The Redwood Coast: Dispatches From a Forest in Distress

Mendocino Redwoods. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

“These great teeming ecosystems — these cathedrals of nature — are the lungs of our planet,” said Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain in describing the pact at COP26. “Blah, Blah, Blah, Blah,” said Greta Thunberg in a retort that could not have been truer.

Nevertheless, it has hardly ever been so important as now to get forests, deforestation, restoration onto our climate change agenda. And it’s good news that President Biden’s infrastructure bill includes millions for trees – for “tree equity.”  In the House “Social Safety Net and Climate” bill just passed; $26 billion is earmarked for forest restoration.

The simple point here is that trees are good for the environment. Trees store carbon. Here’s John Reid and Thomas Lovejoy in a New York Times op-ed:

“It’s a matter of simple biology. Through photosynthesis, trees and plants absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and the carbon becomes part of the plants and soil. Large forests tend to be ecologically healthy, and this healthy biology results in carbon storage on a gargantuan scale.  Intact forests around the world absorbed around 28 percent of all carbon dioxide emissions from 2007 to 2016, a huge reduction in the accumulation of the planet-warming gas in the atmosphere.”

The focus on forests until now, however, has been on the tropical forests of the south; and while this is entirely justified, it overlooks the great northern boreal forests, in this case for us it means the massive Pacific coastal temperate rain forest that stretches from northern California to the Alaskan Panhandle.

These forests retain the capacity to store vast amounts of carbon, despite having been savagely logged repeatedly for one hundred fifty years; western Washington and Oregon today are essentially tree farms on thirty year rotations. British Columbia, with its massive reserves is following suit. In Alaska, the sixteen million acre Tongass National Forest is contested terrain – its fate dependent upon which party is in power in Washington, DC.

So we are losing the battle to save the forests; still, the war might yet be won. The old growth might be mostly gone, but much second growth is intact. Moreover, these forests, left alone will recover. Crucially, Professor William Russell, San Jose State University, a scientist who has devoted his career to studying redwood restoration, tells us: “Coast redwood forests are extraordinarily resilient, and can recover from nearly any disturbance as long as natural successional processes are given an opportunity to develop.” So the fight continues on many fronts as it must.

In California, CAL FIRE (the state’s Department of Forestry and Fire Protection is the fire department of the California Natural Resources Agency responsible for fire protection in various areas under state responsibility totaling 31 million acres, as well as the administration of the state’s private and public forests) resists these findings, usually with the claim that logging big trees makes room for many small trees and that this is better for carbon sequestration. CAL FIRE foresters and the loggers they hire often sound like climate change skeptics, if not deniers. But the results of an important new study, published by Humboldt State University and the Save the Redwoods League should put an end to this.  Seeking to understand how redwoods respond to rising temperatures, hotter droughts, and other factors associated with climate change, Save the Redwoods League launched a research partnership with Humboldt State University in 2009. Their most recent findings are published in the latest edition of Forest Ecology and Management.

According to Steve Sillett, the HSU Professor and lead author of the new study, “… the recent results improve our understanding of the carbon storage capacity of the state’s treasured old-growth forests, they also reveal that individual redwood trees can maintain high rates of productivity for well over 1,000 years. Just as exciting is the fact that younger redwood forests can accumulate biomass at rates even faster than old-growth stands—with trees surpassing 200 feet tall in less than a century. Our research shows that investing in redwoods’ restoration—in particular helping to set second-growth forests on the trajectory to old-growth characteristics—would have tangible carbon benefits.”

I’m writing from the “Redwood Coast” at the southern tip of this great forest, a place where coastal redwoods predominate. The redwood is of course iconic, its great height, its ability to resist fire, its longevity – old growth redwood live two thousand years and longer, and sequester more carbon than any other tree on earth – by far (except perhaps its close cousin, the Sequoia), Thriving on cool, foggy summers in what has been fire country, and stretching in a narrow band from Santa Cruz to the Oregon border, the ancient forest was one of the wonders of the natural world. Alas, this forest too fell victim to the axe, the saw and the chainsaw. Three, perhaps four percent of old growth has survived. Nevertheless, in these forests there remain places of beauty, awe inspiring groves of second growth, places with near full canopy, sheltering garden like meadows below – needles, trillium, rhododendron, actual “cathedrals of nature.”

Here along the Mendocino Coast the groves are mostly second growth. Still they are cherished by those who know them, above all the original inhabitants, the Pomo people who consider them sacred, the habitat of their ancestors. But also by coastal residents, who hike in them, walk their dogs in them, ride their bikes in them, find mushrooms and inspiration and solace in them. Regardless, the loggers and the corporations that hire them are not satisfied and we find ourselves in a battle to save these remnants.

