$10 million deal signed to preserve redwoods at YMCA camp near La Honda


Sixteen years ago, the YMCA of San Francisco ran into a buzzsaw of controversy when its leaders proposed to heavily log redwoods at Camp Jones Gulch, a beloved 928-acre property it owns in the Santa Cruz Mountains near La Honda that has been hosting children since the 1930s.

YMCA officials said they needed to cut down the trees and sell the lumber to fund upgrades to old cabins and other aging facilities at their camp. But environmental groups, some neighbors and even former campers and counselors protested the idea, eventually causing the YMCA to drop the plan.

Now the Y has found a different way to raise money from the redwoods — by preserving them. The Sempervirens Fund, a nonprofit environmental group based in Los Altos, will pay the YMCA $9.6 million to purchase a conservation easement over the property, where 23,000 children a year learn about the outdoors.

A group campfire area at YMCA Camp Jones Gulch is photographed on May 17, 2022, in La Honda, Calif. (Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group) 

Under the terms of the deal announced Wednesday, the Sempervirens Fund will own the timber rights and other development rights in perpetuity, and will work with the YMCA on conservation projects to help restore old-growth trees and reduce fire risk on the land.

“Some of our cabins date back to the 1920s and 30s,” said Carrie Herrera, executive director of Camp Jones Gulch. “Others are from the 1950s and 1960s. Our dining hall dates back to the 1920s. Some of the cabins are not insulated. The windows are not double-paned. This will help bring them up to modern standards.”

The property, located 5 miles south of La Honda, is a summer camp right out of Hollywood movies.

It has rustic wooden cabins for 400 people, a swimming pool, dining hall, streams, outdoor amphitheater campfire area, basketball and volleyball courts, archery, ziplines, a 42-foot climbing tower, and trails for hiking and horseback riding.

Starting in 1857, it was a logging camp, where loggers with huge buck saws toppled massive old-growth redwoods. Taking its name from David Jones, one of the original sawmill owners, Jones Gulch saw its fortunes change in 1934 when a subsequent owner, Sally Black, agreed to sell the property to the YMCA of San Francisco, on the revolutionary condition that the YMCA allow girls to attend camp the same as boys.

“She was very much ahead of her time,” Herrera said.

Map showing location OF YMCA CAMP JONES GULCH. Just north of Pescadero Creek County Park on Pescadero Creek Road.Generations of children have frolicked at the camp ever since under its cool forest groves. Since 1968, 5th and 6th graders from San Mateo County schools have spent a week at the camp for outdoor science school. 

But the bucolic setting became a flashpoint in 2006, when the YMCA applied for a timber harvest permit that would have allowed it to cut 40% of the redwoods on the property every 10 years. A former YMCA vice president who had been a real estate developer said it was the best way for the camp to generate income. The YMCA also considered selling off parts of the property for development.

“It was very controversial,” said Lennie Roberts, a longtime advocate at Green Foothills, a Palo Alto-based group that opposed the idea. “They were going to apply for a permanent logging plan. It just seemed completely antithetical to the mission of the organization. They had a big public meeting in La Honda. A lot of former counselors came. People said ‘wait a minute! What are you doing?!’”

“They wanted to cut pretty large second-growth redwoods,” Roberts added. “They were picking the bigger trees.”

Facing a public relations headache and years of lawsuits over endangered species like the marbled murrelet, a diminutive seabird that inhabits redwood groves, the YMCA relented.

“They had marbled murrelet issues. They had red-legged frog issues. They had a forester writing it who was from out of the area,” recalled Rich Sampson, a forester with Cal Fire’s San Mateo-Santa Cruz Unit. “They got started on it, but after about two years, they dropped it.”

Eventually, the YMCA’s main advocates for the logging plans retired, and the organization negotiated the conservation sale to Sempervirens Fund.

“In our fundraising efforts, it’s remarkable how many people say ‘I went to that camp’, or ‘my kids went to that camp’, or ‘my grandkids went to that camp,’” said Sara Barth, executive director of Sempervirens Fund. “It’s heartwarming what a big impression it made on them.”

Barth’s organization, founded in 1900 and named for the Latin name for coast redwoods, Sequoia Sempervirens, has preserved more than 35,000 acres of redwoods in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Among its accomplishments: preserving the first groves that became Big Basin Redwoods State Park, at a time in 1902 when 300-foot redwoods dating back to the Roman Empire were being cut down for fence posts and railroad ties.

“This is a good deal,” Barth said of the Camp Jones Gulch agreement. “It protects an amazing stand of old-growth redwoods. And it’s about ensuring those forests are accessible to every school kid in San Mateo County.”

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