From WILL PARRISH
Mendocino Redwood Company, or MRC, is Mendocino County’s largest private landowner. No other individual or entity comes close. The company owns 227,000 acres of redwood and mixed conifer forest in the county’s western half. Much of this veritable latifundia stretches across the vast mountainous expanses southwest of Willits to northeast of Point Arena. It also includes several other large swaths located east of Rockport, north of Willits, and south of Point Arena. In all, MRC owns roughly 10 percent of private land in our vast county. It also owns over 5,000 acres of western Sonoma County.
To say that MRC owns this vastness is to say indirectly that one of the wealthiest dynasties on the West Coast, the Fisher family of San Francisco, actually owns it. Altogether, the Fishers are worth an estimated $9 billion. One of the private equity firms of which the Fishers are majority owners, named Sansome Partners, is MRC’s parent company. The same Fisher investment vehicle also owns Humboldt Redwood Company, which encompasses over 209,000 of the neighboring county to Mendo’s north. Within the Fishers’ 440,000 acres of forestland in Humboldt, Mendocino, and Sonoma counties, the family owns more coastal redwood forest than any private entity ever has.
MRC management’s decisions about how they manage these lands have major consequences. That is particularly the case given the profound consequences of global climate change. Coast redwoods (sequoia sempervirens) store the most carbon of any living thing on Earth. Thus, the Fishers’ North Coast properties probably have as much carbon storage potential as any land of equivalent size on the planet. MRC officials, of course, claim they are doing a marvelous job of restoring these forests.
Fortunately, while governmental regulations of industrial activities have generally proved to be enormously inadequate when it comes to protecting the integrity of the planet’s ecosystems (we are currently living through the most rapid mass extinction of animal life in the earth’s history), regulatory bureaucracies do generate an enormous amount of useful data. For example, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CalFire) has a document of record on file concerning every timber harvest that Mendocino Redwood Company has ever conducted.
Taking advantage of California’s relatively generous public records laws, I have just completed a comprehensive study of Mendocino Redwood Company timber harvests between 1998 and 2013. I compiled data from every timber harvest plan (THP) that MRC filed during this period, with a focus on quantitatively understanding how the company has managed its enormous landholdings (download the spreadsheet). Specifically, I obtained the information from an online database called the Watershed Mapper, where CalFire has logged data concerning every timber harvest plan filed in California since the listing of coho salmon as endangered in the mid-’90s.
I will present more detailed analysis resulting from my study next week. In the meantime, here are a few preliminary findings.
In this roughly 16-year period, Mendocino Redwood Company carried out timber harvests on nearly 100,000 acres (97,206.9, to be exact). On average, these timber harvests encompassed 6,075.43 acres per year. The lowest acreage, by far, was in 2009 in the midst of the economic downturn. The peak was in 2001.
The Fishers formed Mendocino Redwood Company in 1998 when they purchased the holdings of Louisiana Pacific Corporation, a notorious cut-and-run outfit that laid waste to vast amounts of forestland. LP’s approach was epitomized, rather famously, by its former chairman, Harry Merlo, who stated, “It always annoys me to leave anything on the ground when we log our own land. We don’t log to a 10-inch top, we don’t log to an 8-inch top or a 6-inch top. We log to infinity. It’s out there, it’s ours, and we want it all. Now.”
Soon after purchasing most of Mendocino County’s prime timberland, MRC’s leadership announced they would practice restoration logging and manage their land in such a way as to bring back the ecological balance of the creeks, streams, vegetation, and wildlife. From soon after the company’s inception, its mantra has been “to demonstrate it is possible to manage productive forestlands with a high standard of environmental stewardship, and also operate a successful business.”
For the Fishers, image was crucial at the time of MRC’s founding. Sweatshop labor in overseas factories had become a topic of popular concern. The Gap had been widely exposed for operating an archipelago of sweatshops throughout the Global South where men and women as young as nine years-old toiled for 16 hours a day at basement wages, in deplorable conditions. Giving the Fishers the benefit of the doubt, they may also have believed on some level in the mantra’s viability.
Up until now, though, it has been difficult to evaluate the company’s logging practices in a quantitative manner. Most data concerning the company’s practices has been produced by the company itself. This information paints a hopelessly one-sides picture. Naturally, MRC claims to be doing a marvelous job of restoring the forest. Are they?
When it comes to MRC officials’ claim that their company is a friendly departure from other timber corporations, much of it rests on the use of so-called “uneven-aged management” harvesting techniques and a rejection of traditional clear-cutting. For example, here is text from a section of MRC’s web site entitled “Silviculture and Harvesting Methods”:
“At MRC and HRC, we manage our forestlands with a long term goal of restoring the forest to a well-stocked condition with a large variety of sizes and ages of trees. To that end, neither company uses traditional clearcutting as a harvesting method. All harvested stands retain elements that provide perpetual, multi-aged stand structure, and maintain critical ecological refugia (e.g., patches of retained trees, snags, downed woody debris, and undisturbed soil).”
To understand these practices, and how they translate on the ground, involves teasing out a fair amount of timber industry jargon. “Uneven-aged management” involves managing the forest for stands that differ significantly in ages. It involves removing mature trees, or groups of them, leaving gaps for young trees to grow. “Even-aged management” involves uniformly removing trees across a given area of forest. It is typically far more destructive than “uneven-aged management.” Clear-cutting is the most common and well-known form of “even-aged management.”
Historically, MRC has conducted a great deal of clear-cutting on its lands. The peak of traditional clear-cutting occurred in 2004, when the company clear-cut 996.42 acres, according to the Calfire data. Shortly after, the company began a transition to a technique called “Variable Retention,” or what is traditionally known in the timber industry as “fuzzy clear-cutting.” Variable retention involves retaining between 10 and 40 of the original forest stand. MRC regards it as a form of “even-aged management.” I will evaluate this and other forms of “even-aged management” the company uses in next week’s AVA.
Historically, MRC has relied on “uneven-aged management” slightly more than “even-aged management.” The company conducted “uneven-aged management” forms of timber harvest on 43,634.18 acres in the 16 years under study. It conducted “even-aged management” on 33,910.2 acres and variable retention on 8,256.8 acres (collectively, that totals 42,167 acres of “even-aged management” harvests, according to how MRC classifies things). Again, I will provide a much more in-depth analysis of what these figures say about MRC’s management practices — and how they give lie to the company’s claim to be practicing “restoration” forestry — next week. Next week’s piece will feature several more data charts, as well as several line graphs illustrating trends.