Mendocino County owns 57 acres of “productive timberland” near Little River Airport on the Coast. The property was profitably logged back in 1996 during the “cut and run” days as Louisiana-Pacific and Georgia-Pacific finished decimating their vast Mendo timber holdings, soon selling their blitzed acres to the Fisher family (owners of The Gap clothing empire) and the Washington State Employee Pension Fund, respectively. Back then there was still a lucrative market for timber, and Mendocino County made several hundred thousand dollars while also removing some dead and diseased trees from the County's trees at Little River.
That mid-90s harvest was conducted under a conventional “Timber Harvest Plan.” But since then, in an attempt to save small property owners some paperwork and time, California came up with the Non-Industrial Timber Management Plan (NTMP), which is supposed to allow smaller timberland owners “to prepare a long term management plan that reduces regulatory time and expense by providing an alternative to filing individual timber harvesting plans. In exchange, landowners agree to manage their forests through uneven-aged management and long-term sustained yield.”
The mid-90s THP for the County property was prepared by a local forester, Steve Smith. Smith has been involved with County timber and related discussions for decades now. Applying the theoretically pared down standards of the non-industrial plan approach to the County's modest holding, Smith prepared one for Little River Airport. Everyone hoped that the County could make some money by sustainably harvesting a few Little River trees every ten years or so.
But by the time 2006-2007 rolled around the timber market had begun to decline; more and more lumber was being imported from Canada, and then it collapsed altogether in the Great Recession of 2008-2009. In the intervening years some of the fir at Little River has aged to the point that the yield of marketable timber has declined.
Nevertheless, County officials continued to limp along trying to get a “Notice Of Timber Operations” approved by the various government agencies involved — which in the case of Little River includes Caltrans because the Little River Airport operates under Caltrans rules and trees can represent an aeronautical hazard, can't they?
Until recently, the Little River Airport Logging planning was loosely assigned to the County’s now defunct “Forest Advisory Committee,” which issued occasional reports on the status of the Little River mini-forest. The County’s two primary forestry experts, UC Extension Advisor Greg Giusti and the still-involved forester Steve Smith were consulted on plans and directions.
Then last year, in attempt to get serious about snagging some new revenue for the County’s depleted coffers, the County turned the project over to County CEO Carmel Angelo who turned it over to the County’s General Services Director Kristin McMenomey who was expected to push through the various contracts and timber harvest paperwork and then hire a logging operator.
But the process has become bogged down in layers of bureaucracy and agency approvals that no one at the County level was prepared for, especially Ms. McMenomey who bluntly admitted at the July 30 Board of Supervisors meeting, “I am not a forester.”
Late last month Ms. McMenomey reported, “The Board of Supervisors directed the Little River Timber Harvest be referred to the CEO’s office for a potential harvest in 2013. The direction from the Board was to have the CEO bring back the item to the full Board to hear Mr. Greg Guisti give his expertise on the subject. Due to Mr. Guisti’s availability (he was out of the Country for three months) to make such a presentation as well as the availability of the Board’s calendar at the end of the year, the decision was made to move forward with a Request for Qualifications (RFQ) to get the process started [again] and the CEO would utilize her CEO Report to keep the Board of Supervisors updated.
“The General Services Agency (GSA) received this project on November 7, 2012 and immediately met with Greg Guisti and Steve Dunnicliff (previous project coordinator) to obtain an update on the status of the Harvest. GSA began work with Greg Guisti to create a Request for Qualifications for a Forester so as to hopefully begin a harvest in 2013. GSA issued the RFQ on April 5, 2013 and a contract was executed on June 24, 2013 [with a local coastal conservation oriented forester named Roger Sternberg].
