WILL PARRISH: MRC’s Private Meetings with the Supervisors

supes2015

From WILL PARRISH
Ukiah
TheAVA

Large, politically-active corporations tend to employ influence peddlers who can talk when even money can’t. A perfect example is playing out here in Mendocino County. The county’s largest land baron has summoned each individual member of the Board of Supervisors into a series of closed-door meetings.

Mendocino Redwood Company (MRC) officials begin these private, friendly dialogues with Mendocino County supervisors John McCowen, Carre Brown, Dan Hamburg, Dan Gjerde, and Tom Woodhouse this week.

The topic at hand, according to a group e-mail to the supervisors from MRC, is “significant capital investments” MRC is making in its Ukiah mill site on North State St., a manufacturing center that converts redwoods and Doug firs extracted from local forests into decking, fencing, and other lumber products on behalf of Home Depot stores from the Bay Area to Guam. Several Mendocino County loggers I interviewed for a story about MRC in January had mentioned the company’s plans to expand the mill.

The supervisors are meeting with MRC CEO Bob Mertz, recently hired away from a similar position at Sierra Pacific Industries (one of the only California timber corporations larger than MRC), along with one other company official — “likely Mike Jani,” the e-mail notes.

“I hope you are doing well. Our CEO, Bob Mertz, accompanied by one other executive (likely Mike Jani who is our President & Chief Forester) would like to schedule individual meetings with each of the Board Members,” the e-mail reads. “The meetings would serve as an introduction and an opportunity to update the members on our overall business operations, especially in light of the significant capital investments we are making at our mill operations in Ukiah, as well as a chance for open dialog and to answer any questions the board may have for us. The meetings would likely take about 15 to 30 minutes each.”

MRC owns 10% of Mendo’s private lands (227,000 acres), including much of the prime redwood forest spanning from the Garcia River watershed to the southern edge of the Usal Forest. The company is a division of a sprawling timber concern that also includes Humboldt Redwood Company, owner of a similar amount of redwood, Doug-fir, and occasional grasslands in Humboldt County.

If officials at the lumber firm merely wished to bring the supervisors up-to-speed on the latest company news, they could have scheduled an update at a regular Board of Supervisors meeting, as they have in the past. Instead, MRC officials are engaging in behind-the-scene lobbying. The California Brown Act mandates that any meeting of three supervisors or more be open to the public. In the case of these five separate meetings with Mendocino County’s leading elected officials, nobody but the individual supervisors will be on hand.

Since MRC’s inception, the company has been quite active in shaping policies that impact its bottom line, a reflection both of the nature of its business (felling redwood trees in an area with a long history of forest protection activism) and of its overseers. The company’s majority owners, the Fisher Family of San Francisco, are among the US’s wealthiest dynasties. They are also among its most politically influential.

One of MRC’s co-owners, Robert Fisher, is an influential member of Governor Jerry Brown’s cabinet, as I described in a February 11th article entitled “The Lumber Man In Charge of Climate Policy.” Governor Brown’s wife, Anne Gust-Brown, is a former long-time staff attorney for The Gap. In this capacity, Mrs. Gust-Brown reported directly to the Fishers, who own the retail clothing chain. Her heavy hand in shaping the governor’s policies and decisions is well-known in the corridors of the State capitol.

In this connection, it should be noted that the governor appoints the state officials that preside over agencies — such as the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board, CalFIRE, and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife — that ostensibly regulate the activities of Mendocino Redwood Company and Humboldt Redwood Company.

Part of the context for MRC’s lobbying of the supervisors is that grassroots opposition to the company’s practices is growing. Local residents have criticized the increased size of MRC’s recent timber harvest plans, its practice of annually squirting around 4,000 pounds of herbicides into tan oaks, and the growing risk of fire danger stemming from the company’s shrubbification of regional forests in a context of global warming and historic drought.

In the last two years, MRC has applied with CalFIRE to conduct some of the largest timber harvests in its (or its infamous predecessor L-P’s) history. These include a timber harvest plan (THP) covering a 1,450-acre swath near Comptche, one of similar size in the Elk Creek watershed on the Mendocino Coast, and several others of between 250 and 1,400 acres in size in the Albion, Navarro, and Russian River watersheds.

The company’s increasingly ambitious timber harvests may signal an effort to increase its supply of raw logs as its mill ramps up production. MRC representatives have strongly denied that the larger harvest plans signal any sort of significant change, though, even with the proposed mill expansion appearing as a counter-indication.

For example, the company recently posted a lengthy response to a February 11th article I published in the East Bay Express (this piece also appeared in the Feb. 18th Anderson Valley Advertiser). The response appears on the company’s web site at

http://www.hrcllc.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/MRC-reponse-to-East-Bay-Press-article.pdf.

In it, MRC claims the larger timber harvest plan acreages are arising in response to local concerns, and do not actually mean the company is harvesting more lumber.

“Some of Mendocino Redwood Company’s neighbors and interested members of the community have asked for timber harvest planning to take place across bigger landscapes as opposed to smaller discrete planning areas so that a broader ecological view can be employed in formulating the plans,” the MRC response to my article reads. “This has resulted in the company sometimes using bigger planning areas for harvesting, while still covering about the same number of acres per year for overall harvest.”

Based on the best available data, MRC’s claim that the timber harvests are “still covering about the same number of acres per year for overall harvest” is untrue. I am publishing a quantitative study of MRC’s timber harvest acreages, dating to its inception, in next week’s AVA.

One of the company’s strongest pockets of opposition, unsurprisingly, has been in Albion. Residents of the Albion River watershed have been at the forefront of resistance to destructive logging since the 1970s. And one of MRC’s strongest critics there in the past six months has been Albion-Little River Volunteer Fire Department Chief Ted Williams.

By removing the forest canopy provided by older trees and thereby generating lots of young tree growth, timber harvests like the one in Albion create drier conditions in forests, and thus a greater likelihood of catastrophic wildfires. The company’s practice of spraying roughly 4,000 pounds a year of the herbicide Imazapyr, targeting tan oak trees, which are not as marketable as redwoods and firs, likely also increases the fire danger, if only by leaving swaths of standing dead trees. Fire Chief Williams has expressed concerns about all of these things, as well as the fact that Albion residents have only one egress — Albion Ridge Rd. — and are therefore liable to be stuck in their homes in the event of a catastrophic wildfire.

The danger of such fires is growing as climate change advances. Eight of the 15 largest wildfires in the US’ recorded history have taken place since 2000.

On March 11, Williams helped introduce an ordinance to the Albion-Little River Fire Protection District that would prohibit leaving dead standing timber within the district’s lands. The Mendocino County Counsel’s office says it is reviewing the ordinance. Meanwhile, Williams sent a seven-page letter to the Mendocino County Supervisors on March 20th noting that logging plans that increase fire dangers “during a severe drought as means to increase profit should only be allowed under careful review” and asking for coordination.

On March 5th, more than 100 opponents of herbicide use attended a meeting with MRC officials in Comptche. Between 15 and 20 people attended a field tour of a small portion of MRC’s 1,450 acre logging plan near Comptche on March 25th.

Next week, I’ll publish a more in-depth story on MRC’s recent logging plans, as well as those of Mendocino County’s other large timber baron, Hawthorne-Campbell.
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