The Redwood Forest Foundation, Inc. (RFFI) seemed to have a sure-fire plan when it proposed to receive $19.5 million for its conservation of the 50,000-acre Usal Redwood Forest – northwestern Mendocino County land battered by more than a century of logging – from the State Wildlife Conservation Board. The state agency had received funding via a bond initiative, Proposition 84 (2006), for the purpose of conserving working forests. RFFI owned the largest section of working conservation forest land in the state (meaning light-touching logging would continue to occur there).
More than 300 individuals had written in support of the proposal, and State Assemblyman Wes Chesbro and State Senator Noreen Evans had testified in favor of the RFFI proposal. The Wildlife Conservation Board's staff unanimously supported it. The Mendocino County Board of Supervisors passed a supportive resolution and transmitted a letter to the Conservation Board's director.
“The viability of sustainable timber management in Mendocino County relies on the Usal and Gualala models for job generation, restoration employment and future economic localization,” the May 2011 letter stated.
For several months, however, the Conservation Board withheld its approval, and for a single reason: Mendocino Redwood Company opposed the funding. A February 22, 2011 letter from MRC Chairman Sandy Dean – a long-time friend of the company's billionaire owners, the Fisher Family – expressed opposition to the restoration funding allocation on the grounds that it would establish artificially high land values for future land transactions in the region. He also challenged the principle of a government entity paying a private landowner for a conservation easement.
Dean and MRC President Mike Jani even pled their case before the Wildlife Conservation Board in Sacramento. At the two men's urging, the Board ordered an independent review of its existing land appraisal.
Eventually, the Conservation Board approved the allocation. MRC's executives would later challenge the Wildlife Conservation Board's approval of funding again, however, in relation to the Conservation Fund's 2013 purchase of The Buckeye Forest in the Gualala River watershed.
Formerly known as Preservation Ranch, the land was threatened at the time by what would have been the largest forest-to-vineyard conversion in state history. In that case, MRC reportedly was able to enlist high-placed support within the state's executive branch. The Wildlife Conservation Board approved the funding anyway.
For around seventeen years, Mendocino Redwood Company has built its reputation on the claim that it is restoring the enormous area of land in its ownership to a “thriving redwood and Douglas fir forest.” That claim has been the centerpiece of its public relations campaign against the firefighter-environmentalist proposition Measure “V,” on which it has spent at least $270,000 as of this writing.
But the company's persistent opposition to state investments in forest restoration points to a larger tendency that some observers of the company regard as as a glaring contradiction between its public proclamations and its actual goals. While the company often claim they are creating an example of how large timber company can manage their lands with “a high standard of environmental stewardship,” while also operating a successful business, its top executives have often fervently opposed government involvement in promoting environmental protection.
A review of state records, as well as a series of interviews with regulatory agency personnel, residents who live downstream and alongside MRC and HRC timber operations, and observers of the company's Sacramento lobbying activities lends insight into the company's efforts to shape environmental laws and regulations in a manner favorable to the timber industry.
Among the key environmental regulations governing logging in California are the Anadromous Salmonid Protection (ASP) rules, which Cal Fire inaugurated in 2009 after more than a decade of pressure from state and federal fisheries agencies and environmentalists. Logging operations on private lands are regulated by CalFire and the Board of Forestry and Fire Protection under the direction of the governor and the state legislature.
The Board of Forestry and Fire Protection (BoF) is a nine-member board appointed by the governor that is weighted toward industry. Timber industry representatives make up three members of the board, a livestock representative fills one seat and a California Forestry Association representative typically fills another. One of the Board's current members is a high-ranking Humboldt Redwood Company executive, Mike Miles, who previously worked for Pacific Lumber during its ownership by infamous Texas businessman Charles Hurwitz.
Records from the BoF show that Miles was largely responsible for orchestrating a 2012-13 revision to the Anadromous Protection Rules that allows more logging alongside streams, and which has specifically benefitted MRC/HRC.
By removing vegetation that anchors hillsides, and constructing spider-web road patterns, logging can cause erosion that severely contributes to the degradation of rivers and fish habitat. Sediment smothers fish eggs and disrupts the reproductive cycle. Fish, especially salmon and steelhead, require pools where they can rest and feed. Erosion fills in those crucial pools, while removal of canopy can raise stream temperatures to inhospitable levels.
The purpose of the ASP Rules is to protect the habitats of the migratory salmonid species – coho and chinook salmon, as well as steelhead trout – listed under the state and federal versions of the Endangered Species Act from these impacts, while also encouraging large woody debris to wash into streams, which helps form spawning pools and filter sediment.
But MRC/HRC's Miles rewrote the rules so that an estimated 44 percent of streams accorded “Class II-Large” (Class II-L) protection under the rules are now designated as “Class II-Standard” (Class II-S) streams, which affords them less protection. Whereas timber harvests alongside Class II-L streams must retain 80 percent of the forest's canopy and the seven largest trees per acre, those along Class II-S streams only retain 60 percent of the canopy and do not involve the largest-trees-per-acre requirement. The rule change involved changing parameters concerning stream width and drainage area.
