Activists Hack Mendocino Logging Plans

Activists Hack Mendocino Logging Plans
But S.F. family says goal is `sustainable' harvest
Glen Martin, Chronicle Staff Writer
Monday, July 5, 1999
©2000 San Francisco Chronicle


CHRIS STEWART / The Chronicle
Mike Jani (left) of Mendocino Redwood spoke to Mary Pjerrou (seated), other environmentalists and MRC employees.
A dispute over the fate of vast tracts of Mendocino County forestland has pitted a prominent and wealthy San Francisco family against a group of North State environmentalists.

At issue are the logging plans of the Mendocino Redwood Co., a firm recently established by San Francisco's Fisher family, which built The Gap clothing company into one of the nation's powerhouse retail chains.

The conflict is especially disquieting for the Fishers because several of them support progressive political causes. Gap executive Robert Fisher is on the board of the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group known for its hard-nosed litigation and lobbying.

When the Fisher family trust bought 235,000 acres of rugged North Coast forestland in Mendocino County from Louisiana Pacific for about $235 million a year ago, it said it would conduct a ``sustainable'' forestry program -- cutting less wood than grew annually, while establishing rigorous protection for endangered species and old-growth groves.

Sandy Dean, the company's president, believes it is critically important that Mendocino Redwood succeeds -- and not just for the sake of the Fishers. The company is the largest forestland owner in the country trying to obtain approval from an international sustainable forestry consortium, he says, and a lot of other timber companies are watching it closely.

``I really believe we have to make it if sustainable forestry is going to have a legitimate future,'' he says. ``Wood products are going to remain in high demand -- one way or the other, trees are going to be cut. It's up to us to show people that you can harvest sustainably on large acreages, and make a profit at the same time.''

If there's one thing Mendocino Redwood's lands could use, it's a more environmentally harmonious approach.

Forest ecologists who have viewed the land generally agree it was severely overharvested under Louisiana Pacific during its 25-year tenure. Most old-growth trees were cut long ago. The numerous streams that thread the rugged landscape once burgeoned with coho salmon, but they have diminished as silt filled their spawning beds, the legacy of clear-cutting on steep slopes.

While Dean says the company's long-range logging plans will heal the land, a group of about 30 North Coast and Bay Area activists are anything but convinced.

They point out that more than 100 approved timber-harvest plans issued by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection were part of the deal between Louisiana Pacific and Mendocino Redwood Co. And these harvest plans, say the environmentalists, basically hark back to the old style of logging that has wreaked so much damage on the environment.

``Mendocino Redwood says they are committed to sustainable forestry, but they are operating under Louisiana Pacific's basic harvest plans,'' said Mary Pjerrou, a resident of the Mendocino County hamlet of Elk who is one of the leading critics of the company.

``No matter what they say about their commitment to sustainable forestry, their current level of harvest isn't sustainable,'' said Pjerrou.

Although virtually all the activists are Californians, they have succeeded in stirring up trouble for the Fisher family on a national scale, organizing demonstrations against Mendocino Redwood's logging plans at Gap stores in 30 cities, including New York and San Francisco.

Dean, Pjerrou and their respective supporters recently toured one of the sites scheduled for imminent harvest, a steep portion of hillside land above Greenwood Creek that is heavily cloaked with redwood, Douglas fir, white fir and tan oak.

To a layman, the forests looked lush and healthy. But they were not old forests. Most of the trees had small-diameter trunks, and they were closely spaced. There was none of the cathedral-like spaciousness typical of ancient forests.

Pjerrou said she was horrified by the condition of the woodlands. ``This is a uniformly young forest, and it will remain that way under your plan,'' she said. ``Marbled murrelets can't live here and neither can spotted owls. It's a disgrace.''

But Dean and Mendocino Redwood chief forester Mike Jani vigorously objected. The company is cutting a third less than did Louisiana Pacific. It is rigorously managing streams to protect endangered coho salmon, decommissioning old roads and rejecting large clear-cuts for smaller group cuts and selective tree thinning.

