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The Mattole, Drought & Climate Change

Buck Miner, Mattole’s 90-year-old blind troubadour, celebrated the North Forks in a lyrical book, trailing a contemporary of his father, a salmon named Henrietta, as she returns up the river. Five miles from the Pacific, says Buck, instead of continuing up the mainstem, she would have turned into the North Fork, looking for the deep cold pools overhung with insect-dropping branches of her babyhood. In those days the river was so popular for fish that you could see the spray whipped up from their flashing tails for miles. And it wasn’t only salmon that appreciated the North Fork. The governor of California came here in 1907 for a wild fishing experience, as did Clark Gable and other movie stars hunting for a different glitter.

Henrietta’s modern descendants pay no attention to the North Fork, swimming on up the river (if there is enough water to get further). The delicate architecture of its steep slopes and banks was shattered by the exuberant and uncontrolled logging of the midcentury; the riparian shade trees an easy cut, big trees skidded down the tributaries. With rains, the legendary pools filled in with silt and debris.

When in 1986, MAXXAM seized Pacific Lumber, owner of 12,000 acres in the North Fork, it targeted what was left of Mattole’s large trees. The ugliness of MAXXAM’s reputation as a destroyer, however, had preceded it to Humboldt County and it met furious resistance. The people of the Mattole joined in the defense of Humboldt’s most precious natural resources which sustain all our livelihoods: the trees, the water, the wildlife. The Lost Coast League, founded in 1921 to create a game preserve in the Kings Peak area, indignantly organized demonstrations against the agencies who failed to protect these values. Its members sat in trees, blocked roads, got arrested. It sent representatives to Sacramento, brought lawsuits.

As in the rest of the county, we lost the timber wars. MAXXAM raked away some of the forest, made out big selling Headwaters, and scuttled Pacific Lumber in bankruptcy as planned.

With the memory of this bleakest period in the League’s long history, it is taking a more neighborly approach to the purchasers of what was left of the North Fork: Humboldt Redwoods Company who now owns the Mattole 12,000 acres. The majority shareholder is the Fisher family of San Francisco. They own Gap and Banana Republic, have enormous political power and are worth $8 billion.

The North Fork watershed is not redwood, but uniquely intact low-elevation, coastal, old growth Douglas-fir forest with rare wildlife populations. And it has other values. It adjoins Rockefeller Forest, the largest remaining stand of ancient redwoods, preserved in Humboldt Redwoods State Forest. This, is turn borders, Gilham Butte, and over to the King Range - a complex providing a wildlife corridor, stretching from the Eel River to the Mattole to the sea. Such passageways enhance species survival by enlarging the genetic pools.

Additionally, according to Jerry Franklin, professor of ecosystems analysis and famous as the father of old growth research, who gave a lecture in Arcata last August, Pacific coastal forests have “an extraordinary capacity to sequester carbon, exceeding that of any other on earth by a factor of 3 or 4, and capable of making a real difference globally when it comes to climate change”.

Robert Fisher
Robert Fisher

All of these characteristics, in the context of both California’s severe drought and the specter of climate change, should be inspiring to the Fisher family, especially Robert Fisher, who is co-chair of the Strategic Growth Council, cornerstone of Governor Brown’s effort to address climate change. The council was critical to the passage of legislation that mandates reduction by 2020 of the state’s carbon emission to 10% below 1990 levels.

With this in mind the Lost Coast League welcomes Robert Fisher to the neighborhood. It invites him to come and view the extensive restoration undertaken by Mattole residents over the last three decades, in which the public has invested millions of dollars and the Nature Conservancy has recently labeled the top priority watershed to recover coho. It appeals to him to join in restoring the North Forks of the Mattole, a paradise less than a century ago. In an age where our human habitat is threatened from so many directions, the public trust values that underpin life on this planet have merged with business interests. The corporate focus on short-term profit is dangerously outdated. The stock response of “this is a business, not a charity” no longer has any relevance.

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