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North Coast Timber Conflict Flares Up—Again

In June, Mendocino County voters resoundingly passed Measure V, which declares intentionally killing and leaving standing dead trees a public nuisance under certain circumstances. The measure received 62% of the vote — even though its main opponent, Mendocino Redwood Company, spent more than $250,000 in a campaign to defeat it that mainly relied on a stream of repetitive campaign mailers.

In a major embarrassment to MRC CEO Sandy Dean, the main architect of the No on V campaign, the company spent at least $25 for every Measure V “no” vote.

The measure’s explicit aim is to limit the widespread timber industry technique of hack ’n’ squirt, which involves cutting around the base of the tree, peeling back the bark and spraying a systemic herbicide called Imazapyr into the freshly opened gashes

But the dispute surrounding Hack 'n' Squirt is one among several between timber companies, rural residents and environmentalists in California’s northern coastal mountain communities that are coming to a head in recent month.

For example, clear-cutting of 5,760 fire-impacted acres in the Klamath National Forest kicked off in April, much of it on land previously designated as endangered species habitat. The indigenous people of the area, the Karuk Tribe, worked with local environmentalists to craft an alternative plan, but the Forest Service largely ignored it.

The Karuk and the environmental groups have filed a lawsuit in an attempt to scuttle the logging. Last month, Karuk tribal members and local activists blocked the road leading to the logging while holding up a banner reading “Karuk Land, Karuk Plan” -- an effort to slow the logging operations pending a legal judgment that could come as soon as late-August.

These sorts of struggles are nothing new for the North Coast region, which saw “the Timber Wars” in the 1980s and ’90s

Historically, California is home to some of the most prodigious forests on earth. Lumber production in California has steadily declined since the 1950s, however. A similar trend that also occurred in other Western States.

The biggest reason is the timber industry's history of profiteering. Most companies have treated their trees like green gold that was theirs to mine.

As a result, soil that once grew trees in the forest has washed into streams and chokes vital fish habitat. The trees that remain – including third, fourth, and sometimes even spindly fifth-growth replacement – hold back less floodwater, provide far less animal habitat, and sequester far less carbon dioxide.

Even so, timber remains a major industry in California, particularly in northern counties like Humboldt, Shasta, Siskiyou and Mendocino, which account for about half the state’s timber harvest. Roughly 20% of that harvest currently occurs on public lands.

A large proportion of the state’s remaining timberlands continue to be degraded by companies like Sierra Pacific Industries, California’s largest timber company, which owns 1.8 million acres and relies heavily on clear-cutting.

From 1997 to 2014, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection – which regulates timber harvesting on California's private lands – approved more than 512,000 acres of clearcuts, or about 800 square miles: an area approximately as large as Alameda County as a whole. A strong majority of these clearcuts have been carried out by SPI.

In some cases, this logging involves cutting old trees that survived the liquidation logging of previous eras. But it also means harvesting from lands scarred by past operations, which often leading to messy conflicts with neighbors and environmentalists keen on helping forests to recover or protect the large trees that survived past liquidation logging.

In this story, I'm highlighting five timber-industry fights playing out in the North Coast.

The Westside Plan: 5,700 Acres of Clear-Cuts

The Marble Mountains are among the ecological jewels of Northern California’s national forest system and home to numerous old-growth conifer stands. In the 1990s, the U.S. Forest Service set aside many mature forest habitats as reserves for the benefit of old growth-dependent species, such as the northern spotted owl, which is listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

In 2014, a series of wildfires known as the Westside Fire Complex burned across 183,000 acres of the broader region, most of it in the Klamath National Forest. In response, the Forest Service has designed timber sales that include more than 5,700 acres of clear-cuts, including fire-killed and living trees, many of them occurring in the mature forest reserves or on steep slopes above streams federally designated to promote the long-term survival of coho salmon.

The Forest Service often auctions off fire-impacted lands to timber companies for “salvage logging.” The Westside Plan is the largest post-fire timber sale in the recent history of northwestern California.

In an interview for this story, Klamath National Forest Supervisor Patricia Grantham said the standing-dead trees in the forest pose a major long-term fire hazard. By aggressively logging these areas of the forest her agency is supplying logs to local mills and biomass power plants, contributing to the long-term health of the forest and protecting local residents’ safety.

“When fire returns to the area in the future, it will be smaller and less severe because of the actions we’re taking on the landscape today,” Grantham said.

