From the massive landed estates of Roman antiquity known as latifundias, to those of modern-day Latin America, to the railroad, wheat, timber and cattle barons who controlled vast portions of California following the Gold Rush, obscenely wealthy people have amassed huge concentrations of land in both feudal and capitalist societies. From this vast inequality comes environmental despoliation and great injustice.
Mendocino County, in the year 2012, is no exception to the historical rule.
Mendocino Redwood Company, or MRC, is Mendocino County's largest largest landholder. No other company or individual comes close. The logging firm owns 227,000 acres of redwoods and mixed conifers throughout the county's western half. Much of this veritable latifundia stretches across the vast mountainous expanses southwest of Willits to northeast of Point Arena. It also includes a handful of other large swaths located east of Rockport, north of Willits, and south of Point Arena. In all, MRC owns roughly 10 percent of private land in our vast county. It also owns acreage in western Sonoma County.
To say that MRC owns this vastness is to say indirectly that one of the wealthiest dynasties on the West Coast, the Fisher family of San Francisco, actually owns it. Altogether, the Fishers are worth an estimated $9 billion. One of the private equity firms of which the Fishers are majority owners, named Sansome Partners, is MRC's parent company.
The Fishers made their initial fortune by speculating in real estate, then reinvested a portion of those riches to create a retail clothing chain called The Gap. The company grew to be one of the biggest clothing chains in the US, with spin-offs that include Old Navy and Banana Republic. However, real estate remains the foundation of the Fishers' economic empire. Fittingly, the Fisher Center For Real Estate and Urban Economics, a mostly privately funded and notoriously elitist wing of UC Berkeley's prestigious Haas School of Business, was endowed by family patriarch Donald Fisher in the early-2000s. Notably, a couple of major subjects of past AVA investigations — Richard Blum and Richard Wollack of Premier Pacific Vineyards — are on the Fisher Center board of advisors.
The Fishers formed Mendocino Redwood Company in 1998 when they purchased roughly 60,000 acres in the Navarro River watershed and in the Albion area from Louisiana Pacific Corporation. Image was crucial at the time. Sweatshop labor in overseas factories had become a topic of popular concern. The Gap had been widely exposed for operating an archipelago of sweatshops throughout the Global South where men and women as young as nine years-old toiled for 16 hours a day at basement wages, in utterly deplorable and often highly abusive conditions.
Soon after purchasing most of Mendocino County's prime timberland, MRC's leadership announced they would practice restoration logging and manage their land in such a way as to bring back the ecological balance of the creeks, streams, vegetation, and wildlife. According to a January 2011 fact sheet on the company's web site, for example, the firm aims “to demonstrate it is possible to manage productive forestlands with a high standard of environmental stewardship, and also operate a successful business.”
Yet, in light of many of MRC's practices, it's worth asking what, exactly, the company means by “environmental stewardship.” From its inception, the logging corporation has used massive amounts of the deadly herbicide Imazapyr. According to MRC's own web site, its personnel squirted 50,352 pounds of this highly concentrated toxin into the forests it manages between 1999 and 2011. The herbicide is commonly used as part of a widespread modern forestry practiced called “hack-and-squirt,” which involves making a series of downward cuts in a tree, leaving the chips, and immediately applying herbicide into the cuts. The undesirable tree quickly dies, is left standing, and eventually rots back into the earth.
Imazapyr is the chemical Mendocino County's timber industry use most abundantly, by far. According to California Department of Pesticide Regulation data, Mendo's logging outfits used 5,886 pounds of the destructive chemical in 2010. These applications covered 9,032 acres of forest, with most of that acreage no doubt being on MRC land.
Hack-and-squirt's primary target in Mendo tan oak, an evergreen tree that plays a vital ecological role in the forests throughout the California Coast Range, in southwest Oregon, and in the Sierra Nevadas. The timber firms want to eliminate tan oak, however, because it is not marketable, and they tend to do so in the most economically efficient way possible. When it comes to herbicide use, then, “running a highly successful business” trumps “high standards of environmental stewardship,” MRC's “stated purpose” aside.
What is Imazapyr, exactly? It's a non-selective broad-spectrum systemic herbicide, meaning it is not particular about what it kills. Its primary uses in the U.S. are for vegetation control in forests and rights-of-way.
