Face Of This Place: Chris Kelly, California’s North Coast Forests
Chris Kelly, the Fund’s California program director, is known for his innovative approaches to conservation, including the Fund’s sustainable forest management efforts along the state’s north coast—now home to the largest nonprofit-owned working forest in the West. A new approach for both the Fund and the community, our working forest model balances conservation with economic needs and community interests. Read our interview with Chris to find out how he ended up one of the Fund’s most innovative and accomplished conservationists.
You’ve worked in conservation for 25 years so it may surprise people that you have a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and a law degree. How did you end up in forest conservation?
It’s funny; sometimes you don’t know where you’re going until you get there, and then you look back and say, “Hey, there’s a thread that runs through all this.” In my professional life I’ve been very lucky. While at UC Berkeley I took some courses in landscape architecture along with my philosophy curriculum. When I learned that most landscape architects do things like create planting plans for shopping malls and don’t do big-picture regional planning, I opted for law school. I wound up at a law firm that had a great land use practice. I offered some pro bono assistance to The Nature Conservancy but they offered me the position of director of land protection instead. I took the job and I never looked back. That was 1988.
What brought you to The Conservation Fund?
I left The Nature Conservancy to work as a consultant to a half dozen smaller land trusts around the state. It was a great experience to go from a big organization to working with smaller, local groups. In 2003, the Fund approached me about helping with some projects in California on a contract basis, but before I even started I was offered a permanent job. It’s been a phenomenal experience. The Fund is willing to step out of the comfort zone to get something big done. That’s certainly what we did on California’s north coast when we established the first nonprofit-owned working forest in the state.
How is your approach to forest conservation different?
Up until our efforts to protect forests along the north coast, most forest conservation in California, and in much of the West, was fairly traditional—you’d buy the forest and turn it into a park. That was the business model for the Fund: buy land and transfer it to a government agency for a park or preserve. However, when presented with the opportunity to buy 24,000 acres of forestland in Mendocino County in 2003, an area about the size of the city of San Francisco, it was clear it wasn’t feasible to transfer the property to a government agency. It was just too large and would require too much day-to-day management and restoration.
Why did you feel you needed a different approach?
The reality is that you can’t just buy forests and put a lock on them and walk away. The land has to be managed, and there has to be money to do that. Our larger objective is to protect these forest ecosystems on a scale that matters, but using the traditional approach of buying and setting aside large tracts of forestland has significant long-term regional economic impacts. Unlike properties owned by public agencies, those kept in active management provide taxes that support local government and good-paying jobs. So, we thought, why not buy the forest and own and manage it? Managing the property as a “working forest” would allow the forest to recover and help sustain the regional timber economy. This was a brand new idea, and there were some raised eyebrows at the time, but the Fund’s management and its partners agreed it was worth a try.
What was the biggest challenge you faced?
When you go back 10 years, there was no precedent for a nonprofit owning a large commercial timber property with the intent to keep it in commercial operation. Nobody had done that. So explaining the rationale to the local community, to our funders and to other timber landowners was probably the biggest challenge. Some forest landowners in the region thought the working forest idea was just a Trojan horse, and that our ultimate goal was to create a park and take it out of production. Others thought that we were naïve and didn’t understand what we were getting ourselves into. So, we’ve had to demonstrate—as we have over the past decade—our commitment to keeping these properties in production and our competence as a forest manager. At the same time, we needed to reassure the environmental community we were going to do this in a way that they can support. We also needed to make our funders proud and willing to continue to invest in this new approach.
But you got it done—how?
In summer 2003, we presented this idea of owning a “working forest” to the California State Coastal Conservancy, an agency with a history of supporting projects that balance environmental goals with human use. They gave us a $10 million grant and told us to bring back a plan for their approval. We then reached out to the community, neighbors, and others to help us think through the working forest idea and develop the plan. We explained to them the dilemma faced by forest landowners in the region: After decades of over harvesting, large properties like the one we wanted to purchase were not economically viable for forestry; but if we could buy the property and slow down harvest levels, the forests could be returned to an ecologically viable and economically productive state over time. On the other hand, if we didn’t buy it, the landowner would probably sell it off in smaller pieces, or convert some of it to vineyards or any number of things that would make it impossible to ensure sustainable management at a large, or watershed, scale.
Vineyards are important to the local economy too, so why is a “working forest” better?
It’s about balance. There are plenty of vineyards in Northern California, but the redwood-Douglas fir forest occurs nowhere else in the world except on the California coast between the Oregon border and Monterey. These forests harbor species like coho salmon and steelhead trout that are on the brink of extinction. We believe that managing these forests for light touch forestry is a better way to protect this unique ecosystem because it’s more likely to sustain and recover the fish populations and other wildlife unique to the region. Also, if you want a diverse and resilient economy, you probably shouldn’t rely on one type of agriculture, you want to have multiple types of agriculture. So, in the big picture, we think you can have forests and vineyards as long as there is a balance.
You made a big effort to involve the community in this “working forest” approach to conservation? Why?
As a land use lawyer, the thing that struck me was the lack of transparency in the timber harvest approval process. For example, if you want to put a second story on your home you often have to go through a public hearing before a local permitting agency, but if you want to harvest 500 acres of redwood forest there’s no public hearing. As a citizen you don’t have a right or an opportunity to go out and look at the area proposed to be logged and talk with the loggers or the regulators. It’s a very opaque process. So I said, we need to open this up. We need to take people out there and show them the property and explain the difficulties. It worked. We brought the community in and they worked with us.
How do you continue to involve the community 10 years later?
Before submitting a harvest plan for approval to the California regulatory agency, we invite the community on the property for a tour and give them an opportunity to discuss the plan with us. We do this for every plan. We’ve also created an advisory group composed of some of the community members that have been most interested in what we’re doing. There have been times when we’ve had conversations about a particular tree selected for harvest, and a person would ask, “Do you have to take that one?” The answer is, no, we don’t and we make a change. It’s been that kind of on-the-ground, detailed discussion about what’s happening and why.
What’s been the most rewarding part of your effort? Proving that you really could do it?
What’s been most rewarding about working in conservation, period, is that solving conservation problems is as rich and complex as life itself in the sense that you’re working with people who have needs, expectations and their own dilemmas to work through. You’re entering a community of people who are your neighbors and have interests in forest management, whether as conservationists or loggers. Whether it’s been working with forest landowners in the north coast, ranchers in the foothills of the Sierras, or date-palm farmers down in the Coachella Valley, getting to know them and live in their world is endlessly fascinating. It’s just been a remarkable and richly rewarding experience.