On Tuesday, April 21st (yesterday, as this week’s edition goes to press) the Mendocino County Board of Supervisors was set to consider regulations, for the first time, on Mendocino Redwood Company's long-standing practice of injecting herbicides into tan oak trees. The focus of the Supervisors' session is on the fire danger created by these standing dead trees — an estimated one million of them sprayed annually. It's unlikely that the Supervisors will actually adopt a policy restricting MRC in any way, though the groundswell of opposition to the practice in recent months may have some staying power.
Concerns about fire danger spraying arise in an intertwined context of climate change and an historic drought. Records show that this region — the California North Coast, as with California as a whole — is hotter and drier than at any time since Euroamerican conquest in the mid-19th century. MRC's spraying of herbicides has an even greater context, however, than the possibility of these trees being torched like so many matchsticks during the next wildfire.
MRC owns about 10% of Mendocino County's private land. Its so-called “sister” company, Humboldt Redwood Company, owns roughly an equivalent percentage of Mendo's neighboring Humboldt County to the north. Altogether, then, the absentee parents of this precocious brood of timber corporations — the multi-billionaire Fisher family of San Francisco — own more coastal redwood forest than any private entity ever has. As the environmental effects of carbon dioxide emissions have become devastatingly clear, ecologists have started to measure the ability of forests to absorb CO2 — a process known as sequestration. They have found, unsurprisingly, that the world's largest trees — coast redwoods (sequoia sempervirens) — store the most carbon of any living thing on Earth.
Given that the Fisher Family's North Coast properties probably have as much carbon sequestration potential as any forest of equivalent size on the planet, the company's practices have enormous consequences even beyond Mendocino and Humboldt Counties — and not only in regard to global climate change.
MRC/HRC's land management also plays out in the realm of ideology, with ideas about the most beneficial way to manage these forests being hotly disputed. One of the theories underpinning MRC's management techniques is the idea of returning to what the company calls a “natural conifer balance.” Among the company's four main objectives, according to its Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP) filed with regulatory agencies, is “[r]estoring the species composition of forests and wildlife that were present before commercial timber harvests began.” Prior to Euroamerican conquest, in other words, regional forests were composed of specific percentages of coast redwoods, Doug firs, tan oaks, Pacific madrones, bay laurels, coast live oaks, and other species. As the thinking goes, these percentages reflect the “balance” that industrial logging enterprises like MRC seek to “restore.”
This past January, for example, I asked MRC/HRC President Mike Jani if he has an estimate of the percentage of hardwoods on MRC's lands prior to the advent of industrial logging. His response exemplifies the conifer balance notion's importance to the company's thinking. “Whenever I'm on a hike in a forest with strong old-growth characteristics, like in Hendy Woods, that's exactly what I'm thinking about,” Jani told me.
The most controversial and impactful way MRC seeks to restore the forest to its “natural balance” is through injecting tan oaks — and, to a lesser extent, other broad-leaved trees such as madrones and canyon live oaks — with the herbicide Imazapyr. As of 2012, when MRC released a public draft of its 1600-page Habitat Conservation Plan filed with regulatory agencies, the company had applied herbicides to tan oaks and other “hardwoods” and “brushy” tree species (such as manzanitas) on 78,000 acres. The HCP targeted another 58,000 acres for the treatment, making up a grand total of 136,000 acres — or approximately 59% of MRC's total land area.
In terms of acreage, that's the equivalent of 167 Hendy Woods State Parks (Hendy Woods is 816 acres); all of them, featuring large stands of tan oak poisoned by herbicides. This systematic poisoning of living tree species will leave an imprint on six percent of Mendocino County's private lands — all of it undertaken in the name of forest restoration.
Here is how Jani explained the necessity of the company's herbicide spraying in a 2012 letter to the Anderson Valley Advertiser, which he wrote partly in response to articles I had published here: “Herbicide use has been an important and necessary tool in the replanting and restoration of the natural balance on more than 60,000 acres of MRC forestlands and the establishment of nearly six million redwood and Douglas fir trees that otherwise would not be on the land… Today, there are areas of the forestlands that still contain a much higher proportion of hardwoods to conifers than is natural.”
Jani, or another MRC representative, will likely repeat some version of this rationale at the April 21st Supervisors meeting.
According to Jani, the company's ultimate goal is for roughly 15% of MRC's land to be comprised of tan oaks and other hardwoods. Most of the other 85% would be conifers: cone-bearing tree species such as redwoods and Douglas firs. MRC management also claims that this enhances wildlife and increases the volume of timber on their lands for the benefit of the climate as a whole.
MRC's Habitat Conservation Plan is an 80-year long blueprint for how the company intends to manage its land. The HCP is more than 1600 pages long, consisting of 16 chapters and 26 appendices. The stated goal of the voluminous document, nearly 15 years in the making, is to further MRC's mission of operating a profitable timber enterprise while increasing forest health and biodiversity on its landbase. The company released a public draft in 2012 and expects it to be approved by regulatory agencies in roughly a year.
