Little ol’ Mendocino County sure hit the big-time in the national press last week, didn't it? First, there was the front-page news feature on the Mendocino Redwood Company in Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal (2/23/00). This weekend, the New York Times Sunday Travel section (2/27/00) featured a Mendocino Coast package, with two long stories and a half-dozen photos.
The fine Wall Street Journal story was written by Paul Waldman, who spent some time in the county this winter. It features a sympathetic portrait of Linda Perkins and Bill Heil, who’ve “been saving trees for a decade” from their cabin above the Albion River. It quotes Branscomb mill owner Art Harwood as saying the Fisher family has “squandered an enormous amount of goodwill” in the year and half MRC has been here.
“They should have cleaned house and committed to certification immediately,” Harwood’s quote continues. “They were very naive.”
Harwood also tells Waldman the Fishers were “clueless” about what the real, loggable inventory was on the property when they bought it. “Sandy [Dean] thought he could cut 60 million board feet a year… We told him no way.” Nobody from the Fisher family would agree to be interviewed for his story, Waldman reports, but he, nonetheless, spends a good deal of time talking about the Fisher sons’ conflicting self-images as “environmentalists” and as successful businessmen. The story’s lead is an anecdote about an anti-logging, anti-MRC protest at the annual benefit dance in San Francisco for the Natural Resources Defense Council. Robert Fisher is on the NRDC’s board of directors, and the organization receives “major funding” from the Fisher family.
Waldman writes about a hike he took with MRC president Sandy Dean and MRC lead forester Mike Jani out to see what Dean called a “typical” 160-acre piece of MRC timberland. Each acre had less than 9,000 board feet of timber when MRC bought it, Waldman writes, with “more than half” of that wood in tan oaks and other non-marketable species.
Let’s do the math that MRC may not have done.
Averaging that “typical” 4,500 board feet an acre in conifers out over the total 230,000 acres MRC owns, you get 1.035 billion board feet. Two percent of that — MRC claims they’re logging at approximately 2% of inventory — is only 20.7 million board feet, not the 41.8 million MRC says it plans to take out — “sustainably” — each year in the next decade.
Of course, MRC is not logging evenly over the whole acreage. Dean acknowledges in the story that 45% of MRC’s annual harvest is coming from only 22% of its land — from the Albion, Greenwood, Elk and Alder Creek watersheds.
One of the most curious parts of Waldman’s story is the conversation he relates with Stan Renecker of the Campbell Group, who put together the deal to buy Georgia-Pacific’s Mendocino County lands for Hawthorne Timber Company last year.
Renecker tells Waldman the Campbell Group also bid on the L-P lands, but their offer was 25% less than the Fishers’. Campbell didn’t think L-P’s “harvest estimates” were reliable, Renecker said.
He also claims that if the Campbell bid for the L-P property had been successful, they were intending to “mollify neighbors” by “carving out conservation areas” in the watersheds where opposition to logging was the strongest.
Perhaps we can take this as a sign that the reason CDF is still stalling its final decision on G-P/Hawthorne’s “Skunk Train” logging plan is because Hawthorne is working out a deal behind the scenes to set up a conservation easement for the narrow strips of old growth still remaining along the train tracks?
If, in fact, the Fishers believed the L-P timberland was better stocked than it really was when they bought it, they’re apparently not alone. Pioneer Resources, an Oregon timber company, now owns the 64,000-acre Longview Tract and the 15,000-acre Willits Woods, both formerly owned by Rich Padula’s Coastal Forestlands. Pioneer had, on paper, “sold” itself and all its holdings to the New Hampshire-based Strategic Timber Trust several months after it bought these 79,000 acres from Padula in July 1998 (previously covered in these pages). But after the STT stock offering failed last summer — perhaps because word got around to the big, institutional investors that the timber inventory claimed in the stock prospectus was wildly over-inflated — the CFL lands reverted back to Pioneer.
A story in the 2/7/00 Independent Coast Observer by Julie Veran said that Pioneer forester Mike Bacca told a February meeting of the Gualala River Watershed Council that the timber inventory on the CFL property was “a little less than half of what they thought it was when they bought it.” Just what Pioneer thought the inventory was back then is a little unclear, but word is that the actual inventory doesn’t even measure up to CDF’s last report, which estimated an average of 4,000 board feet per acre in total conifers on the property, with only 1,000 board feet of that total in redwoods.
Considering that redwood is by far the most valuable of the conifers, it’s fair to say that whatever the correct inventory figures really are, there’s very little value in the current standing timber on the old CFL lands. Should CDF — or the registered professional foresters who signed off on the inflated inventory numbers presented in the long-term plans used by L-P and CFL as “sales documents” — be held responsible for misleading potential buyers?
It’s true, L-P’s “sustained yield plan” was never officially approved by CDF, although it certainly wasn’t laughed out of the office. It’s unfortunate that then-CDF director Richard Wilson wasn’t as critical of the state of the L-P lands back then as he is now. In the Wall Street Journal story, Waldman has Wilson describing Louisiana-Pacific’s 20 years in the county as “a rampage,” during which L-P was “cutting everything in sight.” Wilson also insists, however, that “if they’re patient enough to wait” for the forests to recover, the Fishers will eventually have “a tremendous resource.”
Coastal Forestlands’ original “Option A” plan was approved by CDF in May 1998, albeit conditionally, right before Padula sold his overlogged 79,000 acres to Pioneer. Despite some after-the-fact backtracking by CDF about just how “approved” the plan actually was, when Pioneer bought the property, it certainly seemed as though they were getting a long-term harvest document along with the acreage.
