Mendo Protests The Fisher Family
by Will Parrish, August 24, 2016
On August 18th, about 30 Mendocino County residents came by van and bus to San Francisco to rally outside the office tower headquarters of Sansome Partners, the investment firm that controls Mendocino Redwood Company. Sansome Partners is itself controlled by the Fisher family, the multi-billionaire investor clan best known as founders of The Gap.
The Mendo denizens, who mainly hail from Albion and Ukiah and Comptche, were calling on MRC to stop poisoning unmerchantable hardwood trees in the 227,000 acres they own in western Mendocino County and northwestern Sonoma County.
A banner reading “Let The Forests Heal” reflected one of the most common sentiments. Others read “Stop the Cut — Save the Climate” and “Shame! Shame! MRC 90,000 Acres of Standing Dead Trees.”
After members of the crowd offered some loud words to the Fisher family through a bullhorn, they heard songs specific to the occasion from the Ragin' Grannies, and some brief remarks by yours truly (filling the role of literateur of the Fisher Family's business ventures) and Albion-Little River Volunteer Fire Chief Ted Williams, who said his intention in being there was to ask for a meeting with the Fishers.
A security guard claimed John Fisher, the main shepherd of the family's timber investment, was not present in the building and instead offered to help set up a meeting at a later date.
The Mendo contingent then caravaned across several blocks to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, of which Robert Fisher (John's brother) is president. The protesters set out a collection of protest artwork on the sidewalk, such as a canvas drawing stating “There is a GAP In the Forest,” which features a masked figure reminiscent of the character Ghostface in Scream wielding a hatchet, accompanied by the label “Fisher Greed,” against a dark depiction of the woods.
The third through six floors of SF MOMA are currently a showcase for much of the Fisher family's private art collection, which I declined to pay to see, although lingering inside the building for a spell afforded me the chance to overhear a few half-assed hippy jokes from people as they passed through the entrance, viz. “Smells like two weeks since they showered.”
Beth Bosk, publisher of the countercultural almanac The New Settler, has been advocating since late-2014 for a Mendo contingent to sojourn to SF to shame the Fishers on their home turf, starting soon after MRC filed a timber harvest plan in an area of the Albion River watershed called “Railroad Gulch.” In fact, she and several of the other participants in this action were part of a nearly identical effort to confront the Fishers in their personal bastions of wealth and comfort in 2001, fairly soon after the family purchased their Mendocino and Sonoma county lands from Louisiana-Pacific.
Fifteen years later, the size of the Fisher family's timber holdings has roughly doubled, though they may be on the ropes in Humboldt, where they own another 209,000 acres. Several recent timber “cruise” assessment of remaining timber volume have revealed that the company has far less available to cut than they previously thought. Well-placed sources say the Fishers would sell their Humboldt County lands yesterday if they got a half-way decent offer on it.
In San Francisco, Humboldt County-based opponents of despoiling the forest were absent. Some of the almost entirely Mendocino County-based group of protesters carried signs reading “Respect the Vote.”
In June, Mendocino County voters overwhelmingly approved Measure V, with 62 percent voting in favor, declaring it a nuisance to kill and leave standing for more than 90 days trees that are over 16 feet tall. The measure is aimed at preventing the timber industry practice called “Hack 'n' Squirt,” which — as we've continually noted in the AVA across the past four years — involves cutting around the base of a tree, peeling back the bark, and spraying herbicide into the freshly opened gashes, and then leaving the tree standing dead.
But MRC Executive Vice President Dennis Thibeault has asserted in a letter to Mendocino County CEO Carmel Angelo that both the county's Right to Farm ordinance and a Forest Practices Act provision limiting the ability of counties to regulate logging mean the company is exempt from Measure V.
The initiative's authors, on the other hand, say the California Code allows them to pass an ordinance limiting timber company activities where health and safety is concerned. Then-Mendocino County Counsel Doug Losak later wrote in a letter last year that the Albion-Little River Fire Protection District has the authority to pass such a measure under said code section, but current County Counsel Katharine Elliott has declined to add Measure V to the County Code thus far.
Not surprisingly, Mendocino County Supervisor Carre Brown told KMUD Evening News last week that she believes Measure V does not need to be added to the County Code. Supervisor John McCowen has expressed essentially the same position. Meanwhile, Supervisor Tom Woodhouse has fully committed himself to remaining non-committal about his full support for MRC's position.