But environmentalists and tribal members regard the Westside Plan as giveaway to the timber industry of historic proportions.

“The Westside Project is absolutely the worst project I’ve ever seen in Pacific Northwest national forests,” says Kimberly Baker of the Arcata-based Environmental Protection Information Center (EPIC). She has been monitoring timber sales on national forests for the past 18 years.

The Karuk Tribe, EPIC and three other environmental groups have filed suit in federal court to challenge the project. Logging began in April, and it is unclear how much of the land will remain intact when the judge reaches a verdict.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has also expressed skepticism regarding the Forest Service’s proposal, noting that dead trees “greatly improve” the quality of habitat for spotted owls and other creatures as the forest naturally recovers over time.

According to the Fish and Wildlife Service’s estimate, the Westside Plan could lead to the deaths of 103 northern spotted owls—at least 1% the species’ entire population.

Many of the slopes where the logging is occurring are among the most unstable in the Klamath National Forest. They also happen to be right above several of the Klamath’s most important salmon-bearing streams. By removing anchoring vegetation and carving a spider-web pattern of roads and log landings, the logging threatens to bury the streams with silt.

The Karuk Tribe worked fastidiously with environmental groups to develop an alternative plan that would rely on prescribed fires to regenerate the land over the long run. Logging would be confined to ridgelines, for the purpose of developing fuel breaks, such that some logs would still feed local mills. Much of the Klamath Forest is the Karuk’s aboriginal territory.

The Forest Service’s Grantham says she incorporated most of the Karuk’s input. “The plan I ultimately decided on for the project and the Karuk Plan are about 75% similar,” Grantham says, “and in some ways we came all the way over to their way of thinking.”

Karuk Tribe natural resources adviser Craig Tucker says that simply isn’t true. “In reality, the Forest Service basically told us we can go pound sand,” he says regarding the agency’s response to the Karuk management plan.

Largely owing to local indigenous tribes’ long struggle to maintain federally acknowledged fishing rights, the Klamath River is home to the largest population of wild salmon of any river system in California. But salmon numbers have nosedived to record lows in recent years.

According to public records, the Forest Service has spent approximately $24 million developing the Westside logging plan and is auctioning most of the logs for a paltry $2.50 per truckload, thus generating only about $450,000 in revenue for the agency.

Many environmentalists contend that the Forest Service is too beholden to the timber industry, which holds tremendous sway over politicians who want to “get out the cut.”

In May, tribal members and environmental activists blocked the road leading to the salvage logging project while holding up a banner that read “Karuk Land: Karuk Plan.” They are considering further civil disobedience as the logging proceeds.

“The Karuk Tribe’s been here for at least 10,000 years,” Tucker says. “The Forest Service has been here for about a hundred. Yet they don’t listen.”

In the Shadow of Hurwitz

In 1985, Houston-based investor Charles Hurwitz used “junk bonds” floated by financier Michael Milken (who later spent two years in jail for financial fraud) to finance a hostile takeover of locally owned logging company Pacific Lumber. This cutthroat move gave Hurwitz control of 200,000 acres of Humboldt County timberland, including more than half of all remaining privately owned old-growth redwoods on the West Coast—and, thus, in the world.

By the time Hurwitz cashed out of the land in the mid-aughts, his company – Maxxam Corporation – had clear-cut roughly three-quarters of his ownership.

In 2008, the Fisher Family of San Francisco purchased the land and formed Humboldt Redwood Company (HRC). Best known as owners of the Gap and Banana Republic retail clothing empire, family matriarch Doris Fisher and her sons, Robert, William and John (who is also well-known as the majority owner of the Oakland A’s), are all billionaires. Along with forestland they had previously purchased in Mendocino and Sonoma counties, the Fishers own more coastal redwood forest than perhaps any private entity ever has, roughly 440,000 acres.

The company immediately pledged a new era of harmony between environmentalists and the timber industry. They vowed to abstain from traditional clear-cutting, preserve old-growth trees and invest in road improvements to reduce erosion into streams, which despoils fish habitat.

“From the beginning, we committed to demonstrating that it is possible to manage productive timberlands with a high standard of stewardship,” recently retired HRC President Mike Jani told me in an interview last year.

To many residents of the Elk River watershed, which drains into Humboldt Bay south of Eureka, those words are almost entirely empty. For the past 20 years, large-scale logging upstream has caused floods of increasing intensity that have damaged their homes and threatened their safety.

