Back on December 10th, the Mendocino Supervisors invited Mendocino Redwoods executives to discuss their Habitat Conservation Plan. The plan covers 80 years and would bind the government but not the company to its stipulations once it's approved by the Department of Forestry. Few local environmentalists have commented on the plan, but the few who have say it's too many pages, too confusing, too internally contradictory, and that it will be the law for most of the rest of the century.
Supervisor Hamburg tossed a few lob-balls at Mike Jani, MRC’s President: “Can you address the issue of incidental take? The information I got is that there are 11 animals, 33 plant species which will be 'takes' under the Endangered Species Act as a result of this plan being implemented.”
Jani replied: “This was a point that came up in our previous public scoping. ‘Take’ as defined by the government can mean many things. Certainly the death of an endangered species is one form of take. But that's actually prohibited by law. Most of the take that is analyzed in our plan is involved in the monitoring and that aspect of the plan. Any time you go out and call a spotted owl or our fisheries biologists dive into rivers and do fish lenses where we look at them and do the fish tracking to get census counts that is also considered a take. So the bulk of the take involved in this plan is around our scientific collection…”
Hamburg: “So it's mostly disturbance?”
“Okay,” replied Hamburg, and that was that from him.
Supervisor Carre Brown was delighted that Jani had even deigned to appear, apparently unmindful that Mendocino Redwood, owned by the Fisher family of San Francisco, also owns a huge part of Mendocino County flora and fauna.
Jani replied to Mrs. Brown's effusive greeting, “It's kind of nice to be back before you again.”
Supervisor John McCowen seemed eager to help Jani explain himself. “Part of the 80 year horizon … I believe is you are intending to return to more of a stalled economy so that over time the trees that you harvest are going to be larger than the small diameter tree that makes out the great majority of what's currently being harvested. Is that accurate?”
Jani, of course, agreed: “That is accurate. In two ways. One, as part of the uneven age management that we do on the property, you are always harvesting some small trees and trying to adjust your density and thin to have a well distributed stand... We believe that slowing the growth down a little bit on the trees and having more heartwood products serves the long-term business interests of our company.”
McCowen, after some forest-techno talk, summarized: “And again a return to the saw log economy where the trees you harvest will have the characteristics people traditionally associate with redwood… And then the impact of that to your mill which currently it is set up to process less than 24 inches or less, do you have in mind that at some point you are going to retool that mill and if so when would that come into the picture?”
Jani: “We are getting to that place and time right now as a matter of fact, even in the ten years of managing in the way that we have. We are finding more and more of our volume we are having to move across to our next-door neighbors at Agwood who does custom sawing for us and is coming back into the program. It's been helpful for them. But at some point we are going to have to make some changes to our Ukiah mill to handle larger logs. That's been put on the shelf obviously since the collapse of the world economy in 2008. But modifications — even today — that we are doing at the mill are getting ready for that point. We don't have a date certain yet. As long as we have Agwood right there next to us that has been a marriage made in heaven. I guess the point would be at some point if they decide that they don't want to do that then that would stimulate us into maybe making a decision faster. But right now that's working.”
The only person in the room who asked a substantive question was Mike Kalantarian of Navarro.
Kalantarian: “I would like to ask the foresters here if there is anything in the plan about herbicide use?”
McCowen officiously and unnecessarily inserted himself between Kalantarian and Jani. “Please address it to us and then we can get a response.”
Kalantarian: “Okay. I was wondering if there is anything in the plan about herbicide use?”
McCowen: “Okay. Thank you. Do you have any other comments you’d like to make before we go back to them?”
Kalantarian: “Can I get an answer before I continue?”
McCowen: “Well, that’s generally not how we do it. So this is your opportunity to comment.”
Kalantarian: “All right. I’m just really disgusted by the amount of herbicide that this company as been pouring into our environment over 13 years of existence. I understand their reasoning for it, basically that hardwoods have taken over the forest from the heavy logging that occurred before them. I would just like to see them use other means to manage their tanoak and madrone primarily, which is what they’re going after. Something besides herbicide use. I think there are many other options. I understand from them that they feel like economically this is their best route. But I think there are some other considerations that are more important than economics sometimes and this would be a case. I applaud their efforts as far as habitat restoration, looking out for other species and so forth, but I think they could go a long way by stopping the herbicide use. I think it would help a lot of plants and animals by stopping that. There are other considerations. I am very concerned about the standing deadwood that is left after — the sense that I get that at the rate of something like 5,000 acres a year are standing deadwood; they are adding to that every year and it takes years for the standing deadwood to die off so there is quite a fire danger out there. It seems like they are really increasing the fire danger by having all this standing deadwood out there in the forest. An interesting fact that I came across in researching this was the Lightning Complex fires that happened in 2008, almost half of the acreage that burned in Mendocino County was on MRC land. They own 10% of the acreage in Mendocino County so to me that seems like they were extremely unlucky or are all of this lightning striking was hitting these areas of dead trees and really taking off. Fires were starting and running through all these dead trees.”