Our grievances may seem trifling to some – certainly, the corporations both private and public make them out to be just that. Yet, in microcosm, they reflect the existential crisis our earth confronts. And, alas, it seems to make no difference that we are in California, the deepest of blue states, where politicians from the governor straight down to local councilors, democrats almost all, preach lofty goals, conservation, 30X30, while promising change and extolling the public to do our share. Confronted with real choices, however, they fall silent, unwilling to defy an industry that has long dominated our forestlands and so logging continues, at great profit.

***

Local neighbors and residents from around Mendocino County take a stand during a 4:00 a.m. blockade in 2020.

“Enchanted Meadows” is a small place several miles up the Albion River from the Mendocino Coast – accessible by canoe or a long hike in. It is a place of rare beauty where the earth flattens out in a tidal flood plain and the river is quiet and grass and reeds and cat tails flourish as do some big trees – as well as all manner of flowers, also birds, salmon, red legged frogs, blue heron and the occasional black bear. It exists today as the result of a protracted battle in the 1990s between the Louisiana Pacific Corporation and local residents and their supporters, a “community uprising.” The defenders won and have had control of the meadows – a “sanctuary” to this day. (We need to remember the victories)

Now there are new owners, the Mendocino Redwood Company, the largest of Mendocino timber companies with 228,000 acres of redwood forestland (440,000 more in Humboldt County). MRC is owned by the Fisher family of San Francisco, owners of the GAP, people with deep pockets, and powerful players in San Francisco politics. Today, they’re logging in the Albion River watershed again, seeking out the big trees, and cutting right up to the edges of the Meadows, never mind the negative impact of this on the delicate ecology of a unique meadowland. The money, of course, is in the big trees (as is the carbon), and there’s lots of money to be made in timber today. The defenders of the meadows have taken MRC to court; the outcome is not yet clear.

***

Faulkner Park is forty acres of redwood forest land just off California Route 128, twenty miles from the coast near Boonville in the Anderson Valley. It was given to Mendocino County in the 1930s. In a region often overwhelmed with tourists, the park, according to Janet Boonyagarn, “is a locals’ park; generations have gone there for picnics, to walk the dog, just to hang out or cool off on a hot summer day. It includes a scattering of old growth redwoods, as well as other big trees. A county road runs through the park as do Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) transmission lines. These lines follow the county road. After years of little or no PG&E activity, residents were shocked this past summer to find men in the park marking trees – including 50 or 60 of the biggest trees. The marked trees are to be cut as part of PG&E’s “enhanced vegetation management” program. Residents have organized a coalition to save the trees. They have asked for the lines to be undergrounded (the best way to stop starting fires). This, however, is another David and Goliath undertaking; thus far, the outcome remains unclear. PG&E is the giant utility in northern California, providing gas and electricity to some 5.2 million households. It is an investor-owned utility with publically traded stock based in San Francisco. In 2019 its market capitalization was $3.242 billion. It is perhaps best known – and hated – for having started several of the massive fires of the last three years, including the Camp fire that destroyed the town of Paradise, killing 85 people. Its antiquated transmission lines were also responsible for the largest fire ever in our county, the Mendocino Complex fire of 2018 which burned nearly 500,000 acres. Bay Area residents will remember PG&Es gas explosion in 2010 that killed eight people in San Bruno, just south of San Francisco.

In response to an angry public, PG&E has promised reform, though thus far this has meant not replacing the existing lines with safer ones, let alone undergrounding them; instead it pursues its enhanced vegetation management program. And the state has given the corporation a green light to do just about anything in the name of reducing fire risks.  PG&E is exempt from CEQA (the California Environmental Quality Act), public comment requirements and other procedural regulations, for what they’re worth. So it too is cutting trees. The logging itself is out sourced, locals typically are awakened to hear the sound of chainsaws in their backyards –then confronted by a crew of youngsters, rarely local.  More likely these men work for a “tree service”, increasingly outfits from Texas or Tennessee, young men who in the words of Harry Vaughn, a Humboldt land owner, “can’t tell the difference between a redwood and a tanoak.” More, important, PG&E has been given a pass to clear-cut its way along wherever its lines go. This includes what is now a clear cut pathway right across the 48,000 acre Jackson State Demonstration Forest, a state owned forest that lies just west of coast, adjacent to Fort Bragg and the hamlets of Caspar, Mendocino and Little River. Of interest, by law PG&E can pass maintenance expenses on the to the rate payers; capitalization (adding new lines, etc.) cannot.

