Tanoaks, Fire Dangers & MRC

The use of an herbicide (imazapyr) to kill tanoaks on timberlands was the immediate issue that brought out 120 Mendocino citizens to the March 5th meeting at the Comptche Community Center. Who wants to live with toxic substances in the immediate environment? As the meeting proceeded the issue of most concern that stood out became the dead tanoak stands on 87,000 acres of Mendocino Redwood Company timberlands. It is not simply a matter of the ‘visual impact’. Dead standing tanoaks present a high, many insist extreme, fire hazard to communities and to timberlands. The 2008 Mendocino Lightning Fire Complex has made a lot of people think about fire danger. Blame it on Global Warming, on increasing drought, on dry lightning, on carelessness. Once the fires were put out, most people hoped that things could get back to normal. For certain, timber operators wanted things to return to pre-fire status. Since 2008, once the fires died out, concern over the tens of thousands of dead and standing tanoak grew ever more focused. “Hack and squirt” operations continue on thousands of acres each year. Mendocino Redwood Company states that the practice is necessary, that in the longer term it will prove to be the best option available to it.

Because Mendocino Redwood Company has been the focus of concern, it is important to better understand their practices. Readers are encouraged to contact the company directly (www.mrc.com) or Sarah Billig, Stewardship Director at 707-463-5125 or Michael E. Jani, President and Chief Forester at 707-463-5114. Also, those interested in better understanding Timber Harvest Planning can contact MRC Forester Jesse Weaver to sign up for an upcoming Field Tour of a planned timber harvest area, THP#1-14-148, off Orr Spring Road (mile marker 21.85) scheduled for March 25th, at 9 AM. (Contact: jweaver@mendoco.com)

What follows is a brief summary of some of MRC’s publically stated positions regarding timber practices. MRC owns 224,000 acres of Mendocino County’s 1,000,000+ acres of timberlands. Although MRC is not the only timber operator in the county, MRC’s practices, size, and engagement with its neighbors very likely will influence how timber operations in the future are conducted.

When asked to describe the condition of the timberlands inherited by MRC in 1998, Mr. Jani responded in March 2015 as follows:

“MRC lands have had a long history of various types of harvesting, in some cases going back to 1850(out towards the coast). A good deal of clear-cutting occurred, and then at times, previous owners would make periodic harvests taking the bigger, more valuable trees, sometimes redwoods, sometimes Douglas fir, depending on market condition. Very seldom, was anything done with the Tanoak in the stands. It is a key hardwood species in these forests. Under natural, pre-settlement conditions, periodic fires would largely keep its densities low, and it grew under the canopy of the coniferous forest, with an occasional tree reaching through, and becoming large. As the conifer was logged, the tanoak took hold, and in some cases became the dominant tree, both in density and crown occupation. This was the case on anywhere from 50-60 percent of the forested acres when we began the business, and many of the remaining acres had more tanoak on them than what we believed was our best estimate of natural occupation (+/- 15%)…We are steadily increasing conifer stocking across our property.”

Mr. Jani stated that imazapyr is used on “Tanoak challenged” acres in order to restore conifer occupation. “We do not treat areas that are naturally occurring hardwood stands on the landscape.” This appears to imply that almost all use of imazapyr going forward is post-harvest, “to reduce fire hazard or mitigate for visual impacts.” The stated MRC practice includes the buffering of “stream zone areas…” “with employees making a walk around during operations to avoid runoff issues.” More details about MRC’s use of imazapyr (the when, where, and how much) must be reserved for a later discussion. Mr. Jani concluded his comments with the following statement.

“I would ask you to dwell on another really important point that rarely, if ever gets discussed—we have done quite a bit of search for alternatives, regardless of costs, but (sic) we have tracked them. Many times, we have been asked to use mechanical treatment and we have, and kept track of the amount of gasoline, and chain-oil used and exhaust released into the air by two-cycle engines. It is not insignificant in terms of volume discharges across the forested landscape and into the air of equally dangerous petro-chemicals.” … “More importantly, the workers, when people are using chainsaws on steep ground that is a tangle of cut brush, it places them in a far more dangerous situation than doing the applications, and remember, most likely, it is going to be done at least twice, in order to restore conifer dominance to the area.” (Personal communication from Mr. Jani, 3/ 2015)

Where then, does this lead? On one hand, the community’s issue has moved beyond the use of herbicides per se, though it remains very important. Fire hazard has taken center stage. Within days, the Albion Fire Protection District took up a proposed ordinance, presented by Ted Williams, Fire Chief, to declare dead standing tanoak as a “public nuisance.” That is, stands of dead tanoak present a “public nuisance” due to the risk to fire fighters. The proposed ordinance states that if left standing for more than 30 days post-harvest treatment, the harvester must pay for the service of removal, due to the “extreme fire danger.” The ordinance specifies that it is a misdemeanor and subject to a fine of $10 per dead standing tree. This ordinance would apply only to the Lower Albion Watershed District, not the county overall. The Fire District passed the ordinance unanimously at a meeting on Friday, March 14. It has gone to County Council for review. A determination whether the ordinance can be enforced could take months to resolve. In the meantime, what will remain uppermost in the minds of community members and Mendocino Redwood Company is what to do about the large swaths of dead standing tanoaks.