The problems started when Hurwitz’s Maxxam conducted large-scale clear-cutting that badly reduced the soil’s capacity to absorb rainwater and created a massive sediment plume that has buried much of the river’s north fork. But the problem has worsened as HRC and another large timber company, Green Diamond Resources Company, have continued intensive logging.

“HRC’s ‘sustainability’ is based on trampling our constitutional rights, and spending huge sums of lobbying money in order to do so,” says Jessie Noell, a long-time Elk River resident.

The EPA has informed state agencies that the destruction of the Elk River, an important salmon-bearing stream, violates the Clean Water Act. In the late-1990s, they enacted a “memorandum of understanding” with the North Coast division of the state water board requiring that the board develop a plan for cleaning up the sediment in the river by 2002.

Fourteen years later, the water board still has not implemented the plan. According to Rob DiPerna, EPIC’s forest and wildlife advocate, the reason is straightforward: political pressure from timber companies and the regulatory agencies that favor them.

“The water board up here is getting hit from all sides,” DiPerna says. “HRC and Green Diamond are politically hammering them, and other state agencies have pressured them, essentially on HRC’s behalf.”

DiPerna notes that Maxxam caused most of the original damage, even if HRC has worsened it. In a 2015 post on the company's web site, it says that “Humboldt Redwood had a recent difference of scientific opinion with the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board and remains in dialogue with the agency about the best way to address downstream flooding issues.” But the company later filed a lawsuit against the board for not authorizing sediment discharge and logging operations into the Elk River as part of a timber harvest plan the company filed.

For HRC, the problem is that the Elk River is one of the only areas of its land with large stands of merchantable timber, since Maxxam cut most of the rest.

Noell and other local residents say that doesn’t constitute an excuse.

“We have a right to be able to use our water and not to be flooded three to 20 times per year,” says Kristy Wrigley, a fourth-generation apple farmer who lives along the Elk River's north fork. Her lands are no longer productive due to the flooding.

One of the only other places where HRC owns large stands of timber is in the Mattole River watershed. It meets the Pacific Ocean at the westernmost point of the continental United States, in the town of Petrolia, located along the largest swath of undeveloped coastline in the nation, the Lost Coast.

In the Mattole, HRC has received approval to conduct the largest late-successional (a term for nearly old-growth) timber harvest in Humboldt County in at least 17 years. The areas they are attempting to log include steep slopes that Maxxam had failed to reach—a fact that is deeply painful for residents who fought off those plans in the late ’90s and early 2000s.

A road blockade erected by local activists in 2014 has forestalled most of the logging, and HRC has since been engaged in discussions with locals and environmentalists about a compromise that would allow them to log some of the land, an approach that DiPerna says distinguishes the company from Maxxam, which never entertained input from environmentalists.

A newly minted local residents group called the Lost Coast League is seeking to acquire HRC’s land in the Mattole – including about 17,000 acres – to become an ecological preserve that would limit the harvest of trees to that which facilitates their recovery.

Hack ’n’ Squirt in Mendocino County

Spanning the coastal zones from Santa Barbara to southern Oregon, tanoak trees have been a staff of life for indigenous people, who historically relied on their acorns as a food source. To modern timber companies, however, they are largely a weed tree. Tanoak often thrives in land disturbed by logging, which include most of California’s coastal redwood and Douglas fir forests.

The most cost-effective means of eliminating tan oaks—and other undesirable hardwood species—is a method called “hack ’n’ squirt,” which involves cutting around the base of the tree, peeling back the bark and spraying a systemic herbicide called Imazapyr into the freshly opened gashes.

The largest practitioner of this technique is Humboldt Redwood Company’s southern counterpart, Mendocino Redwood Company (MRC), which the Fisher family also owns. According to documents MRC submitted to state and federal agencies in 2012, they had conducted hack ’n’ squirt on 78,000 acres of their land at that point—roughly 3 percent of vast Mendocino County’s private lands.

But the widespread herbicide use and killing of trees has outraged many Mendocino County residents who, as mentioned above, resoundingly passed Measure V.

In 1984, the California Legislature approved a bill sponsored by which overturned a Mendocino County ban on aerial spraying of herbicides. In a naked power play, the bill stipulated that only the Legislature can restrict the use of pesticides and herbicides, and not counties.

Thus, Mendocino County activists have been unable to call for an outright ban on hack ’n’ squirt.