Jackson Demonstration State Forest is by far the largest of California’s state forests. It stretches across the coastal mountains between Fort Bragg on the Coast and the inland town of Willits. This was once the heart of the redwood forest, though grand firs, hemlock, madrone, and oak woodlands have flourished as well. The first logging began here in 1862. To be fair, by 1947 when the state purchased it, the forest was in a state of ruin. Today its condition is improved, but only to a degree; this forestland, public land, is now not so different from that of the commercial lands that surround it. It is a patchwork of young, severely disturbed forest land, criss-crossed by logging roads and the remnants of a variety of clear cuts – plus groves of 100 year old redwoods, majestic, inspiring in their own way. The original idea had been to undertake “scientific,” sustainable forestry, but has yet to be effectuated. Instead, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (now CAL FIRE) has come to do little more than manage logging, relying on Jackson State as a reliable money-maker; it outsources to local, entirely conventional logging outfits, receiving in turn a steady income stream. All this of course is fiercely contested by CAL FIRE. Locals invite skeptics to come take a walk in these woods and see for themselves (short of that the website of the Mendocino Trail Stewards is well-worth a visit).

Mendocino environmentalists have challenged CAL FIRE’s management practices since the 1990s. Vince Taylor’s lawsuits twenty years ago effectively stopped logging for nearly a decade, and things had been mostly been quiet since then, as CAL FIRE revised its management plans. It was a shock, then, when coastal residents learned this past spring that the “Caspar 500,” a timber harvest plan (THP) on the far western slopes of the forest, had been approved and other THPs were coming on board. Trees were marked and cutting was set to start.

The response has been dramatic, certainly considering the size of the coastal population – perhaps 15,000. The opposition to the plan is widespread and also diverse – ranging from bands of Pomo Indians to school kids from the village of Mendocino. In May, two tree sitters set up shop in a grove of giant trees, one in the “Mama Tree.” Since then, there have been blockades, invasions of sites to be logged, as well as appeals to local, county and state representatives. More than fifty northern California university environmentalists and forest scientists petitioned Governor Newsom to “stop the logging.” Taken all together, this seems to have been successful in forcing Anderson Logging, a local outfit, to cease cutting and move to a somewhat more remote edge of the forest. But there, too, this was obstructed by protesters, on foot and on bikes, as well as by random holiday hikers who wandered unknowingly into “closed” areas. The activists used whistles to let the workers know that they were there, well knowing the danger this implied for all. So, on Monday, June 21, facing increasing pressure, CAL FIRE announced a “pause” in logging the “Caspar 500” section of the forest, its intention being to “further engage with our local community.” This was a victory.

This movement has been empowered by two important breakthroughs.  First, the tribal leaders of the Coyote Band of Pomo have organized a coalition of the separate bands of Pomo to oppose the renewed logging in the forest, based on their rights as legal governmental entities. The forest to them is a sacred place, as it has been for thousands of years past, a place still home to ancient relics and practices.  On September 23, Bob Crowfoot, state  Secretary of Resources, attended a California Tribal Chairpersons meeting where Michael Hunter, Tribal Chair of the Coyote Band of Pomo, challenged Crowfoot on CAL FIRE management practices. He called on Crowfoot and the Governor to intervene and stop the logging in Jackson. Hunter’s message was, “Jackson State was where our people lived until they were pushed out of the redwoods…we have many archeological sites there that are supposed to be protected. But CAL FIRE doesn’t protect them.” Hunter called for a moratorium on logging and the transfer of management of the forest to State Parks and the tribes. Crowfoot was non-committal.

Second, for the first time, the county’s Board of Supervisors has stepped in. At its November meeting, on a motion introduced by Supervisors Dan Djerde and Ted Williams, the Board voted unanimously to urge “Governor Newsom and the State’s Natural Resources Agency to include any climate impacts of commercial logging on State lands in drawing up the plan to protect 30% of California’s land use and coastal waters by 2030,  and to publish a science-based report that evaluates carbon sequestration capacity and wildfire resiliency of current management practices, as well as alternate management scenarios, of Jackson Demonstration State Forest.”

These are signs of hope.

More, we’re not alone. Powerful lessons continue to come from the streets of Glasgow. So the struggle continues.

Still we need all the support we can get.

Please contact:

Governor Gavin Newsom, 1303 10th Street, Suite 1173, Sacramento, CA 95814, (916) 445-2841

Bob Crowfoot, California Department of Resources,
1416 Ninth Street, Suite 1311, Sacramento, CA 95814, (916) 653-5656

Congressman Jared Huffman, 1527 Longworth House Office Building, Washington, DC 20515, (202) 225-5161

State Senator, Mike McGuire, 1303 10th Street, Room 5061, Sacramento, CA 95814, 916-651-4002

Urge them to stop the logging in Jackson Demonstration State Park. And at Enchanted Meadows. And by P G&E and its  bogus “vegetation management” program.

Messages of support can be sent to: info@mendocinoinstitute.org

Cal Winslow is the author of Radical Seattle: the General Strike of 1919. He can be reached at cwinslow@mcn.org

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