According to filings with the California Secretary of State's office, Mendocino Redwood Company — Mendocino County's largest and wealthiest landowner — has already spent $24,766.45 on a marketing campaign to defeat a potential ballot initiative that would curb the company's practice of killing hardwood trees and leaving them standing-dead, known as “Hack 'n' Squirt.” The company has dispensed the vast majority of that sum, $19,838.93, to a Minnesota-based public relations firm named Risdall Marketing Group.
The same records shows that MRC has paid $3,393.68 to Sonoma Media Investments, LLC, the parent company of the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, along with $855.21 to the Fort Bragg Advocate-News/The Mendocino Beacon — presumably for advertisements that have recently appeared in those publications.
In its public relations campaign, MRC has promoted the new Mendocino County Fire Safety Working Group, established this past spring by the Board of Supervisors, as an alternative to the ballot initiative. “With broad community participation the Working Group can develop real and useful answers to fire safety questions rather than passing new rules, regulations and restrictions,” MRC CEO Bob Mertz wrote in a letter to “Colleagues, Friends and Neighbors in Mendocino County” dated October 8th.
An effort to implant the word “treatment” in the public mind as a substitute for “poison” or “poisoning” has also been a centerpiece of the ad campaign. “In recent months, a public conversation was begun by a group of local residents regarding the practice of treating tan oak in the forest,” Mertz' letter stated. "The treatment of tan oak occurs throughout Mendocino County to restore the redwood and Douglas fir trees across public and private land. Our company, Mendocino Redwood Company (MRC), has been treating tan oak in the forest since we acquired the forestlands in 1998.”
The sums MRC is already spending to defeat the ballot initiative are rare in Mendocino County politics. By comparison, the three victorious candidates in the 2014 City of Ukiah election collectively spent just shy of $12,000 (less than half what MRC has spent), according to campaign statements I recently obtained from the City Clerk. MRC's early spending on the campaign is particularly notable given that the measure they oppose has not even qualified for the ballot.
The initiative, entitled “Declare Intentionally Killed and Left Standing Trees a Public Nuisance,” seeks to declare the practice of intentionally killed and left standing trees a public nuisance. To qualify for the June 2016 primary ballot, 2,502 petition signatures will be needed from Mendocino County voters. Proponents of the initiative include Albion Little River Fire Protection District Chief Ted Williams, two firefighters for the Comptche Volunteer Fire Dept. (James Sibbet and Mike Coltan), a retired CalFire “air attack captain” named Kirk Van Patten, and retired historian-librarian Katy M. Tahja.
The coordinator of the petition signature gathering effort, Els Cooperrider of the Turtle Creek neighborhood between Ukiah and Comptche, said in an interview that she and approximately 30 other volunteers have so far collected 3,000 signatures, and that they are seeking an additional 1,000 by January 1, to ensure the initiative qualifies.
MRC is certified as a “sustainable” timber company by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), which is roughly the timber industry equivalent to an organic agriculture certification. Unlike the organic food label, though, the FSC places few restrictions on the use of toxic chemicals. The FSC is only a standard-setting organization, though, meaning its personnel do not actually conduct the certification reviews — rather, it farms out that function to other organizations.
The organization that audits MRC on the FSC's behalf, New York City-based Rainforest Alliance (RA) (not to be confused with the similarly named Rainforest Action Network), has just released its every-five-years certification audit of MRC. The man on the job was a Dr. Steve Grado, a Missouri State University professor of forestry who says this certification marks the 88th he has conducted for RA. Dr. Grado presided over a lively public meeting in Caspar last August, where an at times unruly rabble persistently challenged the integrity of MRC, the RA certification process, and Grado himself.
Grado's 114-page certification write-up for MRC refuted some elements of the criticism and ignored others. It noted numerous ways in which MRC has been responsive to concerns from local residents, including the company's tradition of organizing tours of its lands for people who ask for them. In a statement that alarmed many critics of herbicide spraying in the forest, Dr. Grado's write-up notes on pages 20-21 that MRC intends to use Hack 'n' Squirt at roughly its current level of intensity for another 20-30 years.
This information markedly contrasts with previous representations the company has made. For example a 2014 report on MRC's compliance with the FSC program by the international environmental NGO Greenpeace stated that MRC “plans to phase out the use of [Hack and Squirt] by 2020.” In an interview with me earlier this year, the report's main author, Daniel Brindis, says that he got that information from MRC's web site, and that the site has since been edited to remove this pledge.
MRC is far from alone in high spending as we approach 2016. The people who fund American politics are already breaking spending records, collectively pouring billions of dollars into national, state, and local contests as they attempt to tighten their grip on the US' political windpipe in the coming election season.
While MRC has already spent big in its campaign to defeat the citizen-sponsored ballot initiative, and is likely poised to spend much more as the June 2016 primary approaches, it would have to spend $700,000 to match the sum the chemical industry and its allies poured into an effort to defeat 2003's Measure “H,” which made Mendocino County the first jurisdiction in the country to forbid cultivation of genetically-modified crops (although the ordinance lacks enforcement).
The website of Risdall Marketing Group, the company MRC has paid nearly $20,000 to operate its public relations campaign, describes the firm's work as follows: “We’re always evolving, and our adaptable, entrepreneurial spirit uniquely empowers us to help Fortune 500 and Main Street companies achieve their goals. Business-to-business marketing is a sweet spot, and we have a reputation for web design and development, but we’re also strong in consumer advertising.”
The website of the ballot initiative campaign to declare intentionally standing dead trees a public nuisance is www.citizensforfiresafeforests.com.