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Greenwashing Forest Destruction

The forests of the world are in deep trouble. One especially sobering illustration is as follows. 1970 is commonly cited (erroneously) as the year environmental movement was born. Yet, according to the World Wildlife Fund, close to half of the world’s remaining so-called “virgin” forests have been cut since. Although there has been a great diversity of campaigns throughout the world to protect what remains of the world's forest, which have doubtless slowed the rate of destruction, those campaigns have nevertheless been woefully inadequate.

Meanwhile, according to an estimate by the Rainforest Action Network, two and a half acres of forest are cut every second: equivalent to two and a half football fields. That's 214,000 acres per day, an area larger than New York City. Each year, 78 million acres are deforested: an area larger than England and Wales combined.

Mendocino County is a microcosm of this crisis. Its once prodigious and seemingly endless stands of redwoods, Douglas firs, oaks, and pines have been reduced to a patchwork of dwindled and fragmented stands of oft-sickly second-and third-growth. The most recent and perhaps greatest cutting blitz occurred only recently, in the 1980s and 1990s, when a few large corporate timber outfits including Louisiana-Pacific and Georgia-Pacific devoured nearly all that remained of Mendo's large forest stands, in the process washing out miles upon miles of roads that silted up streambeds, raised temperatures to fish-hostile temperates and destroyed fisheries.

Since healthy forests are essential to the existence of life on earth as we know it, and given that people throughout the world depend on forests for their livelihoods, it might help to examine some of the ways that large institutions and organizations are trying to address forest depletion, here in Mendo as well as across the globe.

One of the most prominent approaches, both globally and in Mendo, comes courtesy of organizations like the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and Sustainble Forestry Initiative (SFI). These international non-profits certify and label forest products as “sustainable” based on a series of standards for managing and harvesting the trees. They say their labels offer customer the ability to choose products from “socially and environmentally responsible sources,” as the SFI's website claims.

In the mid-1990s, when both these groups came into existence, the timber industry was feeling the sting of public pressure as rarely before. Worldwide concern about forest depletion was at or near its peak. One major turning point on the legal front occurred here on the West Coast in May 1991, when Federal District Judge William Dwyer, ruling on a lawsuit filed by a coalition of twelve environmental groups seeking to prevent the extinction of the northern spotted owl, banned new timber sales on 24 million acres in 17 national forests in Oregon, Washington, and Northern California.

It was an ominous sign for the timber industry, one which called for a different marketing strategy.

The Clinton administration arrived in 1992 and, led by Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt, immediately set about getting around Judge Dwyer’s ruling. Babbitt threatened the environmental coalition with “sufficiency legislation” — which would have declared the Clinton administration’s awful logging plan (Option 9) to be immune from lawsuit. The enviros buckled and, over a few bleats of protest, withdrew their opposition to Option 9.

Soon thereafter, Sustainable Forest Initiative was founded, in 1994, by the timber industry's primary trade organization, the American Forest and Paper Association. It has grown to become the largest sustainable forest certifier in the world. Not surprisingly, though, the FSI certifies as “sustainable” timber companies that engage in massive clear-cutting. The organization also sees little wrong with extensive construction of new roads in previously untouched areas of forest: easily one of the most destructive aspects of the logging industry, as any local who has observed the ecological impact of the Masonite Road or other local logging roads can tell you.

Though the timber industry has dramatically declined in Mendo and Humboldt Counties in recent years due to the national economic decline, nearly 40 percent of the value of all timber harvested in California continues to come from those two counties. Naturally, a large number of SFI- and FSC-certified forests exist here.

The largest landholder that SFI certifies, for example, is also one with strong regional ties, Sierra Pacific Industries. The company was founded in Humboldt County in the early 20th century. With over 1.9 million acres in its privately owned portfolio, it has grown to become the largest landowner in the US. Most of that land is located in California, and a large portion of it is concentrated in Shasta, Madera, Trinity, and Humboldt Counties.

Examples of SPI-approved clear-cutting and old-growth logging plans in Humboldt County include a planned 245 acre clear-cut in the Mattole River and Bear River watersheds and another in Redwood Creek totaling 241 acres, both of which are awaiting approval by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CalFire).

As a devastating expose by the environmental NGO Forest Ethics puts it, “The average clearcut approved by SFI is the size of 90 football fields. Whether it’s the ‘average’ SFI-approved clearcut, or bigger, the cumulative impacts to watersheds, water quality and soil productivity are often permanent. SFI allows excessive use of toxic chemicals such as pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides that contaminate fresh water.”

The reasons the SFI does little to actually protect forests are easy to see. Not only was the organization founded by the timber industry, but virtually all of SFI's funding comes from the paper and timber industry. Its board of directors and staff are essentially a “who's who” of that industry. Yet, SFI-certified forest products are remarkably pervasive. The notebook I used to scrawl done notes for this article is adorned by an SFI logo in the lower right corner.

In contrast to the SFI, which most informed environmental activists recognize as a fraud, many mainstream environmental groups are staunch supporters of the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). There's little doubt the FSC has more stringent written standards than the SFI, including when it comes to clear-cutting and road construction, as well as application of toxic chemicals. For example, the FSC prohibits the use of the widely used and highly toxic weed killer atrazine, which has been linked to birth defects, low birth weights and menstrual problems. It is commonly used throughout the United States on industrial agriculture plantations, although it is banned in Europe.

When asked about cases where use of chemicals is permissible under the FSC standards, spokesperson Brad Kahn told the AVA: “For example, one cannot broadcast spray these chemicals – they must be applied with methods, such as backpack sprayers, that ensure they do not get into waterways or cause other unintended negative outcomes.”

