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Mendo’s Timber Tentacles

It's been well over a decade since the grape-based alcohol sector first outpaced tree cutting as Mendocino County's dominant state-sanctioned economic sector. This watershed moment — a product of many decades of changes in both global and regional economic structures, which saw the appetite for California premium wines spread across the globe — occurred in 2001. Mendo wine grapes netted revenue of $87.6 million that year; timber, $80.1 million.

The wine industry, along with the big lending institutions that underwrite a considerable share of its activities, such as Wells Fargo (the United States' leading agricultural lender among commercial banks) and Bank of America (the fourth leading agricultural lender), have only continued to steer their vast financial resources into corduroy-like grape rows, such as those that increasingly suckle at the banks of the waterways in the Upper Russian and Navarro Rivers.

In 2012, the last year for which data is available, Mendo wine grapes posted their highest-ever revenue total.

When it comes to overall command of the regional economy, though, timber remains the furthest thing from a slouch. The year 2012 was the most productive that Mendo's timber firms have enjoyed in over a decade. They harvested 121,850,000 board feet and reaped $71,587,951 in revenue. Moreover, they continued the process of renewing the profitability of their lands (which were clear-cut in the '80s and '90s) by spraying several thousand pounds of the herbicide Imazapyr to kill off undesired hardwoods (most notably, tan oak trees) that have grown up in the empty canopy space. Even with mill closures and thousands of job losses, the North Coast’s redwood country has remained the richest timber producing region in California.

Timber's biggest local player is the sprawling Mendocino Redwood Company, owned by the San Francisco-based Fisher dynasty, of Gap stores fame. With holdings of roughly 350 square miles in Mendocino County alone, the Fishers — by way of MRC — are Mendocino County's largest private landowner. The Fishers also own 330 square miles of forest in Humboldt County. It is virtually impossible to traverse any significant portion of unprotected coastal redwood belt from Albion to Fort Bragg, or from Honey Dew to Eureka, without traversing the multi-billionaire Fisher family's timberland.

Given the extent of MRC's holdings, which also reflects the extent of the company's local political prominence, perhaps it's not surprising that the company has ended up at the center of Mendo's largest capital project in recent history: the California Department of Transportation's Willits Bypass.

In March 2013, Mendocino Redwood Company inked a contract with one of CalTrans' major construction contractors, DeSilva Gates Corporation, to act as the principal soil supplier for construction of the Willits Bypass northern interchange. As part of the agreement, CalTrans and its corporate contractors get to haul roughly 900,000 cubic yards — a veritable mountain's worth of soil — from MRC's Apache Mill site property north of Willits, then dump it on an area that forms the headwaters of Outlet Creek, a major tributary of the mainstem Eel River.

In turn, CalTrans is removing roughly 40% of the soil from an industrial zoned site, which MRC has acknowledged increases its usable area for future profitable activity there. Thus, MRC — which positions itself as an environmentally friendly departure from Mendo's cut-and-run timber firms of the past — is helping to enable the most extensive conversion of wetlands to asphalt in Northern California's recent history.

That brings us to the case Willits Environmental Center & Keep the Code v. Mendocino County & Mendocino Forest Products, LLC (MRC's subsidiary), which was heard on Wednesday, August 20th at the Mendocino County Superior Courthouse in Ukiah, Judge Cindee Mayfield presiding. The environmental groups and their allied Pomo supporters have filed the suit as a last-ditch effort to forestall the filling of the Little Lake wetlands, thereby keeping alive the possibility that CalTrans' planned north interchange may yet be canceled by an outside political entity, looking to make hay out of scuttling an arbitrarily massive freeway structure that would handle less traffic than, for example, Talmage Road east of Highway 101.

As an illustration of the timber industry's local tentacles, let's review the players involved in the suit. The mill site in question is owned by Mendocino Redwood Company. The attorney for the plaintiffs is one Jim King, a former Mendocino County Superior Court judge who now works full-time for Mendocino Redwood Company (King, as opposed to Mendocino County Counsel's office, has done the legwork on this case). The judge who ruled on the case is a former attorney for Louisiana Pacific Lumber Company whose former lands now comprise the majority of Mendocino Redwood Company's holdings.

A more partial subsidiary of the Fisher clan, but one nevertheless notable in this context, is US Rep. Jared Huffman. As I noted in the AVA last month, the Fishers are collectively among Mr. Huffman's largest career donors, having chipped in $10,000 to his 2012 campaign for Congress alone.

Huffman is the individual most singularly responsible for said case's timing and political context. After the US Army Corps of Engineers suspended construction on most of the Willits Bypass earlier this summer, Huffman and fellow US Rep Mike Thompson applied pressure on the Army Corps to cut CalTrans some slack. In response, the Corps abruptly lifted the suspension, even though CalTrans agreed to do exceptionally little to redress the violations that led to the suspension in the first place.

So, when the plaintiffs came before Judge Mayfield requesting a temporary restraining order that would prevent CalTrans' contractor from excavating, hauling, and dumping this massive quantity of mill site soil until their lawsuit is heard in full, there was plenty of reason to believe she would instead deal the enviros what likely amounted to a final defeat.

Instead, Mayfield granted the temporary restraining order.

Although Mayfield ruled (somewhat nonsensically) that CalTrans' contractor can proceed with clear-cutting ten acres of forest on the mill site land, she forbade any soil excavation. She then asked both sides in the lawsuit to present arguments on September 8 to determine whether the restraining order will remain in place.

The WEC, Keep the Code, et al. lawsuit, which is supported by Save Our Little Lake Valley and the Coyote Valley Band of Pomo Indians (whose members have ancestral sites in the Bypass construction areas), centers on whether the County of Mendocino followed the California Environmental Quality Act in granting the CalTrans and DeSilva-Gates the permit to excavate the soil. It alleges the county failed to require an analysis of impacts associated with land scarring, conversion of timberlands to non-forest use, impacts to fish habitat, traffic impact, Brooktrails emergency evacuation plans, traffic and greenhouse gases.

In an effort to demonstrate that excavating 900,000 cubic yards of soil (tens of thousands of truckloads) from an old mill site would have “no significant environmental impact,” Mendocino Redwood Company (by way of its subsidiary, Mendocino Forest Products) hired “environmental engineering” firm SHN Engineering of Eureka. The company's initials come from its three founders: John Selvage, Tom Herman, and Ken Nelson.

As a reflection of this firm's strong political ties, former California Governor Gray Davis nominated Mr. Selvage to the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board in 2001. A few weeks later, Mr. Selvage gained the distinction of being perhaps the only person ever nominated to said board who stepped down rather than face questioning by the California State Legislature concerning his ties to — you guessed it — the North Coast timber industry.

No doubt heartened by the prospect that Willits Bypass construction would soon begin, SHN opened an office on Main St. in Willits in 2010. One of their three founders, Mr. Herman, heads up the company's Willits operation.

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