“Subsequent to the contract being executed, the forester immediately began contacting the [California] Department of Fish and Wildlife (DFW), US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and CalFire to determine whether or not these agencies would accept the following previous studies completed on the site:
“• Marbled Murrelet (MAMU) surveys completed in 2008 and 2009
“• Northern Spotted Owl surveys completed by MRC in 2010- 013
“On July 10th, the forester and a consulting wildlife biologist met with DFW to make the case that no additional Marbled Murrelet surveys were necessary. DFW was willing to not require additional surveys, however they wanted the County to designate five to six acres as a no-cut area and establish a 300-foot buffer, constituting a total of eight acres, in which harvesting would need to be approved by DFW. (This position was based on a site visit conducted by DFW staff in 2007.) A total of 14 acres of the property would likely be impacted, representing 25% of the NTMP area and 30% of the Redwood-Douglas-Fir stand. This could potentially result in a major impact on the amount of timber that could be harvested and the income that could be generated for the County. The decision was made to conduct two years of surveys (this year and next year) which should enable the County to harvest greater levels of timber in 2014 or potentially sell the rights to this timber to an organization like Save-The-Redwoods League — something that Linda Perkins from the Sierra Club has proposed.”
And on and on, all for a few logs off 57 acres.
Out of this confused mire, the Supervisors arose to receive the bad news that they could forget a “revenue stream” flowing their way out of Little River.
Pinches: “I was under the impression that CalFire was the lead agency when it comes to timber harvest plans, especially a Non-Industrial Timber Management Plan which we have on that site. But in reading this memo from Kristin [quoted above] it basically says that our forester who was hired started the meeting by contacting US Fish and Wildlife and CalFire. But it says that the US Fish and Wildlife service was not willing — they required more additional surveys on the marbled murrelet but they wanted us to designate five or six acres of no-cut area and establish a 300-foot buffer consisting of eight acres. Basically they are just cutting the heart out of our NTMP.
Supervisor Carre Brown: “It's called extortion.”
Pinches: “So yes, we have an approved NTMP; we have to go by the new protocols on the biological surveys. But it's like, yes, we will let you harvest a few trees but leave the heart out. Maybe using the word ‘fight’ is the wrong word, but we need to stand up for ourselves on this. If that should be left out of the harvest area than it should have been left out of the NTMP! I don't see where things have changed to the point since we adopted this NTMP which we spent a lot of money on. It's like, [Supervisor] Carre [Brown] just said it, it's kind of like they're extorting us. We need a forester who will stand up to this!”
McMenomey: “What we had was you had the forester come back to me after meeting with CalFire. I listed out the agencies, I didn't list them out in the order of whom he met with first, but he met with basically everybody in the first week.”
Pinches: “CalFire is the lead agency, right?”
McMenomey: “Yes. And they are requiring the marbled murelet surveys to be re-conducted because our last surveys have expired. So, when approaching Fish and Game-Wildlife to try and negotiate, if you will, doing so many right now and so many per season because we are already too far behind to conduct everything now, they said, We will agree to, you know, fewer surveys if you agree to basically set aside, what is it?, about 14 acres or something like that? I just told the forester that that is not in accordance with the NTMP and that the answer was No, we were not going to do that. So instead we are going to conduct the surveys and we are just going to — we were already able to squeeze a couple in and we are just going to move forward and conduct the surveys in hopes that we will have all the results and we can go ahead and harvest in 2014. We should know — we also — there is an update to this, another hooting, a hooting [owl surveys], if you will, was conducted, so there have been two of the three, and both have shown no results which is good [no owls is good?], so we have one more to go on the hooting before we are finished with that.”
Pinches: “What is your projected total cost to do this, to hire this new forester to bring our NTMP up to speed to where we can harvest timber?”
McMenomey: “At this point, what we did is we entered into a contract not to exceed $20,000. So we are doing everything we can with the assistance of Greg Giusti and some other experts who are willing to donate their time.”
Pinches: “You expect the contract with the forester not to exceed $20,000. But does that include the biological surveys?”
McMenomey: “That's everything.”
Pinches: “That's everything?”
McMenomey: “That's everything. That's all the hooting, that's everything. He hires the sub-consultants under his limit with the county.”
(An owl survey is a kid fresh out of UC Davis walking around the woods in the middle of the night hooting like an owl. If something — or somebody? — hoots back, he counts that as an owl. If the owl doubles back behind him and hoots again, that's two owls. It's all scientific as hell.)
McCowen: “Is it correct that there was a competing proposal to perform the same work not to exceed $10,000?”