Earlier this summer, there was a modest outcry in Mendocino County concerning the use of chemicals by one of the crown jewels in the FSC's portfolio of certified forest companies, Mendocino Redwood Company – owner of 10% of this county's private land. MRC widely uses a practice called “Hack and Squirt,” which involves cutting around the base of trees, peeling back the bark, and spraying a systemic herbicide called Imazapyr into the freshly opened gashes.

A few months ago, I pulled off the Ukiah-Comptche Road just east of Comptche, where an expansive area of dead tan oaks stood on MRC land, having been hacked and squirted by the company's chemical applicators. To get to the patch of dead trees, I had to cross a stream. It was mid-July, but the stream flowed fairly steadly. Once across the creek, I scaled an extremely steep slope, gripping onto rocks and branches to boost myself up past the steep parts, to arrive at the area where the herbicide had been used.

It would be hard to find a more obvious area where herbicides would wash down into a watershed during a rain. I certainly had to wonder at the FSC's claim that it does not certify companies that allow chemicals to wash into waterways.

The FSC certifies companies that use Imazapyr as “sustainable” because it claims the evidence that the herbicide causes harm is inconclusive. FSC spokesperson Brad Kahn says the organization would consider banning Imazapyr “were new evidence to come to light” about its harmfulness. Yet, the European Union reviewed the available evidence about the herbicide and banned it in 2005.

The FSC is a standard setting organization, meaning it does not actually work directly with the companies in the certification process. Rather, it sets the standards by which forests are certified. So-called “independent” third parties then audit conformance to FSC requirements, with the companies that monitor MRC being Scientific Certification Systems and Rainforest Alliance's Smartwood program.

The organizations are independent in name only, though. The Rainforest Alliance has received contributions between $100,000 and $1,000,000 from Kraft Foods Global Inc., Nestle, The Estee Lauder Companies Inc., Citi Group, Unilever, and Mars, Incorporated. It has a number of forest industry execs on its board of directors. A huge portion of its budget is from certification and inspection fees, paid for by timber companies themselves.

These fees do not pay for very many actual inspections of the timber companies' practices, which may be part of the point. As Malcolm MacDonald noted in one of his River Views columns for the AVA earlier this year, “According to their own literature, Rainforest Alliance auditors were on the ground in Mendocino Redwood Company's timberland for parts of two days during 2012. Less than two days to monitor more than 200,000 acres of forests. The two days this year were May 22-23, well before logging operations get into full swing.”

Aside from those limitations, the FSC has a certain political function that often acts to undermine more meaningful efforts to protect forests. One clear example occurred in 2006, when the California State Legislature considered passing a modest measure called the Heritage Tree Preservation Act which would have outlawed cutting of any “heritage tree,” a category based on a given type of tree's size and age. For example, the bill would have prohibited cutting any tree older than 150 years.

Interestingly, some of the strongest opposition to this bill at the state level came from Larry Mailliard, whose family owns the 10,000-acre Mailliard Ranch near Yorkville. But the conservative Farm Bureau types were not the only ones who worked to undermine the bill. Representatives of the FSC, including a group calling itself California FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) Certified Landowners, were among the most vocal opponents of the bill. Not wanting to jeopardize their relationship with the FSC, influential environmental groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the Sierra Club advocated weakening the bill, which ultimately failed to pass the Assembly.

One Mendo environmental activist who was involved with promoting the bill was Fifth District Supervisor Dan Hamburg. “We had trouble keeping groups like the Sierra Club on board because they sided with the FSC,” Hamburg recalls.

Representatives of Mendocino Redwood Company were among those who opposed it. “Since they were in FSC, they argued they had taken care of any considerations about old growth preservation,” Hamburg says. “They were doing it on their own, so the bill wasn't necessary. That was the argument.”

The most devastating critics of the FSC are a group of people formerly with ties to the FSC, including founding member Simon Counsell, who cluster on a website called FSC Watch. The site documents case after case of FSC-certified forests throughout the world that are being clear cut, converted to agricultural plantations, and poisoned, and where heavy machinery is being run on highly sensitive soils, etc. (

“FSC standards aren't bad,” the group wrote in one article posted in 2010. “They say lots of things we'd probably want forest management standards to say. The trouble is that the standards are not being applied in practice.”

Examples, excerpted from the website:

“During the 1990s, Clayoquot Sound was the site of the largest anti-logging protests in Canada's history. Today FSC certification is legitimizing industrial-scale logging in Clayoquot Sound.

“The truth is that FSC has been issuing certificates in Sweden for well over a decade. The country's tiny remaining fragments of old growth/high conservation value forest have continued to be trashed, including by FSC certified companies. If the FSC does not actually 'monitor' all this, then what exactly does it do?

“Nothing encapsulates the dismal weaknesses of the FSC system quite as well as the case of Congolaise Industrielle des Bois (CIB) — which for many years has been FSC's flagship certified logging operation in Africa.”

It turns out the company was engaged in large-scale clear-cutting and enabling a lucrative poaching operation on its own land.

In the last analysis, the reason the FSC fails to prevent forest destruction anywhere near the extent that it claims is effectively the same reason the SFI also fails to curtail destructive logging activity. They are both controlled primarily by the industry itself. They merely represent different wings of that industry. If the FSC put meaningful restrictions on the timber industry's logging activities, and thus its bottom line, they would cease to exist. More convenient, then, that the FSC not rigidly apply or enforce its own standards.

Is it better that the FSC exists than not? Perhaps. One overriding thing is clear though: The world's forests aren't going to be saved if simply left in the hands of so-called independent certifiers.

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