One estimate is that the period of high/extreme fire hazard lasts for 7 to 10 years, post treatment. This condition is likely to affect both the community and MRC for many years to come. Much of the dead tanoak will eventually come to ground and decompose to become part of the regenerated soils. In the meantime, can the community or MRC live with 87,000 acres of timberland at risk from dead standing tanoaks? What is more, MRC intends to continue “hack and squirt” operations into the indefinite future. One estimate is that perhaps 5700 or more acres per year are scheduled for treatment over the next five years. One fire, say a summer dry lighting incident such as 2008, and whatever economies timber operators receive from using the cheapest method to kill tan oaks and leave them standing, could cost many millions in property damage and loss of valuable timber. The 2008 fire is estimated to have cost $53,000,000. Perhaps a small fraction of that cost, had it been applied earlier, might have saved a great deal of valuable timber land. One Comptche resident at the meeting observed that in 2012 CalFire had to deal with a grass fire. If it had jumped the road, she said someone from CalFire told her, it could have burned all the way Ukiah.

As MRC states, timberlands were abused for many decades by clear-cutting, overharvesting, lack of tanoak control, little or no effort at restoration, you name it. The history of poor timberland management is a long and tragic one. And, as Mr. Jani notes, periodic fires were a natural part of the ecosystem that kept forests healthy and in balance. It was the exceptional tanoak that made its way into the forest canopy. As importantly, a healthy redwood forest served as a “carbon sink”, storing massive amounts of CO2. It is also said that redwood forests are capable of capturing and storing up to 8 inches of precipitation per year, beyond what falls as rain. Does anyone, including MRC, believe that the patchwork of logged and recovering timberlands still functions as a natural system, one capable of self-regulation and maintaining a healthy, mixed forest environment? Granted, MRC has planted something like 9 million tree seedlings. It has undertaken sediment removal by the 10s of thousands of dump truck loads. It has instituted setbacks along creeks and rivers to provide riparian corridors and improved habitat for fish. Such efforts, which MRC has instituted since 1988 may well be put down as to the good, in so far as they do improve their timber properties. However, is it enough?

It is said that timber operations are both profitable and sustainable. Without doubt, timber is a profitable enterprise. Profit is to be made even in timberlands that are not what they once were. Are they sustainable? Thomas Hobson (1544-1631) certainly knew how to run a business that was both profitable and sustainable. He operated a horse stable in Cambridge. He would tell customers they had their choice of which mount to rent, so long as they chose the one in the front stall. This was no “take it or leave it” practice on his part. He cared for his 40 horses and saw to it that each one was well rested by applying his rotation system. In so doing, he became rich. Can “Hobson’s Choice” be good for timberlands? MRC claims that it intends to manage its property in a healthy, sustainable manner. Rotation is one element of management. But with premium, old growth all but gone, timber operations increasingly rely on smaller, sub-premium trees, operate on short rotation cycles, leave dead standing tanoaks in cut over tracts, and face an uncertain future due to a number of risk factors, especially the risk of severe fire. How would another fire, costing $53 million affect the bottom line of MRC, loss of valuable timber, loss of homes and personal property? It is the community that has a right to insist that the environment around it is safe, one free from the dangers of a widespread fire. Nor should it have to live for years, even decades, under the threat of devastating fires.

At the Comptche meeting, representatives of Mendocino Redwood Company were present. While they did not speak in defense of MRC policy or practices, they listened to what was said. No plan of action on MRC’s part was proposed. Afterwards, one organizer emphasized that this was but a first meeting. And yet, within the week, one group of local residents and volunteer fire fighters has taken a concrete step. They put in place an ordinance to deal with what they perceive to be the serious threat of fire. Will their ordinance to ban standing dead tanoak survive scrutiny (review) at the county level? If it does, will other fire districts enact similar measures? Will MRC engage the community-at-large in seeking solutions that all sides can accept and live with? Only MRC and the community-at-large can answer.

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