``We're leaving all trees larger than 48 inches (in diameter) or older than 250 years,'' said Jani. ``That's hardly the policy of a company concerned with short-term profits.''

Dean said the company's goal is to obtain sustainable forestry certification from a group affiliated with the Forest Stewardship Council, an international organization that oversees sustainable forestry projects.

The company has participated in a ``scoping'' process to determine what needed to be done to obtain certification, said Dean, and was relying heavily on advice from Jani, who came to Mendocino Redwood from Big Creek Timber, a Santa Cruz company that manages about 10,000 acres of certified forest.

Certification is a lengthy process. It involves three basic elements, said Debbie Hammel, director of forest conservation programs for Scientific Research Systems, an Oakland firm sanctioned by the Forest Stewardship Council:

-- Timber sustainability -- examining the company's harvesting methods and rates and whether it is maintaining timber stocks over time.

-- Ecosystem maintenance -- looking at how well the company is sustaining endangered species, stream health and unique ecosystems like old-growth forests.

-- And financial viability and community relations -- looking at the company's debt and how likely is it to liquidate stocks to service it, and how concerned it is with local communities.

Hammel said that certified wood still comprises only a small part of the world's lumber and timber sales, but that it is growing by leaps and bounds. And because its products are certified, the company hopes to receive top dollar.

``There's a huge demand for certified wood, and (companies) want to respond to that,'' she said.

Fisher family members say sustainable harvesting is a sound investment approach. John Fisher, a partner with Sansome Partners, the family's investment firm, said the economics of it are what attracted the family into the timber business in the first place.

``When you harvest less than you grow, the property is worth substantially more every year,'' he said. ``Other natural resources are depleted when they're exploited -- but timber doesn't have to be, if it's managed properly. In theory, it can last forever.''

Indeed, the family has hinted that it is considering expanding its holdings and purchasing an additional 200,000 acres of timberland put up for sale about two weeks ago by Georgia Pacific, another large wood-products company.

But some veterans of the North Coast timber wars remain unconvinced that the Mendocino Redwood land will fare any better under the Fisher family's ownership than it did under Louisiana Pacific.

Kevin Bundy, spokesman for the Environmental Protection Information Center in Garberville, one of the lead organizations in the decade-long fight against efforts by Pacific Lumber Co. to log Headwaters Forest, said Mendocino Redwood has gotten off to a bad start.

``They say they want to do the right thing, but here they are recycling old Louisiana Pacific timber harvest plans,'' said Bundy. ``The public relations is good, but nothing has really changed yet on the ground.''

Dean said that implementation of the harvest plans is simply a short- term effort to improve the company's cash flow, and that the general reduction of the cut is the real issue.

Other environmental groups say Mendocino Redwood needs some time and support to get its program in high gear.

ROBIN WEINER / The Chronicle
Clear-cutting is evident along inclines in Little Bull Creek on the Albion River.
``I won't say everything they're doing is as environmentally sensitive as it should be, but I am convinced they are seriously interested in rehabilitating their lands,'' said Steve Trafton, the California policy coordinator for Trout Unlimited, a nationwide advocacy group that promotes the preservation of wild trout waters.

Trafton notes that much of the company's land constitutes watershed for the various forks of the Garcia River, a stream that contains runs of endangered coho salmon.

``The company has entered into an ambitious restoration project with us on the South Fork of the Garcia,'' said Trafton. ``They're financing a very significant part of the work, and they've opened their doors to us, allowing us complete access. We anticipate we'll be able to start projects on other (parts of the Garcia) soon. That never would have happened with Louisiana Pacific.''

As heated as the dialogue has been, company principals say they did not really expect gentle treatment when they bought the land from Louisiana Pacific.

``We knew the North Coast had been overharvested when we bought this, and we knew there were a lot of concerned people up here,'' said John Fisher.

``We didn't think we'd win 100 percent of the people over on day 1,'' said Fisher. ``But I think we've already demonstrated that we are true to our word. The bottom line is that we are going to grow more timber than we harvest. Year after year, the forest will keep getting healthier.''

©2000 San Francisco Chronicle

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