California timberland owners sprayed 359,147 pounds of pesticides and herbicides on unwanted trees and shrubs in a recent four-year period — 2005 to 2008 — according to data compiled from the California Department of Pesticide Regulation by Cal Fire. A single region of the state — the Klamath/North Coast, including everywhere from Guerneville to Yreka — alone accounted for 256,401 of those pounds, or roughly two-thirds of the state total.
The disproportionate use of toxic chemicals within the state's northern coastal forests is unsurprising given that this region's main historic role vis-a-vis the California's political economy is to turn trees into board-feet of lumber, thereby furnishing employment for labor and investment for capital.
Apropos of the latter, San Francisco's Fisher family alone has invested roughly $1 billion of their vast riches in their conjoined Mendocino and Humboldt county timber firms, which cover 440,000 acres and employ hundreds of people. The Fishers' Mendocino Redwood Company, which has faced renewed criticism for its herbicide use this year, accounted for 16,370 pounds during the period Cal Fire studied, or 6.4% of the total used in the North Coast/Klamath area.
Mendocino County denizens' persistent criticism of MRC's Hack 'n' Squirt technique of removing tan oaks and other hardwoods hasn't noticeably slowed down their use of herbicides this year, according to the latest data Mike Kalantarian has compiled from the Mendocino County Agriculture Department. MRC has used 1,299 gallons of herbicides on 3,267 acres as of September 24, according to Kalantarian. MRC has used more triclopyr (garlon) this year than any in recent history: 418 gallons spanning 1,025 acres.
A few weeks ago, I obtained a copy from a North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board (NCRWQCB) staff member of MRC's voluntary Imazapyr monitoring data from 2001 to 2014. In 178 water samples, MRC has actually detected the chemical six times. As the NCRWQCB staffer stressed, MRC undertook the monitoring program voluntarily. He says the company's willingness to undertake the testing is representative of how “they are generally pretty collaborative with us.”
With respect to the largest portion of Mendo's population that lives downstream from MRC's herbicided lands, some of the detection levels are high enough to raise concern, even if they are far lower than the levels the Environmental Protection Agency considers unsafe for Glyphosate (a somewhat comparable chemical). They include two detections greater than 20 parts per billion.
According to Linda Perkins of the Albion/Little River Watershed Protection Committee, it's the fact that MRC detected the herbicide at all despite its “needle in a haystack approach to testing that's the real story here.”
Published research on Imazapyr — the chemical MRC mainly relies on for killing unwanted tan oaks and other hardwood trees — says it binds to sediment particles, meaning that it can disperse downstream following rainfall, which transports said sediment — especially if the sediment in question is on a hillside recently cleared of anchoring vegetation. MRC has previously maintained that it has carried out testing of watercourses adjacent to these vegetation management” areas and never detected any significant levels of Imazapyr.
From their perspective, that's entirely true.
Most likely, not every Regional Water Board staffer would agree with the idea that MRC is “generally pretty collaborative.” The company reportedly has filed three complaints against the license of one Water Board staff member, Adona White, the regulatory agency's point person for designing a program to bring timber companies operating in Humboldt County's Elk River watershed into compliance with the US Clean Water Act's requirements concerning sediment pollution. White and her staff determined that sediment pollution in the Elk River needs to be reduced by 97% in the next 20 years to recover the river's “beneficial uses.” Humboldt Redwood Company owns roughly three-quarters of the upper Elk River's landmass and has intensively logging the area since purchasing the land after its previous owner, Maxxam, went bankrupt in 2008. Virtually ever year, Elk River residents downstream of HRC experience catastrophic flooding, with many often forced to evacuate their homes.
In response to an article I published in the East Bay Express and AVA earlier this year, an anonymous MRC spokesperson said that “Humboldt Redwood had a recent difference of scientific opinion with the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board and remains in dialogue with the agency about the best way to address downstream flooding issues.”
MRC is certified as a “sustainable” timber company by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), which is roughly the timber industry equivalent to an organic agriculture certification. Unlike the organic food label, though, the FSC places few restrictions on the use of toxic chemicals. The FSC is only a standard-setting organization, though, meaning its personnel do not actually conduct the certification reviews — rather, it farms out that function to other organizations.
The organization that audits MRC on the FSC's behalf, New York City-based Rainforest Alliance (RA), is currently in the midst of their every-five-years certification audit of MRC. The man on the job is a Dr. Steve Grado, a Missouri State University professor of forestry who says this certification marks the 88th he has conducted for RA. Dr. Grado presided over a lively public meeting in Caspar last month, where an at times unruly rabble persistently challenged the integrity of MRC, the RA certification process, and Grado himself.
An FSC re-certification of HRC took place last year, conducted by a different auditing organization: Scientific Certification Systems (SCS) of Emeryville. Although Elk River residents downstream of the companies logging operation who have been flooded out of their homes spoke out at the same sort of public meeting, which took place in Eureka, the SCS audit team's report neglected to fault HRC in connection with the flooding.
In Rainforest Alliance's 2013 annual report, Mendocino Redwood Company and Humboldt Redwood Company are listed separately as donors to the organization, each in the “$5,000-$99,999” category. One of the largest donors to the organization ($1 million or greater) is the Multilateral Investment Fund, a division of IDB Group: one of Israel's largest banks. Another bancorporation, the Inter-American Development Bank (“the main source of multilateral financing in Latin America,” according to the company's web site), has also donated over $1 million. Two of the other largest donors are agencies of the United Nations.
In the meantime, local residents are collecting signatures for a 2016 ballot initiative that would declare standing dead trees a public nuisance on account of the fire danger it engenders. The idea is to compel MRC to abandon its practice of girdling trees, spraying them with Imazapyr, and leaving them standing dead.
Back in the 1970s, Louisiana Pacific — MRC's predecessor on its 227,000 acres of Mendo timberland — would send helicopters out to spray its freshly-logged hills with herbicides to prevent non-commercial re-vegetation. LP's chemical of choice was chemically similar to Agent Orange, a potent defoliant and teratogen used widely in the Vietnam War.
Alarmed by the initial aerial spraying on LP land near Branscomb, locals mobilized and put a ban on aerial spraying before the Board of Supervisors. The Supes voted them down. So, they mobilized and got an initiative passed by popular vote. Bill Pauli of the Mendocino County Farm Bureau — who, to this day, blithely commands his workers to dowse his hundreds of acres of grapevines in Potter Valley, Redwood Valley, and the Ukiah Valley with a whole suite of toxics — sued to block the ban. But the California Supreme Court upheld the ban.
Within months, state Democrats, including those elected from this area, led by Willie Brown, their coffers stuffed with corporate ag cash, passed legislation that decreed that individual counties could not regulate herbicides and pesticides. Only the state could decide on the big ticket stuff like who can spray deadly chemicals and who can't.
And that, in short, is the story of why Mendocino County does not have jurisdiction to ban Hack and Squirt, but is instead limited to declaring standing dead trees a public nuisance.
(Contact Will Parrish at firstname.lastname@example.org.)