Adam Spencer, The Triplicate

5,300 acresof inholdingsare purchased

For the past six years, almost 5,300 acres of private timber land in the mountainous Smith River watershed has been inching toward the palms of public ownership.

On Tuesday, the first phase of the slow crawl was completed when almost 1,200 acres of land in the Hurdygurdy Creek watershed became a part of the Smith River National Recreation Area.

The remaining land now rests in the hands of the Smith River Alliance, the non-profit organization that worked to secure the land from ALCO Holdings LLC, until further funds are allocated to the U.S. Forest Service to purchase the rest of the property.

"We want to thank Senator (Diane) Feinstein and Congressman (Mike) Thompson and our many state and national partners.A project like this does not get done without a big team," said Grant Werschkull, executive director for Smith River Alliance.

Feinstein included $1 million for Hurdygurdy in her appropriations requests for fiscal year 2011.

"As the last major inholding within the Smith River National Recreation Area, and one of the best-producing salmon and steelhead streams within the NRA, it is important that we do whatever it takes to protect Hurdygurdy Creek," said Thompson in a statement.

"Now that the Forest Service knows this is really happening, it allows them to incorporate these lands into their planning for fuels and timber stand improvement projects," Werschkull said.

Those types of projects will be implemented immediately as the Hurdygurdy Creek property was listed as a potential fire risk and hazard for the communities of Big Flat and Rock Creek in the Del Norte County Fire SafePlan. It falls in a Wildland Urban Interface zone, where humans live in close proximity to undeveloped forests prone to fires.

"That land is particularly important because it sits on a ridge and could be a threat to Washington Flat (off Siskiyou Fork Road), Gasquet, Big Flat or Rock Creek," said Mike McCain, U.S. Forest Service fisheries biologist.

The newly public land includes a significant section of the main stem of Hurdygurdy Creek.

McCain wrote his master's thesis on the paths taken by chinook salmon that hatched in Hurdygurdy Creek in 1987 and 1988. He was part of a team of Forest Service researchers from different fields (fisheries, amphibians, reptiles, geology, etc.) who took a holistic approach to studying Hurdygurdy.

"Hurdygurdy was really one of the first kind of stream-wide research efforts," he said.

Now, the Forest Service will be able to apply the findings and recommendations that came out of that research to Hurdygurdy, McCain said.

The creek has been identified as an important spawning ground for salmon and steelhead trout, particularly because there's a large amount of gravelthat is good spawning habitat, which is in short supply on the Smith River, McCain said.Most of the Smith is coarse, filled with boulders and lacking gravel habitat.

"The mouth of Jones Creek and stretch along Big Flat, that whole area is sort of a flat, and those types of areas, in relation to salmon and steelhead in the Pacific Northwest, are hot spots - lots of good spawning gravel," McCain said. "Populations are anchored at those spots."

Most prime, flat spawning grounds on the West Coast are hundreds of miles inland, but a chinook salmon could probably get to Hurdygurdy from the ocean in an overnight trip, McCain said.

The land purchased by Smith River Alliance but not yet transferred to the Forest Service includes portions of Little Jones Creek and Siskiyou Fork of the Smith River, which are designated Wild and Scenic Rivers, just like Hurdygurdy.

The 1,164 acres acquired by the Six Rivers National Forest this week was purchased for $1,004,064, with $1 million coming from the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which funds public lands acquisition projects using fees paid by energy companies for offshore drilling - not taxpayer dollars.

There was $1 million allocated in the 2010 federal budget to purchase the land, but Feinstein eliminated the funding to give more time to appease Del Norte County supervisors who opposed the deal without compensation for losing property taxes due to land going from private to public ownership.

Del Norte County has received roughly $4,100 annually in property taxes from the entire 5,284-acre property.

Gerry Hemmingsen, chairman of the Del Norte County Board of Supervisors, said that the county had not received a response to letters written to the Forest Service regarding the progress of the land deal, and that he was unaware that the purchase had happened.

"If the purchase has taken place we were completely left out of the loop," Hemmingsen said.

When the $1 million was allocated in April, SRA and the Forest Service conducted an appraisal of the land that came to $5,621,000 for the entire 5,284 acres. Only 13 acres of that land had mature conifer ready for immediate harvest and another 611 acres were deemed to have pre- and sub-merchantable timber through a thinning harvest.

"There is not much high value commercial timber out there on these lands," said James Webb, lands specialist with the Forest Service, which negotiated the deal with Smith River Alliance. "The reason that Agnew Company (which manages ALCO) is willing to sell them is they are not very productive timber lands."

Webb said that with this purchase the Forest Service is not looking to buy timber lands, but "resource lands."

"The fact that there is valuable spawning habitat for fish is more important than any other factor,"Webb said.

Smith River Alliance went ahead with the purchase of the entire property since the landowner has waited a long time, and it isconfident that the rest will be purchased by the Forest Service.

"We first started talking to (ALCO) about buying the land six years ago, and that level of patience for six years is extremely generous," said Patty McCleary, co-executive director of SRA. "They were not willing or able to invest that amount of patience foranother six years."

Purchasing of the remaining property is listed sixth for the Forest Service projects nationwide that will be submitted for funding, McCleary said.

"(The Forest Service has) a very high confidence that they will get the entire property," Werschkull said. "They know that is our objective."

Besides fire prevention measures, Werschkull mused about the possible recreation opportunities for the land. Equestrian trails, off-highway vehicle routes and roads for recreational access are all possibilities, but "the first step is securing the property," he said.

"Hurdygurdy Creek and its tributaries in this area offer outstanding recreational opportunities and, by federal acquisition, public access for recreation is assured in perpetuity," Webb said.

Undammed and free-flowing in its entirety, the Smith Riverwas the first river system listed in California as a "salmon stronghold."

Hurdygurdy Creek got its name from a hydraulic mining wheel used in the area called a hurdy-gurdy, which was named after a crank-turn operated string instrument.

The western portions of the newly public land, run through ultramafic geology (serpentine geology) where rare species like Darlingtonia thrive.

"I've walked through a good part of it now and it is beautiful country," Webb said. "It is country that deserves to be accessible by the public."

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