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A Profile of MRC Timber Harvests and Herbicide Use

Perhaps more than any large private timber company in the history of California's redwood coastal region region, Mendocino Redwood Company (MRC) has branded itself as an environmentally responsible land steward.  The company's main goal, according to the About Us section of its web site, is “to demonstrate it is possible to manage productive forestlands with a high standard of environmental stewardship, and also operate a successful business.”  Other goals include “improvements in aquatic and upslope habitat, old growth protection, clean water, and community well being, in addition to producing long-term sustainable timber supplies.”

The timber production part only makes its perfunctory arrival at the end of the sentence.

Other large timber companies in California makes essentially the same claims. For example, California's largest timberland owner, Sierra Pacific Industries, claims to be “managed by professional foresters who practice responsible land stewardship. While providing long-term sustained yields of quality timber, care is taken to preserve the healthy and diverse ecosystems of our forests.”  SPI, however, clear cuts forests as a matter of course.  A former company executive once even defended clearcutting as a tool for protecting spotted owl and other forest species at a Congressional hearing.

But MRC has various credentials that these other companies do not.  It does not use traditional clearcutting (more on that below).  Further bolstering the company's green credentials, many environmental non-profit organizations have heaped praise on its practices.

As I described in an article earlier this year, Greenpeace International published a glowing testimonial regarding MRC's timber harvest practices and positive relationships with “local stakeholders” in a glossy 2014 report (where the report's author failed, it appears, to interview a single MRC critic and cited only one critical text, a 2012 article I published in the AVA).  Trout Unlimited has partnered with MRC, as well as state and federal regulatory agencies to reduce chronic erosion, from streamside logging roads, which are a major cause of fisheries decline wherever industrial logging occurs.  In some cases, MRC has put up its own money to help fund these projects.

In a world where “greenwashing” is rampant, it's essential to take a closer look at MRC's activities than have these distant environmental NGOs.  (Greenwashing, loosely speaking, is the practice of obscuring inherently destructive aspects of industrial capitalism by emphasizing small reforms and innovations while ignoring core processes.)  To that end, I have compiled data from every timber harvest plan (THP) Mendocino Redwood Co. filed with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) between 1998 and 2012, and also sorted that information to provide some illuminating snapshots of the company's logging activities during that timeframe.  My intention is simply to provide an information resource on behalf of anyone seeking to understand what Mendocino County's largest private timber company is up to in this region's forests.

MRC is owned by the Fisher Family of San Francisco, who also own Humboldt Redwood Company.  Between MRC and HRC, the Fishers own roughly 440,000 acres of private timberland in the coast redwood region.  The Fishers probably own more coast redwood forest than any private entity ever has.

While every timber company is worthy of scrutiny, I have elected to focus here on Mendocino Redwood Co. for a straightforward reason: They are Mendocino County's largest private land-owner.  Hawthorne Timberlands, owned by the investment firm Campbell Global, LLC, owns less than half as much land: 111,967 acres.  And MRC promises to be here for a while, whereas Hawthorne does not. Hawthorn's Mendocino County holdings are up for sale. Naturally, MRC is rumored as a leading candidate to purchase it.

I have also chosen to focus on MRC because they have been a subject of controversy recently concerning their practice of killing tan oaks and other hardwoods with herbicides and leaving them standing dead.  Many property owners, residents of forested areas, and environmental activists are up in arms about the practice because it greatly increases the dangers posed by catastrophic wildfires.  At the end of this article, I will present data concerning MRC's herbicide use.  First, I will provide a statistical and graphical overview of MRC's timber harvest practices in its first 15 years of operation (1998-2012).

mendocino county industrial timberland holdings

The image above, courtesy of the Conservation Fund, is a 2008 map highlighting timberland ownerships of 2,500 acres or more in Mendocino County.  Mendocino Redwood Company is in brown, public lands are in green (Jackson Demonstration Forest between Willits and Fort Bragg, for example), and Hawthorne Timberlands in blue.  Note that Hawthorne's roughly 50,000-acre tract in the northwestern corner of this map, called the Usal Redwood Forest, was purchased by the non-profit Redwood Forest Foundation Initiative (RFFI) in 2007 and the map has not been updated since.

