Innovative conservationist finds art in the ecosystem | TheUnion.com
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Innovative conservationist finds art in the ecosystem

Dave Moller

For Robert Erickson, conservation sometimes means knowing when not to do something.

Erickson, 57, of the San Juan Ridge, leaves the creekside areas of his San Juan Ridge land alone, and that is partially why he was named conservationist of the year for 2003. But the Nevada County Resource Conservation District also chose him for all the work he has done on 117 acres he shares with four other owners.

Erickson bought into the land in 1970, and the limited co-op decided to keep most of the property in wooded space. The next year was an eye-opener.

“We had a 16-acre fire here that started on Labor Day,” Erickson said. “We felt terrible about it, but we’ve learned a tremendous amount from that burn.”

Erickson and his fellow landowners built their houses from the salvage timber left from the burn and replanted the burned pines. The oak came back by itself, and today, there is no sign of the fire and the landowners have had to thin it, just like they have along the road leading into the property.

“We started to tie our property in with what was around us,” Erickson said, which includes Bureau of Land Management land, Tahoe National Forest and fuel breaks. They were looking to improve habitat and stop runaway wildfire in hopes of restoring fire to the ecosystem one day, and they are close.

Erickson and the other landowners heat their homes with the wood they clear, and Erickson uses it in his job as “a professional chairmaker.” He dries the wood in a solar kiln built back in the late 1970s.

“I think the solar wood-drying kiln is creatively using local materials,” Erickson said.

Erickson will not call himself an artist, but he will accept it if you call him a craftsman. He and several employees build chairs and other wood furniture with woods from all over the world.

From his land he uses madrone, black oak and pine. His work can be seen in the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery across the street from the White House, the Yale University Art Gallery, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and in other facilities that recognize old-fashioned furniture making as much more than mass production.

In addition to cutting selected trees for conservation purposes, Erickson and friends built a pond, which he says has attracted “both mountain quail and California quail.” Their efforts have also maintained spotted owl habitat and homes for pileated woodpeckers.

Erickson did an informal survey of snags and other trees on the property, looking for habitat, and learned to leave 90 percent of the snags. He also figured out that the owls and woodpeckers preferred “ponderosa pine, some dead madrone and these funky old oaks, so we’re not as careful with the Douglas fir. We had a spotted owl last week.”

Besides trees, Erickson keeps Scotch broom off the land with a special pulling device so that it doesn’t spread.

“We clear the land together,” Erickson said of fellow landowners. The five houses are clustered on purpose to maximize open space, and there is a spirit of cooperation.

Although he was proud to win the award as acknowledgment of his work, “I felt it was more of a community interest” that won it.

The resource conservation district’s programs have helped immensely, Erickson said, and neighbors have taken advantage of them. “They’ve inspired us to put our money where our mouth is.”


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