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21st Century Timber Wars

At Sierra Pacific Industries' sawmill on the Samoa Peninsula, where the Mad River Slough meets Humboldt Bay, eight miles southwest of Arcata, logging trucks carrying redwoods and Doug firs roll through the entrance several hundred times a day during the summer months. The trees are felled on the company's mountainous tracts off of the Trinity Highway, high above Willow Creek, as well as in other areas of Humboldt County, then hauled to the coastal mill to be refined into lumber for both housing and commercial construction.

Given the favorable weather and road conditions, timber companies cut at a frenzied pace in the dry season. The amount of cutting is particularly extravagant in the case of Sierra Pacific Industries, Goliath among California's industrial timber giants.

The more than-a-century-year-old firm, which was founded in Humboldt, controls over two million acres, or more than two percent of all private land in California. That translates to greater than half of the state's industrial timberland. The company is best known in recent years for clearcutting in the Sierra Nevada and other northern forests. Its Humboldt County operations are less well-known.

A group of roughly two dozen people, galvanized under the banner of radical eco-defense group Earth First!, sought to change that this past Monday, August 6th, while also giving lie to the company's marketing claim that it is engaged in “sustainable” logging. The Earth Firsters sat in front of the gate off the Samoa mill for roughly an hour, linking arms to block access by the logging trucks.

Setting up the blockade provided a few dramatic moments. The initial truck's driver waited until his wheels were inches from the protesters' bodies before fully applying the brakes. He stopped, eventually turning off his engine and waiting out the full length of the blockade while still seated in the truck. The truck's cargo was particularly symbolic and fit with the purposes of the action: it was carrying redwood logs four to five feet in diameter.

The protesters hoisted banners read “SFI Is A Scam” and “Sierra Pacific Industries Logs Old-Growth.” The former refers to the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI), a private group directed by the timber and paper industries that certifies several timber companies, including Sierra Pacific, as “sustainable.” The certification is important for marketing purposes: Sierra Pacific uses the SFI logo in all of its advertising, along with the slogan “Growing Forests For Our Future.”

A few adventurous Earth Firsters also mounted the truck and draped a banner bearing the words “Fresh Picked Old-Growth Certified,” with a drawing of giant conifers, across the giant logs. Earlier in the day, a handful of Earth First! members posing as journalists had entered the Sustainable Forestry Initiative office at the site and asked several pointed questions about the certification company's policies. The questions focused in particular on why the company certifies old-growth logging and the application of prodigious amounts of chemicals as “sustainable.”

Humboldt County Sheriffs deputies arrived at the site, threatening arrest. Eventually, the protesters withdrew. This was a “soft blockade.” The intention, in other words, was to make a somewhat more than symbolic show of strength, then fall back having drawn attention to the issue, and soon muster greater strength for battles to come.

For example, Sierra Pacific just last month issued a proposal to log 245 acres, primarily by clear-cutting, in the North Fork Mattole and Bear Rivers: an area composed mainly of mature second-growth Douglas fir, oaks, and madrones. The logging plan was returned to the company for re-writing by the Dept. of Forestry reviewer because there were too many unanswered questions and inconsistencies. They will have to re-write parts of the plan and re-submit it before it will be considered for approval. EF! Humboldt has already begun campaigning against the logging plan.

The group is coming off a significant victory, which has raised its profile while strengthening its momentum and resolve. For more than four years, the group maintained a tree-sit -- a direct-action protest where a group or individual physically occupies a tree or stand of trees by living in them for extended periods of time – in an area east of Eureka called the McKay Tract. The tract consists of some the largest and oldest unprotected redwood forest remaining in the United States, including innumerable 100-year-old second-growth and some residual old-growth. The title holder, Green Diamond Resources Company, planned to clear-cut this forest.

In February 2009, Green Diamond timber fallers were sent in to log the 100 year old second-growth and residual old-growth Redwood forest, but discovered multiple tree-sit areas and a large crowd of protesters on the edge of the woods. From that point, hundreds of people – including people from eleven different countries, according to the Earth First! organizers – came to help maintain and support the tree sit.

Less than two months ago, Green Diamond sent paperwork to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, withdrawing the clear-cut logging plan where the tree-sits have been located. The logging company recently stated that it is close to signing a deal to sell roughly 2,000 acres of the western McKay Tract to the Trust for Public Land. The Trust plans to manage the area as a community forest in a similar manner to the City of Arcata Community Forest.

Other groups with less of a direct action orientation, ranging from the Northcoast Environmental Center to the Center for Biological Diversity, have also intervened in many of the recent battles over clear-cutting in HumCo. For example, the Center for Biological Diversity filed a lawsuit against Sierra Pacific in 2010 attempting to block 15 separate Sierra Pacific proposals to clear-cut in California.

Sierra Pacific spokespeople claim that the clearcut areas, which appear from overhead as checkerboard patches of barren land transecting majestic spirals of brown and green, are important to the recovery of the forest because they act as fire breaks. In the eyes of consumers and legislators, such claims are validated to an otherwise impossible degree by the Sustainable Forestry Initiative's imprimatur.

Founded in 1994, the SFI was the US timber industry's collective response to mounting protests against logging in the US, as well as to the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, which encouraged industries to start voluntary monitoring programs that would demonstrate they are on the path of “sustainable development.” Today, the SFI is the “largest sustainable forest standard in the world,” according to its web site. The group claims to be “independent,” although the vast majority of its funding comes from the industry it monitors as well as from corporate donors.

Some more middle-of-the-road environmental groups that have taken issue with the Sustainable Forestry Initiative's standards have advocated for companies like Sierra Pacific Industries to pull out of its affiliation with SFI, and instead adopt a rival certification group called the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), which they say has stronger standards.

Many people in Mendocino County have an altogether different view of the FSC, however, including those who have recently raised concerns about herbicide spraying by outfits like Mendocino Redwood Company (MRC) (see letter by Mike Kalantarian in this issue). FSC certifies the company as sustainable. As an example of how this certification comes into play, many AVA readers have likely viewed an MRC ad that has aired repeatedly during televised San Francisco Giants games recently that touts the company's green practices and focuses on its FSC certification.

While the FSC does restrict the use of numerous chemicals, such as the deadly agricultural herbicide Atrazine, it allows the use of the primary forest chemical used here in Mendo: Imazapyr. Timber companies in Mendo have used between 5,000 and 6,000 pounds of Imazapyr on tan oak trees during almost every year since the late-'90s, as I've explored in two recent pieces in the AVA.

Next week, I'll conclude my recent series on corporate timber practices on the North Coast by taking a closer look at the Forest Stewardship Council, as well as re-examining the herbicide spraying policies of Mendocino Redwood Company and other local firms.

As for members of Earth First! Humboldt, they are nearly as critical of the FSC as they are of the Sustainable Forestry Initiative, though the SFI is by far the greater factor in their area. As one long-time organizer of Earth First! Humboldt told me, “FSC has huge problems too, and people need to realize that.” Another remarked that the FSC is akin to Pepsi, as against the SFI's Coke: in other words, not a viable alternative.

While many people in Mendocino County associate Earth First! with the “timber wars” period of battles against Maxxam and Louisiana Pacific, the voracious timber giants that mopped up most of the North Coast's remaining old-growth in the '80s and '90s, it's striking that most Earth First! Humboldt participants are fairly young, and perhaps only two of them had any involvement in the Timber Wars period. This is an entirely new generation of forest defenders.

For more information on the group, visit

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