A Fall 1996 article in the Journal of Pesticide Reform, written by Carol Cox, notes that
“Adverse effects found in laboratory animals after chronic exposure to imazapyr include the following: fluid accumulation in the lungs of female mice, kidney cysts in male mice, abnormal blood formation in the spleen of female rats, an increase in the number of brain and thyroid cancers in male rats, and an increase in the number of tumors and cancers of the adrenal gland in female rats.”
Additionally, the herbicide can cause plant damage at levels too low to be detected by standard testing. Those who irrigate food crops or use ground water supplies may thus be impacted by persistent presence of Imazapyr in the environment.
In a 1997 study published by the journal Weed Research, RW McDowell and others found that heavy rainfall causes significant transport of Imazapyr, which binds to sediment particles that prevent it from degrading as quickly. The chemical readily desorbs, meaning it readily disperses downstream when carried by said sediment. Notably, the European Union banned the chemical in 2003.
Next week, I'll publish a lengthier piece on Imazapyr's specific health effects here in Mendocino County and on those who are resisting it, also looking more broadly at MRC's logging practices. For now, though, its worth providing some more historical context on how MRC came to control such a large area of Mendocino County and, by extension, have the ability to impact the lives and livelihoods of so many people merely through its land management practices.
MRC purchased much of its present land from Louisiana Pacific, a notorious cut-and-run outfit that laid waste to vast amounts of forestland. LP's approach was epitomized, rather famously, by its former chairman, Harry Merlo, who stated, “It always annoys me to leave anything on the ground when we log our own land. We don’t log to a 10-inch top, we don’t log to an 8-inch top or a 6-inch top. We log to infinity. It’s out there, it’s ours, and we want it all. Now.”
A key to understanding the Mendo timber industry in historical and sociological perspective, however, is to attend to the role of San Francisco as the dominant capitalist city lying at the center of California's extractive economy. The Fishers, after all, are based in San Fran. The great city, as geographer Gray Brechin described it in his wonderful and definitive book Imperial San Francisco, is where California's commerce and industry were born in the 1850s. As the capitalist markets expanded, SF developed a surrounding archipelago of towns that acted in a cooperative but subordinate role, including most of Mendocino County, serving essentially as colonies in unequal market-exchange relations, and allowing the city to drain the wealth and resources of the less advanced areas.
The greatest among San Francisco's largest corporate concerns of the early-20th century, Southern Pacific Railroad, owned more than 20,000 acres of Albion timberland and 40,000 in the Navarro River drainage. In 1948, Chicago-based Masonite Corporation purchased this land. In order to access the old-growth that remained on it, the company constructed the Masonite Road from Ukiah to Navarro, one of the largest private road projects in the history of the country. Masonite hired Utah Construction Company, one of San Francisco's largest construction companies at the time, to carry out the project.
The sand and gravel to construct the road came directly from the Russian River. The production In 1950, 254,413 short tons of sand and gravel, were extracted. Gravel from the Russian River streambeds was used for concrete construction and for building and repairing roads — the Masonite Road being chief among them. It supplied the entire Bay Area. The river was hugely exploited.
Was the toll on the Russian River worth it? Logging has laid waste to Mendocino County's forests, fracturing watershed after watershed, greatly exacerbating global climate change, and despoiling wildlife habitat. Only three percent of old growth redwoods remain. The Russian River has been battered by a combination of logging, mining, and industrial agriculture — mainly water-thirsty vineyards. There are few jobs left in the fishing and logging industries.
MRC claims its practices are a departure from this traumatic past. Sadly, that does not actually appear to be the case in any truly meaningful sense. Meanwhile, though, increasing numbers of people are standing up against MRC's practices, and particularly its use of Imazapyr — as I'll describe in detail here next week.
As the great Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano put it in the third part of his trilogy The Memory of Fire, regarding the history of Latin America, as part of a section entitled “The Latifundio Multiplies Mouths But Not Bread…The simultaneous process of concentration and atomization of the land continues olympically in most of the countries. Nevertheless, exceptions are beginning to break through. Countryside is not merely a seed bed of poverty: it is also a seed bed of rebellion, and acute social tensions often lie concealed behind the apparent resignation of the masses.”