Taken as a whole, the HCP is an extended treatise on the idea that an industrial, profit-driven model of logging is a viable way to restore a forest. In the name of restoration, though, MRC/HRC is actually greatly diminishing the biological potential of the enormous area of coastal forest in their ownership.
“The idea that forest restoration and industrial logging can go hand-in-hand is a fairy tale promoted by the industry,” Will Russell, assistant professor of environmental studies at San Jose State University, who has extensively studied redwood ecology, told me in an interview. “In terms of forest recovery and restoration, the best thing you can do is to leave the forest alone.”
Russell has extensively studied the innate regeneration capacity of redwood forests in a post-logging context. He has concluded that even well-intentioned selective logging restoration often limits the forests' biological potential in the long-run. Redwoods, after all, require shade and moisture. Cutting down trees, including tan oak trees, diminishes both.
As critics of the company are quick to note, the idea of a “conifer balance” dovetails perfectly with MRC's imperative to turn a profit. Far from restoring the forest to a “natural” state, MRC is shifting the forest's balance toward marketable tree species — redwoods and Douglas-firs, in this case — and doing so in a way that harms wildlife by killing off a source of food and habitat (and, it is eminently likely, poisons them as well), creates erosion, dries out the land by opening up the canopy, and, indeed, increases the danger of catastrophic wildfires.
On the surface, the promotion of redwoods and firs at the expense of tan oaks, which thrive after disturbances such as logging, at least helps to sequester more carbon. The first of four objectives listed in MRC's HCP is “Improving the inventory of coastal redwoods, Douglas fir, and other conifers on our land so that the volume of conifers at least doubles within the next 50 years.”
In other words, MRC is managing their land to increase what, in industry parlance, is called “stocking.” The timber industry has traditionally viewed forests in terms of "board feet," the unit of measurement that represents a forest's potential financial value in lumber. When the Fisher family purchased Louisiana Pacific's 232,500 acres of forestlands in Mendocino and Sonoma counties in 1998, the board foot volume of the heavily cut-over property averaged a paltry 10,000 per acre. By contrast, at the time of Euro American settlement, the board foot volume of the same forests averaged 125,000 to 150,000 per acre, according to estimates by biologists, with exceptional stands containing more than 1 million per acre (enough to build roughly fifty five-room houses).
Though MRC seeks to restore the forest to a “natural balance” of conifers to hardwoods, the company stops short of envisioning a return to a 'natural” level of carbon sequestration. The company's policy protects unharvested old growth stands, as well as old-growth trees in previously harvested stands. It also protects individual old-growth trees (hardwoods and conifers). It defines old-growth by girth (36-inch diameter for a Doug fir, for instance), age (established before 1800), and other structural characteristics. But based on these definitions, only 105 acres of MRC lands are currently off-limits to logging (just 0.046% of the Fishers' total holdings in the County).
Individual old-growth trees are also off-limits. The vast majority of other big trees, though, are fair game.
‘Dispersing’ Spotted Owls To Get At Big Trees
When MRC purchased the lands from Louisiana Pacific, its timber stocking was greatest in three areas: the South Mendocino Coast, the Albion River, and the North Fork of the Navarro River. One of the greatest regulatory restrictions on its ability to fell trees on these lands has been the existence of Northern Spotted Owls, an icon of environmental protection that once ranged from British Columbia to Marin County, and which is now listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act.
Because the magnificent raptor relies mainly for its nesting, roosting, and foraging habitat on exactly the types of trees logging companies most desire to cut — old growth and mature, structurally complex forests — it has been the bane of timber companies' existence since the US Fish and Wildlife Service granted it special protection. And so it is with MRC. The vast majority of spotted owls that reside on the company's Mendocino County acreage are in the areas of the biggest trees
MRC has formulated a strategy for resolving this dilemma. Its “conservation plan” is predicated on a specious, highly theoretical win-win scenario for both the company and for the owls. In exchange for destroying existing spotted owl habitat, MRC promises to create new habitat elsewhere. The idea is to protect the owls by spreading their habitat evenly across the company's land, hoping they will move to their new digs, and, in case of a catastrophe in one area, be protected by being dispersed. Thus, MRC is allowed to “take” — that is, kill — spotted owls by cutting down their existing habitat.
“It makes no sense,” Linda Perkins, who chairs the Albion River Watershed Protection Association, told me. Nobody in Mendocino County has conducted more in-depth reviews of logging plans than Perkins, who has also commented extensively on MRC’s Habitat Conservation Plan.
MRC offers data concerning spotted owl habitat on its land in “Table 10-10 Potential, Actual, and Projected Spotted Owl Habitat in the Plan Area. Page 10-39” of the HCP (available on line at the Calfire website). They promise a net increase of about 8,000 areas of nesting and roosting habitat across their 227,000 acres. Since there are about 8000 acres in the Albion, Navarro West, and Southcoast that are “over-represented” in their level of nesting and roosting habitat, there will be a reduction of about 8000 acres in these three areas, and a ‘growing’ of approximately 16,000 acres in areas deficient in N/R to achieve the net increase.