The rationale for Measure V is that MRC and other smaller timber companies are “manufacturing a fire hazard,” says Albion-Little River volunteer fire chief Ted Williams, by leaving so many trees standing dead. Williams was one of the measure’s official proponents.

MRC says they try to use hack ’n’ squirt only “once in the life of a stand [60–80 years],” and that the practice is necessary for speeding up the restoration of redwoods and Douglas firs that predecessor timber companies recklessly overharvested. They also note that it is the most cost-effective way of limiting tanoaks.

The effectiveness of Measure V is subject to legal interpretation. As MRC forester Jesse Weaver informed local residents, the company has continued to use the technique since the passage of Measure V, though he would not say if they plan to continue relying on the practice after the county officially certifies the measure.


On July 19, about 30 local residents temporarily blocked one of the entrances to MRC’s Ukiah mill to call on them to “abide by the spirit” of Measure V, as one of the protesters told me, by committing to an outright hack ’n’ squirt ban.

Logging the Gualala Floodplain

Last year, Gualala Redwoods Timber (GRT) -- owner of 29,500 acres in northwestern Sonoma and southwestern Mendocino counties – submitted plans to log hundreds of large second-growth redwoods in the Gualala River’s sensitive floodplain. The Dogwood Plan encompasses 320 acres, making it the largest Gualala River floodplain logging plans in the modern regulatory era

This plan to log 100-150-year-old redwood trees has generated fervent opposition from environmentalists and local residents. The AVA and the North Bay Bohemian were the first media venues to report on this conflict last October.

The redwood trees in the floodplain are at least 100 years old. Throughout the last century, scouring winter floods have periodically rushed through the river canyons, naturally thinning the lush forests and giving the groves an expansive, cathedral-like appearance reminiscent of parks such as Prairie Creek Redwoods.

Sonoma County’s regional parks district has eyed the floodplain area as a possible river park site for more than 50 years, while a consortium of conservation groups has sought to buy the remainder of the land and create a “working community forest” characterized by a lighter-touch approach to logging.

Instead, the property has been purchased by the Burch family of San Jose, whose West Coast timber franchise spans three states.

More than a year after submitting the Dogwood Plan, Cal Fire signed off on it last month. The plan had received so much opposition from local residents and environmentalists that the company submitted the plan four different times.

Peter Baye, a coast ecologist who works with Friends of the Gualala River, notes that GRT still hasn’t surveyed for spotted owls or protected species of rare plants. ““I really have doubts whether they are following protocols, or just shuffling paperwork,” he said.

Friends of the Gualala River and Forest Unlimited have filed a notice of their intention to sue to stop the plan. They will likely seek an injunction to stop the logging pending a trial that could occur later this or next year.

On July 16, about 200 people attended a rally against the Dogwood plan Dogwood Plan at Gualala Point Regional Park. Gualala Redwoods Timber forester Henry Alden, whose previous job was with Maxxam, has said that criticism of the logging plan is exaggerated, and that the company plans to log much more selectively than most critics of the project have been led to believe.

But the Gualala River has already sustained enormous damage.

In 1998, the US Environmental Protection Agency listed the Gualala River watershed as "impaired" due to excessive sediment under the Federal Clean Water Act. The EPA stated that "significant reductions in human-induced erosion are needed to protect aquatic habitat and cold water fish."

As founder of a state-funded watershed history database known as the Klamath Resource Information System, which covers most of northwestern California, Arcata-based fisheries biologist Patrick Higgins is a leading expert on the historical impacts of logging along the Gualala River. While growing up in the 1960s, he made frequent fishing trips to the river, describing it as "a veritable Shangri-La for fishermen."

"Nothing in the last 10,000 years, probably a million years, has ever duplicated the degree of disturbance in the Gualala River watershed as has occurred since World War II," Higgins says of logging's impacts in that era.

Former California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) director Richard Wilson lives outside the northeastern Mendocino County town of Covelo.

During Wilson’s tenure at Cal Fire, from 1991 to 1999, he sought to address the problem of over-harvesting by requiring that timber companies file 100-year management plans for sustaining the volume of timber in their forests, called “sustained yield plans.”

But he says the industry has used its political clout to undermine these regulations, such that a large proportion of the state’s remaining timberlands continue to be degraded.

“We’ve got the rules,” Wilson says. “It’s a question of enforcing them.”

(A version of this story also appears in the North Bay Bohemian.)

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