McCowen: “We would appreciate a response to the comments we have just heard.”
MRC’s Forest Operations honcho John Ramaley: “Thank you for the comments. We appreciate your input. We have been involved in discussions with —”
McCowen: “And again please address yourself to the board.”
Ramaley: “Sorry. We have had discussions with community members over our herbicide program now for 14 years. As far as the long-term plan that we presented to you, the herbicide use is not called a covered activity. It’s not a covered activity under the Habitat Conservation Plan. That means that we are not allowed to incidentally take a species using herbicides. They are analyzed in the PTEIR [Program Timberland Environmental Impact Report] and the EIS [Environmental Impact Report], however they are not part of the HCP. He had a number of questions actually. As far as the Forest Stewardship Council, we can use herbicides, only select herbicides that the FSC allows us to use for restoration purposes only. Once a forest has gone through that treatment there is no allowance to continue to use these. It’s like you might use in an even-age management regime. When the fires in 2008 hit, I managed the timberlands in Navarro, none of the fires I think — the Flynn Fire was not in an area that was treated. The Low Gap and McCarthy fire was not. There was a small fire in Daugherty Creek where half of that had been treated. So if you look at where our property was, then you look at how Campbell timberland also fared during the Lighting Complex, we just got hammered and it hit our South Coast area and went through our Navarro and hit our Rockport stands and it largely left our Big River and Noyo tracts alone. A lot of that was just unlucky circumstances. On the ground, I was involved with four or five fires in my area and only one was with an herbicide treatment. And there was really no difference from our perspective in how the fire reacted. We do know that there is standing dead timber. And there have been studies. UC Berkeley has done studies using our hack and squirt treatment as a surrogate to determine what happens with sudden oak death and how fire history may respond through areas that have large-scale sudden oak death. We take strides to notify our neighbors. I realize that from Mr. Kalantarian’s perspective — he was not near our property so we didn’t even know actually that anybody could see that particular property, so it was a shock to them that all of a sudden everything turned brown. That actually looks into the heart of our property along the Masonite Road. But if we are within 300 feet of a neighbor or if we are upstream of a neighbor we do notify them, 1000 feet upstream or within 300 feet of the property boundaries we do notify them that we are going to use herbicides. We have consistently modified how we apply herbicides near adjacent landowners. And we also consistently monitor our water for any herbicide residue. We have not had any detectable amounts since 2004 in any of the tests that we do.”
McCowen: “Could you repeat that please? You have not had —”
Ramaley: “We have not had any detectable amounts and we test to the parts per billion. We use a protocol that was developed by the State Water Resources Control Board. It was actually developed intentionally to try to maximize the amounts of detections we could get. That was to go to the first ephemeral stream after a rain that would create any sort of overland flow. We sent out probably five or six people to randomly selected areas just below treated units. We have not had any detectable amounts since 2004 and we test both our hack and squirt areas, our fuel treatments, and our foliar treatment areas. And the amounts that were detected previous to that were far within the safe drinking water standards. However we didn’t want that, we wanted nothing. And we have achieved that in the last eight years.”
Hamburg said to Ramaley: “Thank you, John.”
Apparently, as far as Hamburg and the Board are concerned, “random testing” without independent review or documentation is just fine. Whatever MRC wants to do or say is all they need…
McCowen: “To the fire danger issue. It would seem like in general immediately when you look at a hillside and half the trees are now dead, just without having a scientific basis, intuitively it would seem that that would increase deadwood which would increase fire danger at least in the short run. Your response for that?”
Ramaley: “It probably does. And that’s why we take measures within — we take measures with our adjacent landowners and we have a very active crew. There was a fire in Comptche this year and we opened up all the roads for CalFire and we supplied them with all the water. The fire actually just got to our property and stopped. We have our contractors. Everybody is on-call. We are kind of lucky in that we don’t live in an area that typically gets lightning. The lightning storm in 2008, and we had one in 2003 — those are the only two big storms I can remember on our coast area since I’ve been here in 1993. But yes, but the more dead wood you have — that is something that we are trying to work towards, trying to understand a little more because we do realize that we break up our harvest blocks and we have a lot of stream zones. However, it is still a work in progress.”
McCowen, not allowing Kalantarian any follow-up: “I think tanoak, however, decomposes fairly rapidly and it becomes something that helps build the soil?”
