The last time I caught a steelhead in my river was 14 years ago. I can remember one year, it must have been the early or mid-1990s, when the timber company that owned the huge tracts of land surrounding the Navarro's north fork and main channel made devastating cuts far up the watershed. Mud poured downstream as the winter rains came and went. Gills choked with mud and the river scoured thoroughly by molten earth, few of the fish survived to spawn. Many of the river's trout were killed along with other wildlife. On the logged hillsides top soil that built up over thousands upon thousands of years was washed away just like that.
It was the Louisiana Pacific Corp. in one of their last liquidations of the redwoods that caused this disaster. The river is recovering slowly, as are the hillsides, but it takes time to heal a forest ecology. LP sold out its Mendocino holdings afterward to Mendocino Redwood Company, a corporation set up by the Fisher family (owners of the Gap clothing stores). Other timber giants sold out to other similarly set up companies like Humboldt Redwood Company, etc.
After the early 1990s the last of the big profitable timber was all but wiped out in California's coastal range, if it wasn't saved and protected in parks like Headwaters. Having destroyed the "resources" they were exploiting, and making a terrible name for themselves in the process, the corporate timber industry has been busy in recent years pursuing a new strategy to make the forests profitable again, and to rebuild a good name in the rural communities they trashed and abandoned.
The first part of the strategy is plain and simple greenwashing. Companies like Mendocino Redwood Company have gone to great lengths to portray themselves as stewards of the land, as though they were more interested in creating habitat for Oncorhynchus mykiss and Sequoia semperviren than filling their profit margins. Truth is MRC et al. are just as hungry to cut timber as a commodity and make profits for their corporate parents as the past bad-boys like Maxxam and Louisiana Pacific. The difference now is that there's not a major stand of profitable trees for them to destroy. Thus sitting on twenty, fifty, or one hundred year old trees and waiting for the magic decade down the line when they'll fetch a pretty penny isn't difficult. They're investing for a longer-term take here. Much of the forests can't be cut because they're so immature and filled with tan oak, madrone and other growth that is vital in mother nature's work to heal the land, but isn't economically worth anything to corporate landholders. So they'll wait.
The second part of the strategy has been to tie up foundation and public money and attention in this process. I'll be writing more about this kind of subsidization to the timber industry in the near future, so I won't go into here, but it has everything to do with public relations and getting capital besides their own to shoulder the process of healing the forests and regrowing mature redwoods, firs, and pines.
If you'd like to see a prime piece of pro-timber industry PR check out the October, 2009 National Geographic Magzine article "Redwoods, the Super Trees."
My buddy Will Parrish and I published a little letter to the editor a recent Anderson Valley Advertiser ("Ameirca's last newspaper!") to critique the article. We've got a lot more in store soon, so stay posted. In the meantime you can read our letter below.
SUSTAINABLE FORESTRY ISN’T
Back in October super-adventurer Michael Fay arrived in Caspar for a talk about his recent transect (a fancy word for a hike) through the redwoods, from Oregon to Big Sur. His presentation coincided with National Geographic Magazine’s feature story written by John Bourne on the redwoods in that month’s issue.
As dwellers in some of the remaining stands of coastal temperate rain forest in Mendocino County, we found Bourne’s convivial portrayal of the Pacific Northwest timber industry in its present incarnation detestable. Whatever his good intentions may have been, Bourne scarcely could have provided more favorable coverage to the corporate chameleons who currently seek to maximize their profits at the expense of our local ecosystems. Fay’s advocacy of this corporate greenwashing campaign, portrayed throughout Bourne’s article, is equally disturbing. In Caspar this agenda was on full display.
The main thread of the story is Michael Fay’s politically misguided, essentially pro-industry line, which maintains that “better managed” forests can provide “high-quality lumber” while actually preserving forest ecosystems. Despite their newfangled paens to “sustainable forestry,” the timber industry’s goal in this area remains fundamentally unaltered, even under the green-washed auspices of companies like Humboldt Redwood Company (HRC) and Mendocino Redwood Company (MRC): to turn forests into a commodity, so as to accumulate profits in their own coffers and those of distant banks. Altruistic notions of jobs for locals and clean rivers for fish factor in only to the extent that they benefit the company’s public images. Their PR operations have grown far more sophisticated under the direction of the Fisher Family than they were under the stupidly brazen Maxaam and Georgia Pacific multi-national timber firms in the ‘80s and ‘90s.
The carefully crafted “green” image of HRC and MRC rests largely on the image they have cultivated with help from their chief forester, Mike Jani — a man invoked in Bourne’s piece as a model proponent of the new politics of sustainable forestry. Notably, Jani is known to many forest defenders in Santa Cruz as “The Butcher of Butano,” in connection with his role in the liquidation of the final 4,000-acre tract of unprotected residual old growth redwood trees in the Santa Cruz Mountains while serving as chief forester of Big Creek Lumber Co. in the early to mid-nineties. Jani accomplished this feat in spite of Santa Cruz County’s logging regulations, which are perhaps the most stringent in the country. This sort of bureaucratic acumen makes Jani an ideal representative of a pair of firms that seek to maximize their profits while maintaining the appearance that they are complying with the loophole-ridden standards for “sustainable timber harvesting” set by the Forest Stewardship Council (of which Jani happens to be a director).
The massive swaths of ecosystem to which MRC has laid waste during its decade-plus “stewardship” of Mendocino County forestland provide the clearest testament to the dangers inherent in a greenwashed timber industry. As the Redwood Coast Watershed Alliance and other local activists have copiously documented, MRC has fragmented and eliminated thousands of acres of redwood and conifer forest via dozens of clear-cuts, including in sensitive (and now significantly more polluted) river ecosystems of the endangered coho salmon.
We find equally disturbing the complex schemes to financialize the redwoods and other forest ecosystems, whereby large swaths of wooded land are sold as “carbon offsets” to major polluters like the coal industry. These “carbon markets” do not meaningfully protect forests, nor do they transparently address the problem of global warming and industrial pollution. You’ll hear more about these carbon offsets in the near future as financial giants like Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan Chase are very excited about them, eager to press National Geographic’s staff in their service.
Michael Fay’s desire to provide jobs for timber workers at the same time that forest ecosystems are preserved is admirable. However, the corporate application of his ideas will invariably lead to the further destruction of what little is left of the vitally important remaining wilderness of the Pacific Northwest. After all, corporations are profit-generating machines by their very nature — never forget that their primary legal responsibility to their shareholders is to turn the largest profit possible, not to support local economies and healthy ecosystems.
Will Parrish / Darwin BondGraham
Laytonville / Navarro