POINT ARENA, Calif. — From a lonely outlook in the coastal mountains of Mendocino County, Chris Kelly takes stock of the dark green ridges of redwood and fir stacked against a light-blue skyline. It's there that he plans to log roughly two dozen square miles of forestland in the coming months and years.
Kelly works for the new owner of this stretch of working forest in the Garcia River watershed, a haven for endangered Coho salmon and threatened northern spotted owls. But his employer is not one of the timber titans that have pulled lumber from California's Redwood Empire for more than a century.
He manages the land for the Conservation Fund, a 21-year-old Arlington, Va.-based organization that strives to balance natural resource protection with economic goals. And timber sales here will be used to pay for forest and watershed restoration.
"People will say, 'A conservation group doing logging?' " said Kelly, who manages its California operations. "This is all new to me. I am learning as I go."
The group says it is the first nonprofit to own and run a major timber operation in the state. And the second- and third-growth redwood forests it has chosen are in a region where intensive logging has left a legacy of environmental problems and relatively young trees.
More than 95% of the ancient redwoods along the North Coast have been felled, according to the Save-the-Redwoods League in San Francisco. The heaviest logging came during the rebuilding of San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake and during the post-World War II housing boom, when companies such as Georgia-Pacific, Louisiana-Pacific and Masonite operated here.
"There now is much less ancient redwood forest in Mendocino County than in any other part of the range," said Ruskin Hartley, conservation director of Save-the-Redwoods League. "You have an opportunity to do restoration on those lands."
The Conservation Fund is banking on transforming the sustainable production and sale of timber that has grown back on previously logged land into dollars that can be used to permanently shield the property from development while improving wildlife habitat and providing jobs.
After buying 24,000 acres along the Garcia for $18 million in 2004, the Conservation Fund is purchasing an additional 16,000 acres in two nearby watersheds for $48.5 million -- mostly with state financing. And the group hopes to buy 165,000 acres more, which would make it one of the biggest timber concerns on the North Coast.
Private forest ownership here is concentrated, with hundreds of thousands of acres held by half a dozen companies and families. But the industry is struggling, and with land values rising, there is increasing pressure to sell off the least productive parcels -- a trend that forestry officials say results in thousands of acres being developed statewide each year.
"We're not talking about conversions of forests to subdivisions," said Bill Stewart, assistant deputy director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. "We are talking about very low density.... But it does alter the forest ecosystem. Lots of animals do not like dogs, cats, horses and cars coming in and out all the time."
Although old-growth timber has all but vanished, the land still provides valuable habitat for wildlife.
However, today's financially stretched government agencies often cannot afford to make large-scale acquisitions to create parkland, which is where the Conservation Fund's idea for carefully planned timber operations comes in.
"I think this is the future of conservation," Kelly said. "I am enthralled with the idea of protecting entire watersheds ... but I don't think it is practical to do it by turning them into parks."
Two years ago, the organization bought the Garcia lands from Coastal Forestlands Ltd. for $18 million in partnership with the state Coastal Conservancy, the Wildlife Conservation Board and the nonprofit Nature Conservancy.
Now the Conservation Fund has designated 35% of the property as forest reserve. On the rest, it plans to continue commercial timber production -- although the project participants acknowledge that could be a tough sell to people who find logging inconsistent with conservation.
"We can get foresters to say this would promote sustainable forestry, but it is hard to get society to accept this notion," said Louis Blumberg, the Nature Conservancy's state forest policy director.
In the shade of redwood groves, other challenges become apparent. The land has been logged repeatedly, and most trees are spindly offspring less than 2 feet in diameter, not the kind of timber that brings top dollar.
Kelly and his consultants show visitors a cluster that sprouted from the stump of a behemoth tree felled decades ago and now needs thinning to let the remaining trees thrive.
The key, said forester Craig Blencowe, is "cut less than you grow and leave good trees."