Certification Process Reveals Timber Company's Flaws
by Franci Gallegos
Like Icarus, the Greek youth who flew on waxen wings too close to the sun and fell to earth, Mendocino Redwoods Co. appears to be caught in the headiness of its public relations --- the new company is promoting an image of responsible stewardship of its vast timber holdings --- and it may prove to be too audacious for its own good.
Last November, Mendocino Redwoods Co. (MRC) started the process of seeking certification of its timber practices. As in the certification of organic farmers, this would provide public confirmation that the company practices good forest management and would enshroud MRC in what environmentalists wryly call "a green cloak."
At a meeting held in Willits last week, representatives from the timber industry, state and federal agencies, and environmentalists were segregated into focus groups to give their observations of MRC╠s forest practices for the certification evaluators. All three groups independently expressed the same opinion: MRC is not living up to its public relations rhetoric, and there are many problems with the way the company is carrying out its timber harvesting.
Three main issues were identified by the groups. MRC's policies are not being carried out in the field by its foresters, many of whom are presumably Louisiana-Pacific (L-P) holdover employees. The company does not comply with the Endangered Species Act and its timber harvest plans allow for further degradation of watercourses and habitat. MRC is not exemplary in its practices and does not have a clear vision of how to provide responsible stewardship of its land.
New Rhetoric, Old Practices
"There has been a change in philosophy at the top, but they are still working under the L-P vision by the people in the field who are developing the timber harvest plans (THPs)," said Greg Giusti, a professor with the University of California and a forest and wildlands advisor.
Kristiana Young, a fishery biologist with National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), echoed his opinion. "Lower management holds the old thinking." She cited the Garcia River Watershed as an example. "It was completed 10 years ago, but no one (at MRC) is doing anything about the problems there, they don't have a master plan."
"They are working hard on their public relations," Renee Pasquinelli, biologist with State Parks, commented, "but are not implementing what they are saying. They have not hired people committed to resource protection."
In an interview with this reporter, Sandy Dean, president of MRC, responded that "our foresters have embraced our policies. When we take people on the land they see this."
Dean countered Young╠s charge that MRC is not working to resolve problems in the Garcia River watershed by pointing to the company's "terrific cooperation with Trout Unlimited in fisheries restoration on the South Fork of the Garcia. We work very hard to comply with and exceed the Endangered Species Act."
But Vicki Campbell, a biologist with NMFS, claimed the company shows "a willingness to restore fish and to work on roads that indicates forward thinking, but they also typically try to avoid regulations."
She said that MRC is not active in preparing a Habitat Conservation Plan and she wants them to start negotiating one.
Giusti commented on the inadequacy of the Forest Practice Rules (FPR) in protecting anadromous fish. "MRC says it does better than the FPR, but that is not good enough."
Fish and Game biologist Rick Macedo added, "There is no consistent direction from management for foresters to use watershed plans in preparing THPs." He sees no change from the L-P mode of operation. "They are pushing old L-P THPs through the pipeline."
Dean explained the company╠s reliance on THPs prepared by L-P as a matter of expedience for the one-year old company. "It was not practical to shut down for six months when we started. We had to keep the company in business. We did accept the old L-P plans and harvested on them. We are almost out of old plans now."
Willow Creek and Profits
State Park╠s Pasquinelli, who reviewed a MRC THP for Sonoma County╠s Willow Creek area, cited the problem the proposed logging will create for State Parks. The lower part of Willow Creek is on State Park property and is heavily silted from the effects of previous logging. She said the upper watershed, which is on MRC land, is "unraveling and badly hammered. MRC needs to clear up the problems, or it is not worth State Parks' efforts to restore the lower watershed."
While on the preharvest inspection for the Willow Creek THP, Pasquinelli noticed that the company planned to put a landing in an actively-eroding previous cut. The geologist on the inspection team recommended against it. But MRC's response, according to Pasquinelli, was "we need to get these trees out." When Pasquinelli asked, "Why risk causing additional problems in a damaged watershed?", she was answered, "Because we need to make money."
This THP was challenged in court, but the judge dismissed the pleading because of procedural errors --- see accompanying article
Sammy Yassa, a forestry advocate working for the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), believes MRC needs to make $7-8 million a year in order to pay for their debt and operations. He claims "they are robbing Peter to pay Paul. They cut big trees to pay for fixing a road somewhere else."
