up from here into the surrounding mountainsides, these restoration
activities are in stark contrast to the logging now taking place.
We watch through binoculars as another clear cut is carved by men
operating high-lead, tractors, chainsaws and trucks. This is work
by another timber corporation, Green Diamond, formerly known as Simpson.
The patchwork of adjoining clear cuts, work that they have been doing
for the past 20 years, can be plainly seen over the five mile stretch
of the Carlotta community. I ponder if there can't be a better, less
destructive way. In the current system, local residents and small
landowner rights seem to take a backseat to corporate profits and
short term jobs. Opposing "science" on both sides of the
issue become battles of terminology and "prove it". There
have been some positive activities; the restoration efforts, and attempts
to join together with all factions to work toward win-win solutions.
But why should taxpayers have to foot the bill for projects to repair
ongoing environmental damage by large corporations. Or, why should
small landowners have to replace culverts to allow for activities
of their upstream neighbor. I must refer to a letter written to James
Madison by Thomas Jefferson, "The Earth belongs in use to the
living...no man can by natural right oblige the lands he occupies,
or the persons who succeed him in that occupation, to the payment
of debts contracted by him. For if he could, he might during his own
life, eat up the use of the lands for several generations to come...the
Earth would belong to the dead and not the living generation...no
generation can contract debts greater that may be paid during the
course of its own existence." As I see it, the debts that have
occurred, the loss of entire runs of salmon and steelhead under successive
deposits of mountain soil, are too large a price to pay by our children
and their children.
We make quick work of the wide flat waters in the lower reaches. They
are punctuated at turns by various attempts to stabilize the banks
using stacked rock, broken concrete and rock points. Passing under
the highway bridges the river makes a sweeping turn north to its mouth
at the Eel. This is a stretch that has been engineered the past three
years, providing a safe passage for fall chinook runs. Under leadership
from the California Department of Fish and Game, the property owner's
gravel business has timed and built low water holding habitat and
a notched levee that blows out with the first adequate rains to allow
the run to commence. These kind of complex measures are now needed
in order to protect the remaining fragile runs of salmonids, now designated
as threatened by the Endangered Species Act. Sports-fishermen on the
Van Duzen watershed along with most of the waters in this region are
reduced to catch and release.
The Van Duzen, with its dense tree lined rugged riparian zone, its
constantly changing waters, and its nourishment to an entire array
of wildlife is what makes this region so special. As a fisherman,
my first catches of steelhead and salmon were on this river. I treasure
the memories of the bursting displays of these silvery sea runners
fighting with all the strengths of the river. They nourished me and
my family and connected us in a visceral way to the watershed. This
product of our public trust is becoming rare as we accumulate the
short-term financial compromises made in the watershed. The native
culture here thrived on an abundant fishery for thousands of seasons.
As in the entire region, our culture has been the steward of this
watershed for 150 years. How many more times will it sustain such
a volume of corporate, industrial resource extracting without collapse?
Is it time to review our culture's priorities pertaining to restoration
and sustainability? There are already many landowners here that see
the value in caring for their lands. These are the values that need
to be passed on to our corporate neighbors, given their mandate to
exist for the betterment of society.