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Tensions Rise In the Battle To Save Old Trees

September 1, 2018
by Glen Martin
Sunset over clouds and mountain

The timber wars are heating up again in Northern California, this time at Rainbow Ridge, a tract of mature Douglas fir near the remote community of Petrolia in Humboldt County. As reported in California earlier this year, the property is the focus of a dispute between the Humboldt Redwood Company (HRC), which intends to log it, and local residents who steadfastly oppose the proposed cutting.

Recent skirmishes there between tree-perched protesters and camo-clad security agents recall the showdown over California redwoods in the 1990s. Back then, tree-sitting doyenne Julia Butterfly Hill became the darling of environmentalists, and the archvillain for the eco-warriors was financier Charles Hurwitz’s Maxxam Corporation, which was intent on the wholesale clearcutting of old-growth redwood forests it had acquired in a hostile takeover of the Pacific Lumber Company.

Protesters in front of a stick blockade
Protestors at the blockade they built leading to Rainbow Ridge // Photo courtesy of Laura Rechnagel

This time, activists led by the Lost Coast League—a group of ranchers, small farmers, and back-to-the-landers who live in the beautiful Mattole Valley—are squaring off against what is arguably a more enlightened opponent: the Humboldt Redwood Company.

HRC is a sister company to the Mendocino Redwood Company (MRC), a firm founded after the Redwood Wars with the avowed goal of sustainable commercial forestry. Both MRC and HRC insist they are dedicated to growing more wood than they harvest and maintaining the esteemed “ecosystem services” associated with healthy forests: significant stands of old-growth trees, general biodiversity including viable populations of imperiled species, stable soils, and clean waterways.

Such aspirations have garnered the companies considerable goodwill and a coveted marketing tool to boot: certification from the Forest Stewardship Council, a nonprofit organization that establishes standards for “responsible forest management.” FSC certification carries a lot of weight with timber retailers, and the group’s stamp of approval adds significant value to timber products.

One of the primary goals of the upcoming audit is to determine the official classification of the Rainbow Ridge forest. Is it old-growth forest, primary forest, or neither?

But according to Michael Evenson, a Cal alum and founding member of the Lost Coast League, the timber company is flouting its sustainability claims by preparing to cut older, more valuable trees. While he doesn’t doubt that the companies started with good intentions, Evenson says, “It has become clear that both HRC and MRC have paid too much for their land, and that their timber stocks aren’t sufficient for a ‘sustainable’ flow of logs, so that’s why they’re targeting the oldest forest in their holdings. That’s where the biggest trees—and the profits—are.”

In response, the Lost Coast League has petitioned the FSC for an audit of the Rainbow Ridge site. Old-growth conifers are a rarity, particularly in California, maintains Evenson—far too rare and far too valuable, ecologically, to justify “liquidation logging.” Among other ecosystem services, he says, the big trees anchor the highly erodible soils on the ridge, protecting homes at the lower elevations from landslides and preventing salmon-killing sediment from choking the Mattole River.

When such complaints are filed, the FSC refers investigations to qualified third party investigators, usually SCS Global Services in Emeryville. Earlier this month, Robert Hrubes—Berkeley PhD in Wildland Resource Science and executive vice president, emeritus of SCS—announced that an SCS audit team would visit Rainbow Ridge on September 11th.

Hrubes, who co-founded the FSC and served on the organization’s early board, concedes his bias but insists that FSC “is far and away the most credible [forestry] certification program out there. Others don’t comply with the same standards or rigor in the audit process, nor do they have as robust a resolution process.” Evaluations are conducted annually on the 400-million-plus acres of timberlands that the FSC oversees around the world.

Trees and growth
Growth within the timber harvest plan zones // Photo courtesy of Laura Rechnagel

One of the primary goals of the upcoming audit, says Hrubes, is to determine the official classification of the Rainbow Ridge forest. Is it old-growth forest, primary forest, or neither? Old-growth, Hrubes explained, would be the worst outcome for HRC, as it would mean a “pretty hard-and-fast no” to certified harvesting.