Study Method

To compile data for my study, I relied on the California Department of Forest and Fire Protection's (Cal Fire) online Watershed Mapper database.  I did so based on the recommendations of friends who have conducted GIS studies of logging impacts using the Watershed Mapper tool and Cal Fire Deputy Chief Leslie Markham, who oversees the agency's California North Coast unit, with whom I corresponded in January.  Every forestland owner who wants to harvest timber across an area 10 acres or larger must file a “timber harvest plan” with Cal Fire and thence receive the agency's approval under authority of the 1973 Forest Practices Act.  Cal Fire, therefore, acts as a repository of timber harvesting information in the State of California.

The Watershed Mapper provides comprehensive timber harvest information by county dating to 1997, the year after Central Coast coho salmon were listed as threatened under the US Endangered Species Act.  I downloaded Watershed Mapper data on every timber harvest plan in Mendocino County (which means that if you've conducted a THP in Mendo since 1997, I've got information on it), then sifted it until MRC's timber harvest plan data were all that remained.

Next, I removed THPs that were designated as “unlogged” to limit my data set to those deemed to be “completed,” meaning that MRC has filed a “timber operations work completion report” regarding these harvest plans as per the California Forest Practice Rules, and those designated as “approved.”  In each case where the THP's status is “approved,” I have reviewed Cal Fire's literature on that THP to determine whether the THP remains active.  In this way, I eliminated one THP designated as “approved” because Cal Fire Deputy Chief Leslie Markham had sent a letter to MRC informing them that they now regard the THP as withdrawn.

I have altered the focus of the study slightly since I first published information from it in the AVA three weeks ago.  For one thing, I have decided to omit data from the year 2013 because the Watershed Mapper data for that year is incomplete.  Also, my original data included a few hundred acres of THPs with status of “unlogged” that I am now omitting.

This data has its limitations.  One is that it only tells us when MRC files timber harvest plans. It does not tell us when they actually logged.  Often, several years pass between approval of a timber harvest plan and the arrival of chainsaws and yarders.  Nevertheless, the data does quite accurately indicate the scope of MRC's logging activities during this overall period.  Following is a chart of the company's THP acreage volume by year.


CHART 1: MRC timber harvest plan acreage filed by year from 1998-2012.  Acreage totals consist of total harvest acres indicated in THPs minus acreage totals of designated “no harvest areas.”

MRC's “Silviculture” Methods

“Silviculture” is a forestry term that refers to the manner in which a forest is harvested.  Clearcutting, is a form of silviculture, as are several other timber harvesting methods recognized under California's Forest Practice Rules.  In every timber harvest plan, the forester who develops and authors the plan provides “silvicultural prescriptions” for each unit of land within the THP area.  In the case of MRC, the company's contract with corporate superstore Home Depot, and its attendant production quotas, is an ever-present being a driving force behind the foresters' silviculture choices.  They strive to get the most they can out of the land within the constraints of regulatory restrictions (which almost every environmentalist regards as very lax) and company policies.

One of the most important distinctions between types of silviculture are “even-aged management” and “uneven-aged management.”  The former involves completely removing the existing forest such that the forest that re-grows afterward will be of an “even age.”  The latter involves managing the forest for multiple ages.  A variety of younger and more mature trees remain standing after a harvest.  Environmentalists generally deplore “even-aged management” techniques, being that the term tends to be a euphemism for wholesale destruction of the forest.

MRC Annual Uneven-Aged (red) and Even-Aged (blue) Management Acreages Filed in THPs, 1998-2012
MRC Annual Uneven-Aged (red) and Even-Aged (blue) Management Acreages Filed in THPs, 1998-2012

MRC clearly regards the distinction as important, given the following description in the “silvilculture” section of the company web page: “The use of even-aged silviculture and harvesting systems on MRC land is used as a transitional strategy...  Once tanoak-dominated stands are restored to redwood and Douglas-fir stands, the need for even-aged silviculture will be limited across both companies.”

To evaluate the extent to which MRC has relied on even-aged and uneven-aged management, respectively, I sorted the Cal Fire THP data based on each silviculture method.  Per the California Forest Practice Rules (913.1), even-aged management includes “clearcutting,” “seed tree” (where the fellers leave a certain number of mature trees to re-seed the area, a concept that has never made much sense vis-a-vis redwoods being that they don't seed), and “shelterwood removal” (cutting most of the mature trees, with a portion left standing to shelter new seed trees).