Learned the right words but not what they mean
Participants in the three focus groups were asked the same question by the certifiers along with a variant of it: "How have things changed since MRC assumed ownership and does MRC have a clear vision?"
"MRC does not have a clear vision," Campbell stated unequivocally.
"There is no sense of their vision. Their goal seems to be a public relations goal," Pasquinelli added.
Professor Giusti contributed the pithiest evaluation. "Sandy Dean (MRC president) learned the right words but doesn't quite know what they mean."
Loggers doubt MRC has changed
The industry focus group included registered foresters, who prepare the timber harvest plans, and loggers. This reporter was asked to protect the anonymity of the participants as some have worked for MRC previously and might do so in the future. Their discussion ranged over the technical aspects of forestry. There was almost unanimous consensus that MRC is premature is pursuing certification.
"Maybe they should be doing certification five years down the road after they have a track record. Most of their plans are L-P plans," mused one logger.
The industry representatives were asked to evaluate variable retention, which MRC describes as "a commitment to leave... individual trees, pockets of trees, and associated plant life in the wood...The retained trees and associated plant life will serve as wildlife habitat, provide ecological functionality, and aid in the regeneration of the forest."
"I think it is the same old game," said a logger, "the forest and the wildlife don't know the difference. I don't see that there will be a dramatic difference. The only way to make a difference is to stop cutting trees."
"It takes 80 years to have beautiful trees," added another logger.
Two certification companies were hired to evaluate the company, both are certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), a seven-year old non-profit, non-governmental organization based in Oaxaca, Mexico. The two companies are SmartWood, which is a program of the Rainforest Alliance, and Scientific Certification Systems (SCS). Nine certifiers, comprised of independent registered foresters and loggers and consultants, participated in the evaluation process.
SmartWood has an office in Willetts that is headed by Walter Smith, who is highly respected in the environmental community for working to create the Institute for Sustainable Forestry (ISF). Chris Maser, a consultant from Corvallis, Oregon, was another evaluator working for the Smartwood team and is also widely admired by the environmentalists. Maser is the author of three books on sustainable forestry and other books on ecology.
Robert Hrubes was the lead evaluator for SCS, which has offices in Oakland. He has acted as an expert witness in environmental cases brought by the National Resources Defense Council, according to Sammy Yassa, a staff member of NRDC.
Environmentalists questioned the use of two different certifying companies. They feared that the certification process would be contaminated by the association of Bob Fisher, a member of the family that owns the Gap and an investor in MRC. He is also a member of the executive board of the NRDC, which has ties to ISF.
Mendocino County activist Naomi Wagner appealed to SmartWood"s Walter Smith, saying "We worked together to form the ISF, we want to trust you."
NRDC"s Yassa defended his organization╠s affiliation with Fisher, claiming that Fisher does not make policy decisions for the prominent environmentalist advocacy group. "Bob Fisher is an environmentalist. Sandy Dean and John Fisher (a manager in MRC) are not."
The company was formed by Sansome Investment, which includes the Fisher family, owners of the Gap stores. It purchased all of Louisiana-Pacific"s holdings in Northern California a scant year ago. It has already had to face eight legal challenges to its timber harvesting practices.
Sandy Dean claimed that Bob Fisher holds no managerial role in MRC. He explained the decision to hire two certification companies by describing their differences. "We felt each of the certifiers brought important and unique qualities to the process and would provide stronger certification. ISF-SmartWood has local knowledge and SCS has more experience certifying bigger landowners."
The certification process involves field trips to harvest sites. The evaluators will prepare separate reports, which will be subject to peer review. The reports will not be made available to the public. If MRC does obtain certification, it has the option of using the reports for its public relations. If MRC fails to meet the standards for certification, the public will never know. This is referred to as the "burden of transparency", and it irks the environmentalist that they have been asked to participate in a process where the outcome is shrouded in secrecy.
According to Wagner, MRC is publicly stating that "it is getting certification," which she and other environmentalists object to because it is an ambiguous statement. It can be taken to mean that certification has already been granted.
"We have talked about pursuing certification," says Dean, "it is inadvertant if we said we are getting certification."
Evaluator Chris Maser intoned a mantra to each focus group that perhaps summed up the tenor of the day. "To heal the landscape begins with one acre. I hope MRC can pass muster."
Back to The Western Watershed Opening Page