McMenomey: “There was a proposal of not to exceed $10,000 to complete the work. However, the plan of action to do so, you could not do that in accordance with our NTMP because we have surveys that have to be conducted and it was CalFire's call. And you can't possibly know CalFire's call until you meet with them. And they made the call. You have to redo your studies.”
McCowen: “Was everyone bidding on the same project?”
With this, Ms. McMenomey hedged.
McMenomey: “Everybody was bidding on the same project. It wasn't a bid. It was a request for qualifications.”
It “wasn’t a bid,” but it was for a not-to-exceed cost. Get it?
McMenomey continued: “And so we had a committee where they were all ranked and we had Steve Smith as our registered forest professional on the committee and myself and David Grimm and Greg Giusti did not rank any proposals. He was there as a resident forest expert if we had any questions. We ranked them separately. We got together in a conference room. And we had our top three. They were very clear who our top three qualifications were, based on the criteria that we were given. And so we looked at the top three and we did the scoring and summarized it and the top one came out and it was Mr. Sternberg.”
McCowen: “I guess I just have a comment. I'm kind of concerned that we've had this on the radar for a long time and we have known the issues and the surveys and so forth and the Board gave direction last November to move forward and it wasn't until five months later that the RFQ was issued and so here we are, we have missed this logging season.”
McMenomey: “We would have missed it anyway. We needed to start back in May of 2012 in order to harvest in 2013. So we missed the mark on that one. So…”
McCowen: “I've heard that before.”
Supervisor Dan Hamburg suddenly roused himself to ask, “What is— so I understand, we've got Dave Giusti engaged in this, Giusti, engaged in this?”
McMenomey: “Greg Giusti, yeah.”
Hamburg: “Excuse me, Greg Giusti.”
McMenomey: “He is engaged to assist me if I have some questions or need some guidance, as I am not a registered forester. He is. He is sort of the resident County expert when it comes to, when it comes to a point where, like, for example, in Fish and Game-Wildlife warning us to basically not harvest a major portion of that property which is not in accordance with the NTMP. I said, you know, I sent an email to him, I said, honestly, my feeling is, No. Is there is some issue here? And he was like, well, no; it should be in there; it's not in accordance with the NTMP. So he is sort of my double check if you will.”
Hamburg: “Okay. What about Steve Smith?”
McMenomey: “Steve Smith — I have utilized him in the past on the first time I did this which was many, many years ago and he is also a valuable resource and is very familiar and he has offered his services to our forester, you know, at, for free, basically, if he —”
And at this point the video of the Board meeting mysteriously hiccupped and the rest of the discussion was cut off. (The County’s videographing service is “looking into the problem.”)
But we have since gathered that the Board expressed some cautious concern about Ms. McMenomey’s selection process and whether she had selected the right forester or simply chosen someone familiar to the Smith-Giusti government forester axis to see if this now unbelievably convoluted process can ever be completed.
As the conversation in the Board room proceeded, and the Board became increasingly frustrated with the “coordination” costs being run up by Mr. Sternberg without much on-the-ground progress, Pinches wondered if Mr. Sternberg, who specializes in conservation easements, not actual logging, has a good handle on timber matters.
Back in 2011 the Board imposed an important condition on the project before they approved a contract with a logger: They required that a specific buyer (a mill, in other words) be lined up and committed with a firm purchase price for whatever logs were to be cut before any actual logging was done so the County can determine if the job is worth doing.
These days with so few mills left on the Northcoast, and many of them either far away (increasing trucking costs) or specializing in only certain kinds of logs and tree species, that sensible requirement will be hard to meet — and it hasn’t even come up in this latest round of buck passing and bureaucratic bickering.
With all the restrictions and delays and the clock running on the billable paperwork hours, the County will be lucky to make any profit on the job at all, if it even gets jobbed out.
At that point the County will be forced to deal with the question of selling what’s left of the timber rights to a local conservation organization or selling the 57 acres at a loss to someone with enough competence to actually do the job. Someone with competent forestry professionals and much deeper pockets — like the Airport’s neighbor: Mendocino Redwood Company. ¥¥