Club Seeks to Thin Woods It Camps In

Sometime in the 1980s, campers at a Bohemian Grove encampment return aboard a shuttle bus.
Sometime in the 1980s, campers at a Bohemian Grove encampment return aboard a shuttle bus. (Copyright 1997 By Kerry Richardson)
By Karl Vick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 18, 2008

MONTE RIO, Calif. -- At the end of the lane across the Russian River from this north-woods town, behind the "Keep Out" signs and the plainclothes security guards, lies Bohemian Grove, a mysterious summer playground of presidents, former presidents, princes, Cabinet members and titans of industry. The most exclusive men's club in the world gathers each July for a secret conclave that begins with a nocturnal ceremony featuring torches, incantations, hooded robes of red velvet and the incineration of a coffin beneath a massive sculpture of an owl.

Immense power and staggering wealth are as deeply imbedded in the traditions of the Bohemian Club as they are in the grove itself, 100 acres of old-growth redwoods spared from timber companies a century ago in the name of preservation.

Which only deepens the dismay that has greeted the club's request to the state of California for permission to log as much as 1 million board feet from the place to raise some cash.

"I guess the only thing you can say about that is how the mighty have fallen -- trees to follow," said Harry Shearer, a comedic actor who made a film, "Teddy Bears' Picnic," lampooning the grove, where he was a guest in the mid-1990s.

"They've always fetishized the trees," Shearer said. "It's sort of surprising that it's gone from this object of fetishistic adoration to a cash cow."

Club President Jay Mancini said that, like so much about the Bohemians, the effort to secure a non-industrial timber management plan is widely misunderstood.

"Not secretive. We're private. And there is a difference," he said of what began in the late 1800s as a San Francisco society of journalists and writers, including Jack London. The group invited business tycoons to stay solvent, and bought the grove to spare it from the lumber companies clear-cutting to rebuild San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake and fire.

In fact, fear of fire drives the effort to "selectively log" the club's 2,700 acres, Mancini said. He said income from timber sales of Douglas fir and other non-redwood will go toward clearing undergrowth and other "ladder" foliage that could lead to a dangerous crown fire. In the clearings, the club is planting redwood saplings.

"We're trying to re-create the forest of 1900, in a sense," he said. "Redwood is much more fire-resistant."

Forestry officials concur, and appear inclined to approve the plan, once the club transfers control of the old-growth trees to a conservation group.

"It is also well to remember that the Grove is held in near religious regard by the membership," reads one of scores of letters club members have written to the agency, "and that any mishandling of this property and subsequent long term damage will necessarily expose the club's Powers That Be to humiliation of the most polite and enduring sort."

The mostly blue-collar neighbors, who fill many of the 600 jobs that serve some of the 1,500 well-heeled campers during the three weeks the grove is open, appear inclined to go along. Mancini led several dozen locals on a tour last week, and said he persuaded the only two skeptics.

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