Miles first directed Cal Fire and Board of Forestry staff members to conduct a survey regarding the impacts of the possible revision in a September 2012 letter. Miles described the survey results in an Apri 2013 letter to Cal Fire, Department of Fish and Wildlife, and State Water Resources Control Board personnel. “The overall number of Class II-L watercourses decreases by roughly 50% in each district, with smaller watercourses dropping back to Class ll-Standard designation,” he wrote.
The North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board, as well as environmental groups like the Center for Biological Diversity, opposed the rule change. But the BoF unanimously adopted it. According to Miles, in his communications with agency staff, the purpose of the revision was not to weaken protections on behalf of endangered fish, but rather to make those protections more targeted.
RELEVANT EMAIL EXCHANGES
The company also advances its political interests through leadership in the California Forestry Association (CalForests), the main political voice of the timber industry in Sacramento. Among the other major companies that shape the organization's political agenda are Sierra Pacific Industries, California's largest landowner, and the other monolithic timber company in redwood country besides MRC/HRC: Green Diamond Resources. MRC's former CEO, Richard Higgenbottom, simultaneously served as CalForests' treasurer.
MRC's Mike Jani was chairman of the CalForests Legislative Affairs Committee from at least 2012 to '15, according to the organization's records, during which time CalForests helped pass Assembly Bill 1492, described as “a sweeping bipartisan bill to strengthen California’s timber industry and protect thousands of jobs by eliminating regulatory fees on California companies, allowing extra time to harvest timber and preventing excessive civil liability for wildfires,” according to a press release from the Office of Governor Jerry Brown.
The CalForests 2013 Annual Report described that year's Calforests Legislative Reception, which feted “37 legislators in attendance and a total of 198 guests. The reception included the honoring of Martha Guzman-Aceves, Deputy Legislative Affairs Secretary for Governor Brown, as the Calforests Forest Policy Champion for 2012, and the distribution of free redwood seedlings to attendees.”
Notably, California Governor Jerry Brown's wife, Anne Gust Brown, served as general counsel, chief administrative officer, and executive vice president of The Gap during her fourteen years with the retailer. Her bosses included the company's owners, the Fisher Family, who own Mendocino and Humboldt Redwood Company.
MRC also spends large sums of money on lobbying through a firm called Aprea & Micheli. During 2015, according to California Secretary of State records, MRC/HRC paid around $145,700 for its consultant to lobby the Governor's Office, Legislature, Natural Resources Agency, Department of Finance, Department of Fish and Wildlife, Department of Conservation, Department of General Services, CalFire, Board of Forestry regarding the following bills: AB 243, 417, 429, 498, 590, 824, 1345, 1506 and SB 162, 165, 168, 288.
One example of MRC lobbying occurred in 2006, when the California State Legislature considered a bill called the Heritage Tree Preservation Act, which would have outlawed the cutting of any "heritage tree," a category based on a tree's type, size, and age. The legislation would have prohibited cutting any tree older than 150 years, among other provisions.
“Mendocino and Humboldt Redwood prefer a more ecologically based approach to old growth trees,” an anonymous MRC writer wrote in web site response to a January 2015 story I wrote that noted their opposition to the Heritage Tree Preservation Act. “Mendocino Redwood opposed the Heritage Tree bill because company experts felt that this approach could create an incentive for landowners to cut trees down as they come close to reaching the age of 150 years.”
In 2008, MRC submitted a buyout proposal to purchase Pacific Lumber -- 209,000 acres of prime Humboldt County timber real estate -- out of bankrupcy from Maxxam. They were competing with a Sierra Pacific Industries proposal, and most onlookers who had lived through the trauma of Maxxam's mega-scale clear cuts backed MRC over SPI. Sierra Pacific is the largest practitioner of clear-cutting in California, whereas MRC had operated without large-scale clear-cutting for several years, worked with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and other entities to upgrade some of its roadways to prevent sedimentation of watersheds, and taken other measures that marked an improvement over their predecessors.
State Senator Byron Sher (D-Palo Alto) and other legislators wanted to prevent SPI’s plan from winning out, but leveraged their endorsement of the plan on MRC's agreement to abide by all the terms of a federal habitat conservation plan setting aside some "cathedral stands" of elder trees as a condition for their support. The company agreed, convinced the bankruptcy judge to support their offer over that of SPI, and has remained faithful to the habitat conservation agreement.
But long-time Sacramento legislative aide Jeff Shellito, who has worked for Sher and for various conservation groups, has seen MRC in action in other circumstances. "MRC's people wear a white hat in Sacramento, since a lot of legislators consider them more environmentally sensitive than other timber companies," he said. "But that reputation plays to their advantage when they lobby against environmental protections."
Humboldt Redwood Company has also elicited controversy. The company has sought to log land in the Mattole Forest that activists had previously protected from Maxxam, while its operations in the Elk River – which drains to Humboldt Bay – have increasingly choked streams with sediment and added considerably to Maxxam-induced downstream flooding that threatens residents' safety and has drastically decreased their property values.
In May, the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board – after years of pressure from local residents, environmental groups, and the US Environmental Protection Agency – adopted a Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) for the Elk River, which restricts HRC's logging there. HRC has an active lawsuit against the Water Quality Control Board for not authorizing sediment discharge and logging operations into the Elk River watershed in relation to a timber harvest plan the company filed in 2015.