Each summer, when hundreds of Bohemian Club members converge on a stately redwood grove along the Russian River, the festivities kick off with the burning of an effigy called "Care." The ritual is a way of reminding some of the country's wealthiest and most powerful men to put aside workaday concerns during their annual encampment.
But the club's concern over fire itself is not so easily dispelled. Nor is the dispute that has flared over its strategy for lowering fire danger by logging its wooded retreat, the Bohemian Grove, on the Russian River in Sonoma County.
"The face of the property is being radically changed," said former member John Hooper, an avid hiker and apple farm owner who sits on the state's California Tahoe Conservancy and used to be a Sierra Club lobbyist. Hooper believes that the Bohemian Club is turning its 2,700-acre property amid Russian River resorts, summer homes and vineyards into a "tree farm."
Hooper said he quit in late 2004 over the club's logging practices, but not before he was criticized by a club president for "un-Bohemian" conduct because he circulated his complaints among other members. That same year, the club's bid to dramatically increase logging prompted the departure of the club's former forester, Edward Tunheim, who said that heavier cutting may backfire by encouraging the growth of brushy foliage.
"You open the canopy, so you get more brush ... and tan oaks and redwoods are going to sprout," said Tunheim, who was the forester from 1993 until 2004. "It is not a simple situation, and there is no simple answer."
For more than a century, the Bohemian Grove has served as summer camp for the all-male, San Francisco-based club whose membership includes former President George H. W. Bush, former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, actor-director Clint Eastwood, TV journalist Walter Cronkite and musicians Bob Weir and Mickey Hart of the Grateful Dead.
Now, the club is seeking state permission to double its logging to 1.1 million board feet a year, which would produce enough wood to build about 70 houses.
The plan, dubbed the Healthy Forest Initiative by the club, resembles the Bush administration's controversial federal lands policy of the same name. Both call for the commercial harvesting of valuable big trees to help pay the cost of thinning fire-prone forests.
Echoing the national debate, Tunheim said the club's latest plan overemphasizes fire danger in managing the forest. And Hooper, who periodically logs his farm's timber and helps the state manage forests in the Tahoe Basin, said the club's increased logging would promote erosion and harm wildlife habitat while diminishing the forest's recreational value.
Through a spokesman, club officials said most of the 2,300 members support their plan for protecting the grove from decay and fire. And with a reference to Hooper, they added, "We don't wish to engage a former member in a debate when he is clearly wrong."
Said Ralph Osterling, a longtime member and a licensed forester who has helped guide the club's forestry practices: "What is being done on that property ... is the property owner's business."
Writing in a recent club publication, Osterling said the effect of the club's policies does extend beyond its boundaries. "The Bohemian Grove presents a serious fire danger especially during the summer use period, to people, camp facilities, adjacent communities and the forest itself." He said more aggressive forest management was needed to make the forest "relatively safe, aesthetically attractive, sustainable and economically productive."
The nonprofit, nonpartisan club was established in 1872 for socializing and enjoying the arts. Authors Mark Twain, Bret Hart and Jack London were early members.
In 1901, the club began acquiring property here for camping, theatrical performances, lectures, parties, swimming and hiking. It is situated on steep terrain 75 miles north of San Francisco, across the river from the Monte Rio vacation community and several miles downriver from the resort town of Guerneville.
Much of the grove's towering redwood and Douglas fir was clear-cut in the late 1800s. Over time, a less statuesque forest, full of tan oak, filled in the spaces.
In the mid-1980s, club leaders began to fear that fire could sweep through the lodges, cabins, outdoor theaters and dining areas and destroy the remaining 100-plus acres of virgin forest, most of it in the Main Grove, where annual encampments are held in July. The biggest trees, which are off-limits to logging, are thought to be more than 1,000 years old. Humboldt State University botanist Stephen Sillett, who supports the fire reduction plan, recently measured the tallest tree at 301 feet.
By 2001, the club was logging 500,000 board feet a year under plans specifying that cutting had to be compatible with the grove's main uses: recreation and nature enjoyment.
However, two years ago, club officials concluded they had not been cutting enough trees and had not adequately controlled brush. They changed foresters and submitted a proposal in May 2006 that would allow the club to schedule more extensive timber harvests in coming decades with less review than their individual logging plans have required.
Even before the latest proposal, the increased logging had dismayed some members who hike the grove's steep terrain and don't enjoy seeing the ugly leftovers of logging in place of primeval forest. "It is not much fun to look at now, with burned patches and cuttings on the ground," said one, who wanted to remain anonymous. "Members were not prepared for what they are seeing."
The Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, in consultation with state environmental agencies, will decide whether to approve the pending plan in several weeks.
State officials already have urged the club to make some modifications. Water quality officials want it to reconsider a plan to use herbicides to kill tan oaks in areas that drain into Russian River tributaries. And, prompted in part by Hooper's concerns, the Department of Fish and Game recommended logging restrictions around several areas where mature trees could provide nesting for endangered marbled murrelets.
"It is unfortunate a member of the public had to alert me to this," said Stacy Martinelli, an environmental scientist with the department. "A likely end result [of the new logging plan] is ... fewer big trees" for wildlife habitat.
Hooper, a fourth-generation Bohemian Club member who joined in 1999, was upset by changes he saw on hikes during his first three encampments: Dense vegetation was emerging where trees had recently been cut. He saw signs of erosion and complained that some walking trails had been enlarged into logging roads.
In 2001, he saw some big redwoods marked with blue paint for cutting. The trees were part of what the club's hiking guide described as "the finest hillside stand of old-growth redwood in the grove."
The trees were spared, at least temporarily, after Hooper wrote a letter to the club's leadership.
Two years later, Hooper complained that the grove was rapidly being transformed from "a naturally recovering redwood and Douglas fir forest into a mosaic of managed commercial timber stands." He called for a temporary halt to logging, warning that fire danger was actually increasing as thinned-out areas of forest developed brushy undergrowth.
The chief architect of the club's strategy is Texas A&M; professor emeritus Thomas Bonnicksen. The fire historian is a defender of the Bush administration's Healthy Forest Initiative to reduce fire danger by allowing increased commercial logging of federal lands, a policy that environmentalists have assailed as an excuse to let timber companies over-cut forests.
"The club's intention is not to make [the forest] industrial," Bonnicksen said. "They are restoring a forest and using revenue from timber sales to make that possible.... The Bohemians will be there forever, and they want the forest to be there too."
By allowing loggers to take out some big trees with commercial value, the club can recoup the costs of removing acres of flammable brush. And by logging patches of forest and replanting them, the club hopes to re-create open forests that Bonnicksen says existed many years ago.
But Don Erman, UC Davis emeritus ecology professor, said the club's plan to periodically cut replanted areas resembles a commercial operation.
"That is a reasonable objective for Louisiana-Pacific," Erman said. "But is it a reasonable objective for the Bohemian Grove?"
The club, Bonnicksen said, has no financial interest in logging. "These guys are not in this for the money but for fire protection and restoration of forest.... You will have a meaningful difference in that forest in 50 years, and in 100 years you never will know it's the same place, and the trees will be magnificent."