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Getting Giddy about Georgia-Pacific’s Tree Sale

With considerable fanfare, The Timber Company (aka Georgia-Pacific of Atlanta) has announced that it will follow suit — like its anti-trust spin-off Louisiana-Pacific, G-P is getting out of Mendocino County. L-P always used to proclaim, “We’re here to stay” — at least until it wasn’t anymore. G-P did the same, dutifully doling out a high school scholarship here or there and buying ads in the programs of local events. G-P was the company that everyone thought was really here to stay. Until a couple of years ago when it started laying off staff up and down the local corporate ladder and facilitating transfers to other places. At the same time, it began sprucing up its Fort Bragg facilities, using some of its own timber to erect fencing along Highway One, and otherwise looking like it might be downsizing its ocean-view log decks for motel development. (Whoops, did I say that?)

Along with these signs of change came the influx of timber harvest plan activity. Georgia-Pacific seemed insistent on getting its Sustained Yield Plan (or some alternative) approved by the California Department of Forestry in order to give it a master plan for the cutting over the sparse third-generation redwoods and Douglas firs. Aside from two small state parks, Mendocino County has no idea what a real Ancient Redwood looks like. “Old Growth” (trees more than 200 years old) appear to likewise be little more than a figment of the imagination. Despite the absence of sizable timber in significant volumes, G-P began laying timber harvest plan after THP on the table at CDF for quick approval. And, as usual, CDF has been most accommodating. Despite G-P’s assurances in plans only 5-10 years old that the area will not be re-entered for harvesting for at least 15-20 years, CDF concludes that the “old” assurances by G-P are simply not binding. The agency is approving re-entries on plans that were completed as little as three years ago. (Have trees started regenerating faster recently?) So for the past 18 months or so, G-P has been bankrolling a considerable number of THPs to hand over to the new buyer. 

With Monday’s announcement that G-P has sold all its 200,000 acres of Mendocino and Humboldt county timberlands (what about the mills?) for about $400 million, came a gush of enthusiasm and excitement. Why? The buyer is Hawthorne Timber Company. Ever hear of them? How about their “partial owner” called The Campbell Group? No? Keep moving up the food chain. How about UAM? That stands for United Asset Management, the owner of The Campbell Group. Do you think this hydra-headed corporate creation will manage Mendocino forests sensitively and sustainably? Well let’s check out some websites and find out who the new timber barons are.

For starters, we know that Mendocino Redwood Company (aka the GAP’s Fisher Family) bought Louisiana-Pacific’s 250,000 acres (approximately) a year ago. We know that Godfather Donald Fisher is worth at least $10 billion. But that hasn’t slowed the enthusiasm to cut trees. Now comes The Campbell Group, but it is only a partial owner of Hawthorne Timber. So who else “owns” Mendocino trees? Well, they won’t say. More corporate obscurism, keeping lines of responsibility indistinct. Good for buck-passing and corporate babblespeak. Good for keeping the masses in line.

Want to try tracing ownership lines? Good luck. UAM’s website proclaims the entity as one of the largest independent investment management organizations in the entire world, managing almost $200 billion for clients around the globe. Clients? Unnamed, of course, but including “corporate benefit plans, mutual funds, government and union benefit plans, individuals, endowments, professional groups and foundations.” Such a breadth of clientele has invited speculation that the unnamed owner is CalPERS (California Public Employee Retirement System). CalPERS has remained silent.

UAM’s fund, we are told, actually consists of 40 different funds managed by “over 20 independent, autonomous, investment affiliates,” each “reflecting its own unique approach to investment management” in the absence of any “single investment philosophy or style.” That’s good for starters. No overriding commitment to environmental standards or human rights guarantees. We’re just a wild and crazy bunch, out there bringing home the cash. And we’re all over the world doing this — from the U.S. to Canada, to Paris, London, Amsterdam, Scotland, and Toyko. 

How about the partial owner Campbell Group? The website preamble starts off alright, emphasizing both “service,” “putting the client first,” and “emphasizing integrity.” But matters go downhill rather fast from there. Any acknowledgement of environmental standards? The best you’re going to do is CG’s page on “Stewardship,” which sounds suspiciously like something stolen from MRC. In three paragraphs, one learns that Stewardship has something to do with “protecting the integrity of the timberland asset,” but the bottom line becomes apparent quickly. “In addition, forest stewardship must also be relevant to a broader business perspective.” Priorities are clarified in this paragraph. Public image, business credibility, reduced regulatory risk (keep cutting) and increased land value are up there. “In the process,” says CG, it will “maintain or enhance the environment.” 

Investors might be encouraged. Horizontal trees produce quick cash. The Campbell Group only seeks timberland that “requires intensive management to fully realize value.” Its “long-term perspective” includes genetically-engineered tree seedlings, controlling competing vegetation (did someone say Garlon?), and “enhancing timber growth and quality through thinning.” CDF ought to like these folks. The Campbell Group never explains what it means by “long-term sustainable perspective,” other than to say, “We may not own our forests forever, but we manage them as if we will.” Guess we don’t need to worry about a cut-and-run strategy?

So somebody better tell the critters in the woods that there’s a new boy on the block and it seems he likes to play for keeps. G-P had already boosted its harvest rate to twice that of Mendocino Redwood Company, though the latter is just getting settled in after a year in the saddle. One would hope such cash-rich corporate creatures could find it somewhere in their investment strategy to realize that forests don’t grow at a rate which is convenient to the stock market. Maybe there is nothing wrong with leaving the trees alone for awhile and allowing for natural, rather than forced, regeneration. Is there some reason we can’t seem to envision “investments” as extending beyond our own lifetime. What happened to thoughts about our children and the next Seven Generations?

(Rodney R. Jones is a Mendocino environmental lawyer and not a disinterested party.)

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