The “deficient” areas in question include the Big River, Garcia River, the eastern Navarro River, Noyo River, Rockport, and the upper Russian River (Ukiah). These are the areas that MRC is currently leaving alone to a comparative extent, because are largely lacking in merchantable timber.
As the company allows trees to grow back in some of these areas, the existing Spotted Owls are supposed to read MRC's Habitat Conservation Plan and thereupon deduce the location of their new homes.
The damage to the owls from this redistribution scheme may be particularly severe when coupled with the removal of the tan oaks, which are the main habitat of dusky-footed wood rats — the Northern Spotted Owl's greatest food source. And the removal of tan oaks and spraying of herbicides may be severely detrimental to other bird species, which rely on their acorns for food, and to the recovery and long-term vitality of the forest soil. As Will Russell points out, no scientific assessment of herbicide spraying on the long-term survival of important forest understory plants, such as huckleberries and oxalis, which play a vital role in soil regeneration, has been carried out.
Even the scientific review panel that regional forestry advisor Greg Giusti helped assemble to review an early draft of MRC's HCP in 2003, as required by regulation, noted the following concerning Imazapyr spraying:
“Conversion of hardwood dominated areas to late-seral [old] conifers by the hack and squirt method is not appropriate as a conservation strategy. Tanoak (as the most common and dominant hardwood) is a highly important component of the redwood forest. Its acorns make up a significant portion of the diet of birds and mammals in the North Coast region. It is thought that the mycorrhizae associated with tanoak play an important ecological function in the redwood forest.”
The scientific review panel has not been heard from since.
With concerns about rapacious logging having become fixed in the collective consciousness of California North Coast residents, MRC/HRC executives have skillfully crafted a reputation of the companies being a sustainable logging operation.
The companies' products are touted by Home Depot in television ads throughout the Bay Area as “certified sustainable Mendocino Redwood Company lumber.” This marketing campaign rests largely on the imprimatur of the nonprofit Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), which evaluates and certifies timber operators from California to the Congo as responsible forest stewards based on a series of standards for managing and harvesting land. The FSC grants its logo to forests in eighty countries on five continents, including to MRC/HRC. Mike Jani was an FSC director for six years while simultaneously serving as MRC/HRC's chief forester.
In explaining the fundamental problem of the Fishers' management of such an enormous amount of forest, activists and loggers alike often say things such as, "The Fishers are running a business up here, not a charity." So, too, is MRC/HRC's sustainability certifier, the Forest Stewardship Council, a business that focuses on marketing its brand. Richard Donovan, a founding FSC member and senior vice president of the Rainforest Alliance, notes in an essay on the FSC website that the organization's function is "to drive market demand."
“FSC International must become a top-notch business — the FSC system is a market-oriented mechanism,” he writes, “and it needs a professional staff focused on operating at a business level.”
North Coast Trees In Peril, Climate in Peril
As anyone who has ever spent time in a redwood forest during a major fog event can attest, these largest and grandest of all the world's plant species thrive on the moisture suspended in the air. The fog is a gift of the Pacific Ocean's powerful wind currents, which create upwellings that bring cold, deep, nutrient-rich waters to the surface. A single large redwood can catch this moisture and douse the ground, no less an unsuspecting human, with the equivalent of a drenching rainstorm in a matter of hours.
Climate change is playing havoc on the earth's life support systems, however, and the “fog drip” that sustains redwood forests — and the cornucopia of life found within them — may be headed into an irrevocable decline. In 2010, a UC Berkeley climatologist's study showed that fog in California's north coastal regions had decreased by 30 percent in the previous six decades. The culprit is climate change, which has strongly increased temperatures in coastal environments, even to a greater extent than in the inland environment. Because fog rolls in when colder coastal air is drawn inland by greater warmth there, far less is forming.
The year 2014 was the hottest year globally year on record, replacing the previous recordholder: 2013. All 10 of the hottest years have come since 1998. Less moisture is available to the redwoods all the time.
Of course, redwoods are far from the only trees struggling with the hotter and drier conditions. Bark beetles, which thrive during times of drought, are laying waste to entire stands of pine and Doug firs. As a 2014 Forest Service Region 5 report put it: “Aerial surveys identified Douglas-fir beetle mortality in several pockets of large, mature Douglas-fir throughout northern California. The observed mortality had increased dramatically in size and distribution from 2012.”
In fact, the majority of California's unique plant species are projected to lose most of their geographic ranges in the next 100 years because of climate change, according to reports by biologists at several universities. Yet, if you relied on MRC's 80-year management plan, you wouldn't have any idea that the ecosphere's capacity to support large-scale human societies is quickly eroding, with unpredictable consequences for California's northern coastal region.
Chapter 14, “Changed and Unforeseen Circumstances,” briefly addresses climate change and concludes that it will have a “neutral impact” on the viability of MRC's forestland. Some elements of MRC's 80-year forest management scheme speak for themselves.