The Fate of California’s Forests

In the beginning there was Union Lumber, which begat Georgia-Pacific and Boise-Cascade, which begat Louisiana-Pacific and Masonite and Jackson State Forest, and Georgia-Pacific begat Hawthorne Timber (aka the Washington State Pension Fund), which begat Usal Forest and Salmon Creek and Big River and the Redwood Forest Foundation and the Conservation Fund and the Garcia Forest.

All these begattings were first begat when the old timber families who’d selectively managed California’s huge Mendocino county  forests with a view to perpetuity sold progressively cut-over timberlands to new groups of Wall Street investors who took what was left of the forests, cut up them up into new begattings with ever fewer trees and cashed in whatever was left.

There is now no logging to speak of and not a working general purpose lumber mill in all of Mendocino County. A mighty industry has been destroyed.

Today’s owners of the largest swathes of once-productive timberland are very rich individuals and entities which can afford to sit on the land while they wait for the trees to grow back.

Forestry Advisor Greg Giusti summed up Mendocino County’s forests for the December 1 Board of Supervisors meeting as full of “overstocked, young and undersized trees.” In other words, lots of little trees years away from commercial value. Whether there will be an economy for a revived timber industry decades hence cannot, at this time, be assumed. If there is, it won’t be anything like the economy that was, the economy that needed endless trees to build suburbs forever. That economy seems to be over.

Mendocino County’s roughly quarter of a million acres of timberland isn’t marketable these days because of changes, as disguised in Giusti’s techno-speak, in “regulation, ownership, stand structure, global markets, and financial markets.” Translation: the market for wood products is severely depressed because home building is at a near standstill and Mendo’s remaining trees don’t make very good lumber.

In 1989, Giusti said, there were about 12 billion board feet of marketable timber in Mendocino County which was being over-logged at an average rate of nearly 600 million board feet per year. Now, although the standing timber volume has increased to about 20 billion board feet, the trees are mostly too small to harvest even if there was a market for them. In the last few years, timber harvests have been averaging only about 112 million board feet per year, and even less than that in the last two years.

Even if there were lots of big trees out there, most of Mendo’s mills have been dismantled and sold for parts. Giusti said that if the timber market improves over the next few years — and he, for one, expects that it will — there will be major challenges to bringing lumber mills back. Not only has a lot of equipment left the County so have the skilled loggers and mill workers needed to make the industry go.

Of course, something like this state of affairs was predicted by the County’s early forest practice critics like Ron Guenther, Helen Libeu, Chris and Stephanie Tebbutt, the late Hans Burkhardt, and many others. These critics were challenging corporate cut and run policies long before the self-mythologizing “activists” of Earth First! came along to serve as the perfect foils for corporate timber’s final mop-up ops.

The early critics, the Guenther-ites we can call them, said that the timber harvest rate was essentially cutting local workers out of their jobs as corporate predators like L-P’s Harry “We want it all — now” Merlo and Pacific Lumber’s Charles “He who has the gold rules” Hurwitz, both of these gentlemen with solid ties to the Northcoast’s and even the national political structure, converted Mendocino County’s forests to quick but irreplaceable cash.   (Merlo’s Louisiana-Pacific was joined at the hip to congressman Doug Bosco and assemblyperson Dan Hauser while Hurwitz did high finance deals with Senator Diane Feinstein’s financier husband, Richard Blum.)        Mendocino County’s woods and millworkers, and the County’s old gyppo families, soon found themselves caught between trust fund activists clustered around Earth First! who’d suddenly presented themselves as timber experts and a corporate apparatus with direct connections to the most powerful politicians in the country.

Local loggers never had a chance, and the early local critics of corporate timber practices, the Guenther-ites, who were honestly trying to save the industry from itself, were shoved aside by flamboyant characters like Darryl Cherney and Judi Bari.

But “I told you so” rings a little hollow in timber and environmental circles these days. As one enviro said a few years ago when L-P was in the “run” stage of “cut and run,” “The trees are gone. What do you want me to do about it?”

Even long-time timber apologist and current Board of Supervisors Chairman Cowboy John Pinches admitted, “No doubt we were cutting too much timber in Mendacina County.” Pinches also correctly pointed out that President Bill Clinton’s NAFTA free trade agreement didn’t help matters either because Canadian forests are producing timber at far less cost than can be done in the United States these days.

For the time being what forest work is being done is in the broad category of “restoration,” said Giusti. “Most foresters and companies are relying on restoration work, fire prevention thinning, road improvements, etc. There’s not much actual tree cutting going on.”

“The timber industry will never be what it was,” added Giusti, which will be good news to anyone interested in long-term jobs and working forests. “It has changed. Big private owners like Mendocino Redwoods will be the backbone of whatever comes back. Half of the timberland in Mendocino County is owned by non-industrial owners who have long-term plans, and are doing active forest management. We will not see the aggressive cutting of the past. We will still have a dynamic timber economy, but it will be based on different principles.”

This dynamism, however, is years away if not mythical.

The County’s dormant Forest Council (a subcommittee of the Board of Supervisors) hasn’t met for years because the biggest timberland owners are operating under what Giusti called “Option A” forest plans, a sub-variant of Sustained Yield Plans which allow the companies to keep their inventory and harvest data proprietary. There hasn’t been much for the Forest Council to discuss. Supervisor Pinches, having conceded the corporate overcut, couldn’t resist taking one last shot at the hippies, er, environmentalists, as if they were sitting at Harry Merlo’s elbow while L-P destroyed Mendocino County’s timber economy.

“The people who were here 15 years ago saying how we don’t want to cut a tree, where are they today? Where are they helping us with… well, if the timber industry… if we don’t cut a tree, it goes away, we’ll replace it with other things in this county. We haven’t. You know, we’ve replaced it with the drug business! That’s what we’ve replaced it with. I hope everybody’s happy!”

No John. Everybody’s not happy. If the supervisors had had the political courage to crack down on the timber corporations when they should have cracked down (like the wine industry needs to be regulated now before it exhausts local rivers and streams, collapses of its own weight and disappears) it still wouldn’t have stopped Harry Merlo from bringing Pavarotti to Portland to sing for L-P’s board of untrustworthy trustees, spectacles directly funded by the cashed-in forests of Mendocino County.    The timber industry disappeared into the same place as the rest of the economy — wretched, ruinous excess.

Everyone knew that timber companies were overcutting and would leave the woods badly damaged and depleted. The drug cartels only moved into the forests because marijuana has become the most valuable commodity the forests currently produce because dope prices are kept artificially but lucratively high by the lost War On Drugs. The hippies, finally, were only bit players in a much larger drama.

MARK SCARAMELLA is the Managing Editor of the Anderson Valley Advertiser in Mendocino County, California. (www.theava.com). He can be reached at themaj@pacific.net.


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MARK SCARAMELLA is the Managing Editor of the Anderson Valley Advertiser in Mendocino County, California. (www.theava.com). He can be reached at themaj@pacific.net.

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