Ramaley: “Yes. A lot of our soil conditions from the— In the early 1900s they used to cut the trees down and they used to burn it to get the brush out and to get a lot of the bark loosened up and then they would log it. A lot of the organic material in our forest areas have been denuded. And that is where soil is created. So leaving standing dead material actually feeds the soil. Tanoak is a hardwood, it makes great flooring if you can treat it and set it on the ground. However it decomposes very fast, it turns into a sponge very quickly.”
McCowen: “Thank you very much for responding to those questions. So that will conclude our presentation on that. We thank chief forester Jani and forest operations manager Ramaley.”
The first-name chumminess between the Supervisors and the timber company representatives doesn't bode well for a locked-in, 80-year management plan. And the Board’s pompous requirement that the public address questions and comments to the Board while the guy answering the questions is standing there has some major drawbacks. The key part of Kalantarian’s comment was “I think there are many other options” to herbicide use. At no time did MRC address options to herbicides. The Supervisors who chose to speak to the herbicide issue seemed more interested in helping MRC justify what they were doing than exploring non-poison methods of hardwood removal. Why can’t they bring in firewood crews with permits and let people cut down the hardwoods and take some of it away? This would provide jobs, firewood, help the local economy and still leave most of the unpoisoned downed hardwood on the forest floor to rebuild the soil without poisons and without having to worry about water quality or water quality testing.
The discussion (or lack thereof) also highlighted how little the area’s environmentalists seem to pay attention to the area’s forestry and practices these days — a huge change since the days of Earth First! and Timber Wars and shouting matches and disputatious weekly meetings of various opposing groups. No one talked about the adequacy of MRC’s riparian zones. No one questioned whether MRC’s “random” poison monitoring is adequate. No one complained about MRC not providing technical or inventory information to the public beyond this one unwieldy Plan which doesn’t address herbicide use. No one demanded that they do more to leave old-growth in place (one of Supervisor Hamburg’s pet subjects from the 90s). Nowadays, it seems, very few people seem to care what the local timber companies are doing. Somewhere Ron Guenther, Helen Libeu and Judi Bari are shouting, “An 80-year-management plan? And you supervisors aren't even asking questions?”
That said, Jani and Ramaley aren't Harry Merlo. They're reasonable people who will answer questions from the pesky public when asked, and MRC has worked restorative miracles on their property, restored roads that needed restoring and does seem to be better than L-P. But just because MRC isn't Louisiana-Pacific, that shouldn't mean they get a total pass on an 80-year timber management plan.
* * *
When the Board of Supervisors discussed adding a new discounted retirement tier for new employees on Tuesday, December 11, Supervisor John McCowen asked Pension Manager Rich White (the regal former Orange County Sheriff's Sergeant who runs the County's pension system) what kind of return on their stock market investments the pension fund would need to get themselves out of their $130 million-plus hole? White, paid $130k plus the usual array of fringes undreamed of by most Americans, repeatedly found ways to say nothing by way of response, forcing McCowen to answer his own questions.
McCowen: “At our last discussion of this I seem to recall that you had projections of what the anticipated rate of return would be for the future. I know we have our assumption that gets built into the formula which is based on — we are assuming 7.75% rate of return currently. But did you have some projections, the assumption notwithstanding, what we thought reality would hold for us in say the next five years?”
White: “I don't think so, Mr. Chair.”
McCowen: “I thought you had a list of percentages that you read off and they were, you know, 2.5%, 2% —”
White: “I don't think we did any forecasting as far as what the economy is going to do going forward and what our projected rates of return are going forward. I think we may have done some modeling with, if we made this, or if the economy did this, this is what it would look like, but I don't think we made any projections of what the economy or what the market would return to us in the future. If we did, I don't remember it.
Supervisor John Pinches: “If Richard [White] can make those accurate projections, five years into the future, he sure as hell wouldn't be working here.”
White, wit to the fore: “You'd still be a friend of mine and we would share that.”
McCowen: “But the reality is that if we don't— if the return on if the return on investment isn't a minimum 7.75% plus a 1% contingency plus the amount to cover the administrative costs then the unfunded liability increases.” (These fanciful, Madoff-quality figures are pure fantasy even in flush times.)
