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Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Redwood National Park Grows

New Addition to Redwood National Park lands; BLM's new Lacks Creek property a hidden treasure

John Driscoll, Eureka Times-Standard


A purple carpet of western hound's tongue is unrolled under oaks leafing out in the sun after a long winter.

From these oak-rimmed prairies, you can look west over all of the Lacks Creek watershed, 11,000 acres that are remote more because of topography than distance. You can plainly make out where the stream runs into Redwood Creek, which flows into the ocean at Orick. The coastal fog bank is just a couple of ridges away.

”On a clear day you can see the ocean,” said U.S. Bureau of Land Management forest ecologist Hank Harrison. “I think the public got a nice piece of land here.”

Last year another major part of the drainage was bought by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management with help from private conservation groups. In a $5.5 million deal including $2.5 million from the Save-the-Redwoods League and money from the Resource Legacy Foundation Fund, 4,500 acres was procured from the Barnum Timber Co., Eel River Sawmills and landowner Veena Menda.

It gave BLM the majority of the watershed, adding to 4,100 acres it already owned, including a large chunk which the agency has held since the land was public domain. More than 1,500 acres are decadent old-growth fir, much of it perched precariously on steep west-facing slopes below Pine Ridge.

In early May, everything is lush. Sprawling meadows sprout green grasses and old Douglas fir glades shade fairy slipper orchids and late-blooming trillium. The eastern half of the watershed will be bone dry in a month or two.

Lacks Creek splits the land into two geologic types. The east-side slopes are subject to slides because of their steepness, even though their thick layers of well-cemented sandstone aren't very erosive. The well-drained, rocky soil makes the forest dry, supporting canyon live oak, Douglas fir, manzanita and madrone, according to a BLM geologic assessment report.

The west side, in contrast, has highly productive and moist soils on rolling hills. Thinner sandstone and mudstone layers are crushed into rocks more easily, and are further broken down into clay-like soils on which trees -- even some redwood and western red cedar -- thrive.

Firs on the western side below Beaver Ridge are thick-trunked but young. The heavy logging done throughout the watershed in the 1950s left some stands struggling to rebound on the eastern side, while trees on the western portion shot up. They are now dense, and in some stands there is a choking layer of tan oaks.

Harrison said there are some places with 600 trees per acre, which is beginning to stunt tree growth and could set up the place for a big wildfire. He hopes the former timberlands can be thinned out in the near future, down to 250 trees an acre, then later to fewer than 75.

Logging didn't begin here in earnest until the 1950s. Champion, Weyerhaeuser, Soper-Wheeler, Mutual Plywood and Simpson Timber all owned land here, among others. Starting in about 1954, logs began moving out in a hurry, with hundreds of roads and skid trails carved into the hillsides to get the cut out. Aerial photos clearly show the rapid changes on the land.

Perhaps fortunately for BLM, some of the better-maintained roads would do just fine as trails. The agency's longtime outdoor recreation planner Bruce Cann sees potential in linking segments of old roads with new sections of trail, creating several lengthy loops that could be enjoyed by hikers, horseback riders and mountain bikers.

”I think I could find three ways to get across the creek, but it's not going to be easy,” Cann said, peering at a map and pointing out roads on the landscape.

BLM wants to present the public with ideas on how Lacks Creek might be managed, and has been gathering information on the area's history, biology and geology. Any plan will have to go through the requisite National Environmental Policy Act process, through which the public can express their desires for the property, alternatives are developed and eventually a plan is adopted.

That process starts next week with a meeting in Arcata.

One of Bob Barnum's wishes when he sold his part of the property to BLM was that the prairies be maintained. Even with cows grazing on the grasslands -- and without the old wildfire regimen -- fir trees creep in from their edges, threatening to transform the meadows into young forest. Small fir trees will likely have to be mechanically removed to preserve the prairies.

Getting from Hundred-Acre Field down to Lacks Creek is a lesson in the “it's just around the next corner” point of view. Today you have to guess which logging spur will get you down the fastest and then which slope you can negotiate without sliding uncontrollably.

But Lacks Creek is there, and it's likely that eventually it'll be a lot easier to get there.

Water moves over boulders and under huge fir trees that have fallen across the creek banks on its way toward Redwood Creek below 4,092-foot Hupa Mountain and past the verdant Stover Ranch downstream. Coho and chinook salmon and cutthroat and steelhead use the 7 3/4-mile-long stream, which is eligible to be designated a federal Wild and Scenic River.

The whole place is considered an Area of Critical Environmental Concern, and is enveloped within the Redwood National Park protection zone set up by the legislation that authorized the expansion of the park in 1978.

Right now, most of the place is a bit under used, and in some spots a little abused. There are a few abandoned campgrounds, some litter and some jeep trails torn through meadows. In one spot, a bullet-pocked oxygen tank lies under an oak.

But for the most part, the area is clean. Wildlife is plentiful, with evidence of elk and northern spotted owls and expectedly quite a few fishers. From the edge of one mixed stand a turkey called until it heard footsteps moving in its direction.

Without a doubt, there is plenty of potential in the Lacks Creek area, especially because of its proximity to the coast. It's only about 45 minutes from Arcata, and it is far enough inland to escape the summer coastal fog.

”The more people we have up here will really help the area,” said Lynda Roush, BLM's Arcata Field Office manager.

A management plan is beginning to be crafted to protect wildlife and fisheries and their habitat while developing opportunities for hiking, horseback riding and mountain biking in Lacks Creek. The first public meeting to take comments and questions will be held on Wednesday at 6 p.m. at the BLM Arcata Field Office at 1695 Heindon Rd. in Arcata.

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