For now, at least, the chain saws are off-limits at the Bohemian Grove, the woody retreat of America's rich and powerful.
The Bohemian Club, an all-male bastion synonymous with wealth and influence, had big plans for its private enclave on the Russian River, 75 miles north of San Francisco. Too big, as it turns out.
Over the years, the Bohemian Club had quietly logged millions of board-feet of timber from its grove, home to endangered or threatened birds such as marbled murrelets and northern spotted owls, coho salmon, steelhead and rare stands of Coast redwoods and Douglas fir, some of them more than 1,000 years old. The land is well hidden from public view, and until recently, state regulators seemed to pay little attention to the club's forest practices.
That's changed. Recently, California environmentalists seeking to protect what's left of the old forest waged a David and Goliath-style battle against the Bohemians, and to everybody's surprise, they won.
The fight over the grove began in 2001, when John Hooper, a fourth-generation member of the Bohemian Club, hiked into one of the grove's stands of magnificent old trees and was surprised to find it tagged for harvest. As a boy, Hooper had visited the grove with his grandfather and uncles, and remembered the forest back then as including several stands of old trees. Almost all were gone.
Hooper then learned that the Bohemian Club had submitted a 100-year logging plan to the state to harvest up to 2 million board-feet per year at the grove, citing the need for fire prevention. In the run-up to filing its permit application, the Bohemian Club donated a few hundred of its acres to the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, bringing the club's holdings to just under 2,500 acres -- coincidentally, the maximum size to qualify under California law for a "non-industrial timber management plan" that would require little oversight by state regulators. Hooper discovered that at least nine of the still-remaining stands of old growth had not been disclosed in the application. That -- and the accelerated cutting levels -- worried him. He went to the Bohemian Club's board with his concerns.
The 133-year-old Bohemian Club includes CEOs, bankers, industrialists, military contractors and high-ranking government officials. Its membership roster is secret, but reportedly includes every Republican president since Herbert Hoover, (with the rumored exception of W, whose membership bid is said to be pending). The billionaire Koch brothers, David Rockefeller, Henry Kissinger, Donald Rumsfeld, the Bechtels and Clint Eastwood are among the more illustrious of the Bohemians, believed to number 2,300 members.
Membership costs $25,000 or more, in addition to annual dues, which entitle members to participate in well-shielded summer "encampments" at the Bohemian Grove. For two weeks every July, hundreds of private jets land at the tiny Charles Schultz Airport in Santa Rosa. From there, Bohemians are chauffeured to the grove where they indulge in elaborate costumed rituals and copious food and liquor, while cementing connections nonpareil amidst the ancient trees.
Hooper quickly learned it is "un-Bohemian" to question the club's policies. When he persisted, he was shunned by the club's management and soon by many fellow Bohemians. So he resigned and started a club of his own: "Save Bohemian Grove."
He and his fellow activists were soon joined by the Sierra Club, which provided an attorney.
California law subjects the timber-harvest plans to review and public comment. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, dubbed CALFIRE, received hundreds of public comments on the Bohemians' timber plan, the most it had ever received. Foresters and biologists from the Universities of California at Los Angeles and Davis also weighed in. They questioned the plan's fire-prevention rationale -- redwoods are famously fire-resistant -- and determined that the proposed harvest levels were not sustainable. Still, few were surprised when CALFIRE approved the logging permit.
Then on March 10, Sonoma County Superior Court Judge Rene Chouteau ruled that CALFIRE had violated state law in approving the plan and revoked the Bohemian Club's logging permit.
Environmentalists were both stunned and buoyed by the decision, which they say holds CALFIRE to the law and will require the Bohemians to come up with a new, presumably less damaging harvest plan. "This victory shows that no matter how influential a group may be, it is not exempt from the law," said Rick Coates, a veteran of many redwood battles.
The Bohemian Club downplayed the judge's ruling, asserting it was based on a "technicality." A spokesman said the Bohemian Club expects to resume logging the grove soon.
Susan Ives is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She is a writer and communications consultant who lives in the shade of 100-foot redwoods in Mill Valley, California.