White: “I think that the information you received from the CEOs office is a very good discussion. You are right. The actuarial of assumed rate of return is set at 7.75%. That's the interest rate that we assume that we are going to earn going forward. Those interest rates, the administration of the fund, is paid for from the returns that the trust fund generates. That was the first slide that Kyle [Knopp] showed you which is how the pension fund is funded. And then the benefits are paid from that. And as Kyle correctly told you if the assumption rate is not met then the plan sponsor, the County of Mendocino, is essentially on the hook for that difference. I would also point out that if it's more than that, I mean, these days, it's hard to see that that there is a light at the end of the economic tunnel, but the news — one of the things about the chart that Kyle put up there that you have in front of you showing the returns over the past 10 years is that the economy in the past 10 years has been just horrific. That chart starts in 2002 which is the.com bubble. We had Y2K before that which was devastating and which was hard on the markets. And then we had this, the greatest recession ever. So even though the, I think, the number that you use was 6.something over 10 years essentially, it is below our assumed rate of return, in some ways it was the most challenging 10 years of economic and market history that perhaps that we've had. I don't know that that's necessarily the case over decades. But the past 10 years has just been devastating to everybody from counties to individuals to pension funds trying to do what they do. So it's very difficult. But as you say, if the pension fund — and the point was if the pension fund makes more than 7.75%, the employer, the plan sponsor, benefits from that as well. Whereas the employees would not see any change in their contribution rate going forward.”
McCowen: “But right now our hole is about $125 million. So in the current environment, at least for the foreseeable future, my crystal ball doesn't tell me we're going to be making our assumed rate of return. I think a lot of the projections are that things are likely to be relatively flat perhaps for the next few years. So if that is how it develops then the greater the employer's contribution, the greater benefit we obligate ourselves to, then at least in the short run the greater the unfunded liability will grow.”
White: “I think that with new employees — part of the exercise you're going for is to see where the savings are going to occur. And we all know that the savings are going to occur sometime in the future because you have liabilities for your current employees that are not impacted by the actions that you are going to take today (with a new tier).”
McCowen: “Correct. But even in the short term there is an impact. It depends on how many employees you hire in part. But starting with the first employee you hire, we hire, there will be an impact. It may be incremental and it builds over time.”
White: “A new employee comes in without an unfunded liability. A brand-new employee. So when you hire someone new the calculations and the contribution rates which the board of retirement adopts is to fund the normal cost of that pension benefit so that you won't have an unfunded liability certainly for the first year. After a period of time if the assumptions that the retirement, the board of retirement has adopted, if those don't come true, then you may have an increase or decrease in the cost.”
McCowen: “Well if they don't come true, we will have an increase in the cost and we will then be building that unfunded liability when new employee by one new employee.”
* * *
Supervisor Pinches complimented the county's road crews for their extra work during the recent heavy rains. “There has been a significant change in the operation of the Department of Transportation this year. It used to be that when washouts happened we would go out there the next morning and apply for FEMA funding and get it fixed. But the Department of Transportation due to these storms kept some of our road crews out there 24 hours a day through the night, driving around to keep the culverts open and keep them from plugging up. That virtually amounted to, given the amount of rainfall we had in a short period of time, may have saved this county hundreds of thousands of dollars if not more. So it's really a change in the operations of the Department of Transportation. It's a lot to ask road workers to stay up all night. Before they used to get off after eight or ten hour shifts and go home. But it's really made a significant difference in these big storms. Thanks to them and thanks to Howard and the crews. It's a new way to do business but it is certainly paying off, especially since we took some of those transportation dollars.”
CEO Carmel Angelo in a churlish interjection: “Excuse me, but it was not Howard's dollars, it was county dollars.”
Pinches: “Well, we can argue about that.”
McCowen: “We probably will, too.”
* * *
McCowen updated the Board on the status of the Mental Health Court planning that began last August when the Board voted unanimously not to adopt Laura's Law as a way to deal with chronically, perhaps dangerously, mentally ill Mendolanders, many of them driven temporarily insane by methamphetamine.
“Along with Judge Moorman and Chief Probation Officer Brown and I and Mental Health Director Pinizotto and several other county partners all attended the Napa County mental health court to see first hand how that court operates. Supervisor Hamburg and I had a meeting last night with the mental health court committee and our folks are chomping at the bit to get this up and running. I don't know how quickly we will be able to achieve that. One of the key elements is who will provide case management? How will that be done? We do believe there are some county dollars within existing budgets that can be used for that. But whether it will be provided by county staff or by contractor or community partner which would be part of an RFP, what the exact qualifications of the person will be, etc. Those are all kind of still in discussion.”
Hamburg: “By the conclusion of the meeting Judge Moorman said that she hopes to have the program up and running by the end of January. We did get an offer from the Executive Director of Manzanita to provide us with some startup staff, a position that they actually call a navigator which is someone who takes on the client with the knowledge of the array of services that are available in the community in support of the judge and the district attorney and the public defender. The other thing I feel good about it is that unlike some of our other programs including the family dependency drug court program, the mental health court will start off with an equal amount of program on the coast as in the Ukiah Valley. So I think that's a very good thing and that's what we decided at the beginning and that seems to be what will actually come forward. So we are going to start really small, one or two first clients, a couple on the coast, a couple inland, and take it very slowly step-by-step. But it's a good process.”