For the purposes of this study, a fourth type of even-aged management is so-called “variable retention,” which is the same as clear-cutting except that the forester preserves “representative samples” of the original forest stand.  In stands of 30 acres or less, the timber operator can leave as little as 10 percent of the original basal area of the forest standing.  In stands of greater than 30 acres, the requirement is 20 percent.  So, in a 30-acre area, that essentially means a 27-acre clear-cut.  In forester lexicon, variable retention has often been called “fuzzy clearcutting.”

Although Cal Fire regards “variable retention” as a type of “special prescription,” which qualifies neither as even-aged management nor uneven-aged management, MRC designates it as a form of “even-aged management.”  Taking a cue from MRC, I am designating variable retention as an even-aged management technique.  The data includes 7,292.44 acres of variable retention harvests.

In a large number of cases, MRC's foresters filed timber harvests under the catch-all term “alternative prescription.”  In such cases, the forester is required to provide a so-called “closest prescription.”  In this study, I have assigned the alternative prescription acres to the “closest prescription” when possible.  For example, if the forester said the “closest prescription” was “clearcut” on nine acres, as in the case of THP 1-99-299-MEN, I assigned those nine acres to the category “clearcutting,” which is a form of “even-aged management.”

To what extent has MRC actually relied on “even-aged management” – at least, insofar as the Cal Fire Watershed Mapper data is concerned? They have relied just slightly more on uneven-aged forest cutting than on even-aged forest clearing.


The third column, “Special Prescription,” includes “Special Treatment Area” and “Rehabilitation of Understocked Areas.”  The fourth column consists of “alternative prescription” harvests with no “closest prescription” available in the data, making classification of those harvests impossible.  Intermediate Treatments include “commercial thinning” (which is traditionally followed by clearcutting in a number of years) and “sanitation salvage” (removal of diseased and damaged trees, with the forester often determining what trees are diseased and damaged and thus need to be felled).

Variable Retention as a Substitute for Clear-Cutting

MRC's web site makes the following claim in the initial paragraph of its “Silviculture” section: “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.”

This claim would be more accurate if MRC acknowledged that it conducted traditional clearcutting at the company's outset, and that its THPs included clearcutting under another guise until 2007.  In 1998, the company filed THPs that featured 866.1 acres of clearcutting.  Though the company officially moved away from clearcutting after that point, a large proportion of its harvests listed as “alternative prescription” were essentially clearcuts.  MRC foresters listed “clearcut” as the “closest prescription” on 5,425 acres filed as “alternative prescription” harvests between 1999 and 2007.

The last year that MRC conducted more than 800 acres of clearcutting was in 2005.  At that point, its reliance on “variable retention” silviculture – “fuzzy clearcutting,” which I described in the previous section of this article – dramatically increased.  The data overwhelmingly indicates that the company has essentially used “variable retention” logging as a substitute for clearcutting.

MRC: Variable Retention (blue) as Substitute for Clear-Cutting (red)
MRC: Variable Retention (blue) as Substitute for Clear-Cutting (red)

MRC claims to have been practicing Variable Retention as an alternative to clear-cutting from the outset.  “MRC began using Variable Retention as a harvesting method four months after we started in business on the advice of Dr. Jerry Franklin (Professor of Ecosystem Analysis, University of Washington, Seattle, WA) and the Pacific Forest Trust,” MRC's web site proudly states.

From 1998 to 2000, however, MRC's THPs included only 37.61 acres of “variable retention” logging.  By 2003, the total was up to 201 acres.  By 2007, they had ceased filing “alternative prescription” harvests with “clearcutting” as the nearest prescription.  From 2007 to 2012, excluding the anomalous year of 2009, their THPs averaged upward of 1,000 acres of variable retention.  In this light, MRC's representation of their silvicultural methods could be interpreted as a revinionist history calculated to downplay their past history of clear-cutting.

Herbicide Use – It's Not Just Imazapyr

As an ancillary part of this MRC profile, I have decided to feature some data on MRC's herbicide use – a hot topic these days.  After its web site describes its goal of demonstrating it is possible to manage productive forestlands with a high standard of environmental stewardship, while also operate a successful business, it describes what that goal entails: “restoring [our] property to a redwood and Douglas-fir dominated selectively-harvested forest.”