Measure V's proponents are plotting their next move, with Ted Williams saying they are planning a measure that would strip Cal Fire of its fire-fighting authority in Mendocino County and thereby place more code enforcement authority in the hands of local people.
The backdrop for this statement was, again, Sansome Partners' office is located in One Maritime Plaza, a 24-story office building facing the Bay on Clay St. The defining feature of this massive structure of glass and dark metal is a grid of diagonal metal braces that criss-cross the entire length and breadth of the building. It's either the world's largest cage or a massive seismic safety feature assuring that this particular portion of the San Francisco Bay Area's capitalist class, at least, will have no trouble when the next big shaker strikes the region, which many seismologists are saying is long overdue.
The Fishers are not the building's only tenants. Another is Farallon Capital Management, the hedge fund through which well-known climate change philanthropist Tom Steyer amassed a personal fortune of $1.5 billion.
Still another is Hellman & Friedman, the private equity firm operated by Warren Hellman, the great grandson of financier Isaias Hellman who, among other things, created Wells Fargo Bank. Others include Del Monte Foods (one of the US' biggest food distributors), CVC Capital Partners (a venture capital spin-out of banking giant Citicorps), Big Heart Pet Brands (think Meow Mix and Pup-Peroni), and Friedman, Fleischer, and Lowe (another multi-billion-dollar private equity firm).
From these investors and corporations emanates a maze of wealth and power with seemingly endless branching, and if you track the Fisher Family's share of this financial power diligently across the globe, it invariably leads to places like Saipan, Indonesia, and Russia, where The Gap was found to pay factory workers just 11 cents/hour and keep them in slave-like conditions.
You'll also find, for example, that the Fishers has a major financial stake in perhaps the world's premier luxury hotel development company, Maritz, Wolff & Company, which owns resorts in virtually every corner of the world where significant amounts of capital accumulate: China, Saudi Arabia, Abu Dhabi, Europe, throughout the US, and in South America.
And you'll find that the Fishers count Marin County-based investment firm SPO Partners' principals as as their business partners in the luxury hotel chain. In 1999, SPO Partners bought a controlling interest in Plum Creek Timber Resources Co., formerly the largest timber land owner in the United States, with more than 3.4 million acres. SPO is currently heavily invested in the fracking and oil industries, including North Dakota-based Oasis Petroleum, one of the country's largest Bakken shale producers.
Generally, the task of confronting oligarchs like these is so frustrating that the vast majority of people will simply give up and play another round of Grand Theft Auto V. From a conventional perspective, the reason government exists is to give ordinary people leverage to control the decisions that affect their lives. In living fact, governments tend to be funded by capitalist titans like the Fishers, whose modus operandi is to remove decision-making power as far away as possible from the hands of local folks, particularly those whose labor their exploit and whose environments they despoil.
Here's a closely related historical example, though the Fisher family were not directly involved. Back in the 1970s, Louisiana Pacific — from which MRC purchased its Mendo timberland — would send helicopters out to spray its freshly-logged hills with herbicides to prevent non-commercial re-vegetation by tan oaks and other species. LP's chemical of choice was chemically similar to Agent Orange, a potent defoliant and teratogen used widely in the Vietnam War.
Alarmed by the initial aerial spraying on LP land near Branscomb, locals mobilized and put a ban on aerial spraying before the Board of Supervisors. The Supes voted them down. So, they mobilized and got an initiative passed by popular vote. The California Supreme Court upheld the ban.
Within months, state Democrats, led by Willie Brown, their coffers stuffed with ag cash, passed legislation that decreed that individual counties could not regulate herbicides and pesticides. Only the state could decide on the big ticket stuff like who can spray deadly chemicals and who can't.
There has been no aerial herbicide spraying in Mendocino County since then. One of the political impacts of this episode, however, was to place the power to regulate the timber and ag industries that much further out of the people's reach. The measures MRC cites to justify the position that it is exempt from Measure V, such as the Right to Farm ordinance, are of the same anti-democratic ilk.
The action last Thursday may have caused the Fisher family a small amount of embarrassment. The KPFA Evening News was the only regional media to cover it. As of press time, John Fisher's people have not followed up on the idea of scheduling the meeting Ted Williams requested.
For many local enviros, the next step will be to renew their protests of local targets, such as the Mendocino County Supervisors.