That’s not to say that any breach of FSC standards would automatically result in the cancelling of certification. The Council may issue “corrective action” requests, and timber companies are allowed a certain amount of time to remedy any problem. According to Hrubes, HRC has responded to corrective action requests involving Rainbow Ridge in the past. He added that “[FSC] standards are very complex,” and that “it’s not uncommon for stakeholders [local residents] to misinterpret standards. That’s not necessarily the case here. But as trained auditors and accredited foresters, it’s our job to make assessments and judgments.”

While this process plays out on paper, physical altercations have transpired on the ground. Concerned that HRC might commence logging the ridge at any time, protestors have blockaded the road to the site, hung from ropes anchored to trees to stymie logging operations, and played cat-and-mouse with agents from Lear Asset Management, a security firm hired by HRC.

“As we look at these jaw-dropping trends for wildfire, you could argue that we’d be better off spending money to ensure our forests are more fire resistant,” said forestry specialist William Stewart.

A protestor who requested anonymity described a confrontation he witnessed and videotaped from his treetop perch. “We had a road blockade consisting of a 35-foot tripod, and it was connected to a 300-foot-rope traverse to a tree,” he said. “At about 5:30 in the morning a security guard in a truck drove up, and one of our guys who was on watch walked up to say ‘hi.’ Suddenly, four guards dressed as soldiers came running up in formation and tackled the guy on watch and another guy who had just woken up. They were yelling ‘Taser, Taser, Taser,’ and the second guy saw a laser sight on his chest. It was a frightening, military-style raid.”

Sandy Dean, Chairman of HRC, acknowledged by email that HRC had deployed security officers at Rainbow Ridge, stating that HRC had become concerned about wildfire and safety risks following a burn injury suffered by a protestor in late June or early July.

“[That] required evacuation and medical treatment,” wrote Dean. “The Humboldt County Sheriff’s office is without the resources to track down trespassers in forests as large as ours, [so] in consultation with the [Sheriff’s office], HRC hired Lear Asset Management in an effort to remove trespassers who may have been creating fire and safety risks.”

To call attention to the ongoing controversy, anti-logging activists are currently sponsoring a “Mattole Forest Week of Action.”

“My general take is that it is critical that we never ever deforest old-growth,” wrote Cal professor John Harte. “The reasons, of course, have to do with biodiversity and with ecosystem services.”

Some observers wonder whether the fuss is truly warranted. William Stewart, a specialist at Cal’s Center for Forestry, points out that, unlike redwoods, “Douglas firs are widely distributed, and there’s a lot of old-growth trees on federal lands across the West, where they’re either directly protected or not subjected to management that includes commercial logging. It’s not that they’re less important than redwoods—any old-growth stands are amazing, and Douglas firs can get virtually as big as redwoods. But the most pressing threat facing old-growth Douglas fir isn’t necessarily logging.”

Douglas firs, says Stewart, tolerate drier conditions than redwoods—that’s why they’re normally at the higher, drier ridgetops in Humboldt County; redwoods tend to favor lower, wetter elevations. As such, the firs are at greater risk for catastrophic wildfire than redwoods. And with climate change accelerating, says Stewart, that threat will only grow.

“Wildfires are only going to increase in frequency and severity,” says Stewart, “and if we don’t manage our forests more appropriately, we’re going to lose them. They’ll burn down over the next century.”

Stewart said he understands why a Rainbow Ridge conservancy is high on the list of priorities for Mattole Valley residents. But, he adds, “there’s a limited pot of money [for conservation]. Redwood forest preservation was able to generate a lot of funding because the amount of old-growth was extremely limited and the support was so broad—local, regional, and national. You aren’t likely to see that [for initiatives like Rainbow Ridge]. So, as we look at these jaw-dropping trends for wildfire, you could argue that we’d be better off spending money to ensure our forests are more fire resistant,” through thinning, prescribed fire, and other measures.

Not everyone agrees. John Harte, a Cal professor of environmental science, policy and management who is conducting the world’s longest-running ecosystem warming experiment in alpine meadows in the Colorado Rockies, responded by email to California. “My general take is that it is critical that we never ever deforest old-growth,” Harte wrote. “The reasons, of course, have to do with biodiversity and with ecosystem services such as carbon storage, and they far outweigh any imaginable economic argument to destroy old-growth. Moreover, I have never seen a credible case made that old-growth can be timbered without destroying it.”

It remains to be seen how the Forest Stewardship Council will rule.

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