* * *
Supervisor Pinches told the Board about the newly unearthed drawbacks associated with the conservation easements the area's wealthy landowners have taken advantage of to avoid taxes by promising not to do things on their land that they had no intention of doing anyway. Conservation easements for the undeserving have become a minor Mendocino County industry, with non-profits paying people (mostly lawyers) royally to do the paperwork. “At the Mendocino Council of Governments meeting earlier this month the discussion came up over conservation easements and so forth or buying land with easements and I was concerned about the cumulative effect over time. Sue Ranochak, the county assessor, who is on MCOG with us, brought up the fact that many Mendocino County— she is presently reviewing over $300 million worth of assessed valuations that will be removed from the tax base due to conservation easements. I just wanted people to know that. The cumulative effect over time of conservation easements, 63% of that tax money goes to schools, so our schools in Mendocino County are going to be deprived of about $1.8 million annually due to the conservation easements in the county. And the county general fund will also suffer the loss of just under $1 million every year. That's an annual increment of money we don't get anymore because of conservation easements. So I just wanted to bring up that there is a cost to these conservation easements, especially when it reduces the assessed valuation which they all do. Over time it really hurts our school funding and the Mendocino County General Fund by a significant amount. I didn't realize that the number was that huge until Sue Ranochak brought out that fact. But the cumulative effect of it is mounting into the millions and that costs our schools and our county every year.”
* * *
Supervisor Hamburg offered his view of the big meeting on the Coast a few weeks ago concerning the proposed cuts to the Ten Mile Court in Fort Bragg: “I think the most interesting thing that I attended recently was on a dark and stormy night when about 300 coastal citizens got together in the town hall building in Fort Bragg and presiding judge Richard Henderson was there with all of the rest of the Superior Court judges with the exception of Dave Nelson who was down in San Diego, but it was a really memorable event because we had all been hearing about the closure, not a complete closure of the Ten Mile court, but the closure of a significant amount of its activity, and this brought the coast together like no issue since offshore oil. I have never seen so many people. I'm surprised the fire marshal allowed them all to cram their way in. There were people out the door and listening along Main Street through Fort Bragg. And after Judge Henderson gave about a 20 minute description of why this cost-saving step was needed in order to save the Superior Courts he said that in fact he had stubbed his toe on this particular issue and was taking the whole thing back so there were some very happy people except that they had all been dragged out of their homes on a dark and stormy night.”
Supervisor Carre Brown: “I had jury duty on December 3rd and I actually got excused; however there were a lot of coastal people that got called over and drove all the way and were excused. They sat the jury and by the time they were getting to our jury pool they were not happy campers coming over and then just having to drive right back.”
Hamburg: “This issue brought a lot of people together in our county and of course the district attorney and the public defender.”
(The public defender was not involved in the issue at all, no one from the Public Defender's office made any public statement or appeared at the meeting.)
Pinches: “Since the Governor appointed two, filled two judgeships in Mendocino County does that mean that it adds to the overhead of about $350,000 a year? So is there any indication how they are going to meet their budget cuts with that?”
Hamburg: “The presiding judge of course explained that there is absolutely no relationship between those two additional positions and the fiscal problems of the court. You can believe that or not.”
Pinches: “How do they explain that one?”
Hamburg didn’t want to get into it. Judge Nelson is a long-time friend of Hamburg’s going back to when Nelson was Hamburg’s chief of staff while Hamburg was a congressman back in the mid-90s. “I will let Supervisor Smith talk about that if she wants to. [She didn’t, of course. As far as Smith is concerned, the taxpayers can never give local officials enough money.] “But I think what they're going to do is they are going to find the $60,000 that they said would be the savings from letting go of this court reporter from the overall administration of the courts rather than taking it all out of Ten Mile. And also I think the passage of Prop 30 may also have some positive effects.”
Pinches: “I thought that Prop 30 was supposed to go to our schools.”
Hamburg: “I think Prop 30 was for a lot of things. I think it was sold to the public as save our schools, but I think it had many aspects to it. So anyway, the upshot is that the Ten Mile court will continue to operate fully, however I think there was something really good that came out of it which is that the community really looked at, and I'm talking mostly about the legal community, really looked at the importance of that court to what they do as lawyers and to the overall operation of the justice system throughout Mendocino County. So I thought that was a good event.”