MRC's preferred mechanism for achieving that goal – suppressing tan oaks and replacing them with redwoods and Doug-firs – is to use herbicides.   As of 2012, when MRC released a public draft of its 1600-page Habitat Conservation Plan filed with regulatory agencies, the company had applied herbicides to tan oaks and other “hardwoods” and “brushy” tree species (such as manzanitas) on 78,000 acres. The HCP targeted another 58,000 acres for the treatment, making up a grand total of 136,000 acres.  If those acres are all being treated once (the HCP does not say either way), that would mean targeted “Hack 'n' Squirt” herbicide killing of tan oaks across 59 percent of MRC's total land area – roughly six percent of all Mendocino County private land.

In terms of acreage, that's the equivalent of 167 Hendy Woods State Parks (Hendy Woods is 816 acres); all of them, featuring large stands of tan oak poisoned by herbicides.  MRC generally does not kill every single tan oak on these acres.  Typically, they leave about 15 basal feet of tan oak per acre on average following a THP.  In some cases, there were 150 basal feet of tan oak per acre when they started.  MRC uses more herbicides than any other timberland operator in the county, by far.


The company relies heavily on two other herbicides besides Imazapyr: Glyphosate (the active ingredient in Round-Up, perhaps the US' most widely used agriculture chemical) and Triclopyr (aka Garlon).  The World Heath Organization determined earlier this year that the former is a “likely carcinogen.”  The latter is a selective systemic herbicide that sparked outrage among Mendocino County residents when timber companies began using it widely in the early-1990s.  In 1994, Mendocino County's Forest Council received  a petition with 18,000 signatures asking for it to be banned.  It has been found to be highly toxic to coldwater fish, including salmon and trout.


Thanks to AVA contributor Mike Kalantarian for providing this information.

Contact Will Parrish at wparrish[at]

Author's Notes

As I noted above, my method of collecting data for this study was simple. (I've resisted the temptation to use the word “methodology,” since one of my implicit purposes is to show it's possible to do this sort of study without an academic research grant, and also without using inaccessible academic jargon.) Here is a short explanation of what I did, complete with screenshot images.

In March, I logged onto the Cal Fire Watershed Mapper page and searched for information on timber harvests in Mendocino County, as below.


I scrolled through every watershed number and collected the data it had to offer. My computer screen looked like this when I clicked on each watershed number.


From there, I saved each watershed's data file using the “save spreadsheet” option built into the watershed mapper system (just by clicking on the icon in the lower left corner of the data set). I saved each file by watershed number so that I could check later to avoid errors of repetition or duplication when it comes to saving the files. The files saved as OpenOffice Spreadsheet files (which are convertible to Microsoft Excel and other spreadsheet programs). Here, I've created fake file names for some of the files in the folder where I kept the data to protect my privacy.


Then I consolidated all of the resulting OpenOffice spreadsheets into a master spreadsheet, and used the program's “Sort” function to aggregate Mendocino Redwood Company's THP data together and delete all the other THP data from the file. Ultimately, that process resulted in a master file that you can download by clicking here. I used this file to generate all of the data I used in this article.

As I noted, I have edited my data somewhat since first publishing a piece about this study in the AVA three weeks ago. The basic conclusions I described in that piece remain the same. I decided, however, to omit 2013 data (which is incomplete in the Watershed Mapper) and remove canceled logging plans from the data file. I also checked through CalFire's THP library for North Coast THPs to make sure logging plans for which MRC has not filed a completion report remain active. If they were active, I kept them in the master spreadsheet. In one case, I discovered a THP (1-09-003MEN) that Cal Fire scuttled after initially approving it, and thus removed that THP from my data.

I initially sought to determine how MRC's recent large Timber Harvest Plan acreages compare to historical totals. I determined, by the way, that the recent THPs do not – contrary to what many environmentalists and investigative journalists suspected – do not signal an increase in harvesting rates based on the available acreage data. MRC is logging about as much acreage as usual in the last few years -- as Mike Jani has maintained in public statements. (I did not, however, look at the historical intensity of harvests on an acre-per-acre basis. That line of inquiry remains open.)

Here are some studies in the same bailiwick and may be worthwhile: a comparative study of MRC logging data and logging data of a comparable timber corporation, such as Green Diamond; a study of tree diameter sizes MRC harvests in its THPs; and a GPS study illustrating the intensity of harvest by watershed.


One Comment

  1. Rebecca Aum September 10, 2020

    Thank you for this important info. Is some of the land owned by MRC burning now? I think burning increases the toxicity of herbicides.

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