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Slaughterhouse Gulch

Three gulches west from the ranch that I live on, Slaughterhouse Gulch cuts the hillside north of the Albion River. Even in this fourth year of severe drought its stream runs roughly south to the Albion's tidewater. The name derives from the operation of a slaughterhouse in the 1880s until the late 1920s. The Albion Mill Company and later the Albion Lumber Company owned the property in those days. For much of its existence the slaughterhouse was managed by the Piper family who lived in a company built house at the mouth of Slaughterhouse Gulch. The slaughterhouse itself was located on a slight shelf just northwest of where the railroad crossed over the Slaughterhouse stream a few feet from the mouth of the gulch. The lumber company's beef cattle grazed in fields just east of Slaughterhouse Gulch and on a more elongated section of grassland across the river to the south. Mixed in with those company cattle were dozens of (primarily) Herefords owned by my Macdonald ancestors. My uncle Charlie (born in 1890, second oldest of the Macdonald brothers of that generation) worked there alongside Matt Piper more than a century ago.

Many stories remain in family lore about Uncle Charlie and his Winchester, the Piper children playing on the railroad tracks, or the water flume than ran from another gulch, crossing high above the railroad tracks. However, this is not a tale of those halcyon days, rather one of the mismanagement of Slaughterhouse Gulch in relatively modern times.

After World War II the timberlands that once belonged to the Albion Lumber Company were bought by Masonite Corporation. The slaughterhouse had long since been abandoned and largely torn down. The company cattle were long gone and only a few dozen Macdonald cattle grazed the nearby fields.

Masonite employed college educated foresters to manage their timber holdings. One of their bright young men was a graduate of the UC Berkeley school of forestry named Jack Sweeley. By the mid 1950s Sweeley had developed an interest in eucalyptus as a potential source of fiber for Masonite's hardboard plant.

Masonite planted over thirty small plots to test various new types of seedlings throughout its property. By the late 50s they settled on several larger plots. The seedlings were raised at the Parlin Fork nursery through a contract with the Department of Forestry (now CalFire). By 1962 Masonite forester Sweeley reached the conclusion that two types of eucalyptus, manna gum and mountain gum, merited planting in larger plots. One of those was 35 acres on the east facing slope of Slaughterhouse Gulch. In preparation for the eucalyptus stocking the redwood and fir of Slaughterhouse Gulch was clear-cut then burned, though locals might remember that the burning was never truly completed due to heavy rains.

According to Sweeley's records, 14,000 manna gum eucalyptus were planted on the slopes of Slaughterhouse Gulch. Compared to fir and redwood, eucalyptus is a fast growing tree. Within a half dozen years the eucalyptus of Slaughterhouse Gulch averaged more than 23 feet in height with diameters at approx. 1.5 feet. At that time Sweeley estimated that each acre would yield 210 healthy eucalyptus.

Eucalyptus are indeed healthy growers. Unfortunately, as timber eucalyptus boards tend to split apart rather easily. Masonite also figured out, too late, that local conifers largely emulated the fiber properties of eucalyptus, making the planting of the latter a pointless experiment.

Planting eucalyptus is a little like opening Pandora's box, it's darn difficult to shut it again. The Slaughterhouse Gulch eucalyptus plot, left untended for decades, grew and grew. It also spread well beyond its original boundaries. In the late 1990s Mendocino Redwood Company (MRC) inherited the eucalyptus mess in and around Slaughterhouse Gulch.

What do you suppose was MRC's solution to the eucalyptus problem? You guessed it: imazapyr, applied using the practice euphemistically called “hack and squirt.” That was performed by hired hands at the end of the first decade of the 21st century. According to hack and squirt methodology those eucalyptus should be starting to tumble to the ground right about now.

I can't speak to tanoaks on such a scale, but MRC's "hack and squirt" on the eucalyptus of Slaughterhouse Gulch is moving along right on schedule. The heavy winds of winter and early spring have dropped several on the logging road that traverses the ridgeback atop the gulch, dozens more are down in the forest on that east facing slope above the Slaughterhouse Gulch stream.

Where there's eucalyptus combined with corporate logging practices you can pretty much bet the house there's going to be a screw up or two. First of all, walking along that logging road on the ridgeback even Mr. Magoo would bump into one fledgling eucalyptus after another. There are thousands within sight of the road. Many are 15-20 feet tall and some higher still. This writer found several in the six inch diameter range. These young eucalypti have spread beyond the road to the ridgetop and threaten to spread westward into Deadman's Gulch.

It's reasonable to wonder: If MRC hacked and squirted all the eucalyptus, why are there young ones growing up by the thousands? Therein lies the rub. Much like their corporate predecessors, Masonite, Mendocino Redwood Company's actual on-the-ground forest practices lag behind their rhetoric and bureaucratic hyperbole.

The simple answer is this: MRC failed to hack and squirt a significant number of the 40-50 year old eucalyptus. Any passerby on the logging road can look up and spot several places where the established Masonite eucalyptus are still growing healthily. Anyone who wants to hike down to the Albion River then follow the old trail north alongside the gulch stream will eventually come upon several groves of the Masonite eucalyptus that have not been hacked and squirted with imazapyr. Many of these are two to three feet in diameter at their base and more than a hundred feet tall. A simple glance up from the bottom of the gulch displays a hillside strewn with dozens of successfully downed eucalyptus with dead bark piled high all around, a conflagration of monumental potential if a spark gets into it this spring, summer or fall.

MRC's hack and squirt methodology applied to the Slaughterhouse Gulch eucalyptus can only be described as slipshod when one views the dozens and dozens of still thriving eucalyptus. Who knows the hows and whys for leaving so many living eucalyptus in Slaughterhouse Gulch. Hopefully MRC doesn't believe that the imazapyr will seep through the ground from hack and squirted trees to eventually poison the still standing eucalyptus. If that proved true, the environmental repercussions would be far greater than the hazards presented by forty acres or so of dying eucalyptus.

An additional fire hazard has not been attended to by MRC. There are many eucalyptus down on the Slaughterhouse Gulch Road owned by MRC, but the company has made no effort as of late April to clear the downed trees, leaving one less fire road as the burn season heats up. Presumably someone from CalFire will take heed and encourage Mendocino Redwood to keep the Slaughterhouse Road clear of downed eucalyptus throughout the fire season that is already upon us.

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