Forester Mark Edwards of North Coast Resource Management, who signed off on CFL’s 1998 Option A plan, certainly hasn’t been penalized for “incorrectly” estimating the timber inventory on the CFL lands. Neither has Mason, Bruce & Girard, the forestry consulting company who did the inventory estimates for the STT prospectus, as well as working on CFL’s 1998 plan.
Although county forester Steve Smith suggested back in October that the county’s Forest Council file a formal licensing complaint against Mason, Bruce & Girard for its “misrepresentations” in the stock prospectus, nothing’s been done so far.
Edwards actually bragged about the “fully reviewed and approved” Option A plan he put together for CFL on a resume he submitted to the Willits City Council last October, although he didn’t mention CFL by name. Edwards’ resume was part of a low-ball bid to do the next round of logging in the Willits watershed. And Edwards was awarded the contract, despite the false information on his resume — that “fully approved” plan had been declared “not valid” by CDF six months before Edwards sent in his Willits bid. The bottom line with the Option A plans is that they’re not sustained yield plans at all — and Mendocino County was promised SYPs by the timber companies and CDF — with county input — when its request for local logging rules was rejected back in December 1994. There are four local timber ownerships big enough to require long-term harvest plans: the publicly owned Jackson Demonstration State Forest, along with Mendocino Redwood Company, Hawthorne Timber Company, and Pioneer Resources.
JDSF’s Option A plan, as discussed here last week, would take out two-thirds of the old growth in the state forest over the next 100 years (from 27,000 acres down to 9,000). Pioneer’s Option A plan doesn’t really exist anymore — the old one has been disallowed, and the replacement plan didn’t make it in by the Dec. 31, 1999 deadline.
Not a great deal is known about Hawthorne Timber Company’s Option A plan. A 2/14/00 letter to the Forest Council from Tom Ray, still heading up G-P’s old Fort Bragg office (reportedly not for long), said the company was refusing to share its “confidential data” with the county. It is known that Hawthorne plans to log 85 million board feet of timber a year, 4.4% of its declared inventory, from the 194,000 acres it bought from G-P. That, of course, is more than twice what MRC plans to take. It’s generally agreed that the old G-P timberlands are better stocked than the old L-P lands — but not that much better stocked.
“This is far and away the most aggressive form of timber management in front of us,” forester Smith told Forest Council members at its February meeting two weeks ago.
“Approving this plan will be assigning this huge forest to perpetual depletion,” commented council member Henry Gundling. “It’ll never recover… The Board of Forestry made us these promises: ‘Not to worry,’ they said. ‘You’re going to have SYPs.’ And now, here we are five years later, and it’s as bad or worse as it ever was — at least in this instance.”
Forest Council member and 3rd District supervisor Tom Lucier asked for a report on Hawthorne’s plan to log old growth in the Skunk Train’s viewshed, originally submitted by G-P but still being pursued by the new owners. CDF representative Jim Wright said the plan “wasn’t finalized by any means,” and that CDF and other agencies were continuing to meet with the company to “hash out” their differences.
And finally, Mendocino Redwood Company. Its Option A, which is available to the public (see mendocinoredwoodco.com), calls for a 2% of inventory cut and a number of improvements in management practices. At the Forest Council meeting, Gundling called the plan “the most refreshing corporate document I’ve seen.”
This is all well and good — a 2% limit is what Mendocino County wanted to see in its local rules five years ago. Too bad we didn’t get it then. But considering that MRC forester Nancy Budge told the Forest Council straight out two weeks ago: “We don't have accurate ground-based [inventory] data,” just how meaningful is that 2% figure?
“We're going forward with a stand-based inventory analysis,” Budge said, but they expect this “complete reinventory” will take 18 months. She also, amusingly, conceded that MRC's promise to do a new, more accurate inventory was “just another promise.” And she added that: “with good reason, a lot of people don't believe what comes out of the mouth of industrial timber representatives.”
As former county assessor Duane Wells put it at the Forest Council meeting, no fancy new inventory methodology is going to change the fact that “80% of the volume is on 20% of the property — and everybody knows where that property is.”
MRC will never be able to call itself a truly “sustainable” timber company, if it continues to take so much of its annual harvest from the embattled coastal watersheds beloved by those who live there — and crucial to the recovery of the salmon.
If it can’t find 41.8 million board feet elsewhere on its property — well, that’s a shame, and it really is a shame. CDF officials — and our elected representatives in Sacramento and locally — should be ashamed of what they let happen on Mendocino County’s corporate timberlands over the last 20 years.
But MRC should bite the bullet and reduce its immediate expectations of making money off its battered Mendocino forests. The Fisher-owned Gap Inc. retail empire announced its “biggest expansion ever” on Friday last week. The chain plans to spend $1.6 billion in the next fiscal year to build 600 to 660 new stores and to beef up its computer systems. Next to that investment, the reported $230 million the Fishers spent on the L-P land — about $1,000 an acre — doesn’t seem that huge.
Will the Gap expect those new stores to make money while they’re being constructed? Of course not. And MRC should apply the same principle to its recovering forestlands.
“I think as a result of all the tremendous opposition they’re getting in the watersheds,” Gundling said last week, “the Fishers might want to reconsider their investment from a longer-time standpoint. That way the smaller trees on the ridges will have a chance to recover, and they can take it a little easier on the watersheds. Based on the historic evidence, as far as the price of redwood timber, they’re bound to come out way ahead in the long run.”
Forestry staff will be before the Board of Supervisors sometime in March, with a draft letter to the governor, the Board of Forestry and to CDF, complaining about the county’s lack of formal standing to review the Option A plans. And, as previously reported, CDF staff will be in the county on March 30 — in Ukiah and hopefully on the coast, too — to get public input on the agency’s Option A plan for the Jackson state forest.