GAP Family to Clearcut in California

Local environmentalists say the billionaire Fisher family’s logging will devastate their county; the family says it’s trying to set a good example


When The Gap‘s founding family bought Louisiana-Pacific Corp.’s Mendocino County timber holdings in May, many local environmentalists hoped it meant a brighter future for county timberlands.

Some still do, noting the newly formed Mendocino Redwood Co.’s open-door policy and plans to reduce the overall harvest rate.

But others say it’s obvious the billionaire Fisher family, just two months after taking over timber operations, plans to continue L-P’s destructive harvest practices, including clearcutting, over-cutting, cutting old-growth redwoods, and herbicide use.

“They are fighting aggressively to implement some of L-P’s worst timber harvest plans,” said Mary Pjerrou of the Redwood Coast Watersheds Alliance, referring to four harvest plans that were under litigation when L-P sold its Mendocino county holdings and that Mendocino Redwoods is continuing to fight for in court.

Two of those harvest plans call for clearcutting. One, located in the Elk Creek area, would clearcut 418 acres in 15 separate areas of the plan.

Sandy Dean, the company’s president and one of its investors along with Gap scion John Fisher, says that the company will do sustainable logging. He said the areas slated for clearcuts are largely populated by tan oaks, which often take over when conifer forests are over-cut. Echoing L-P’s defense of such practices, he said the plans call for replanting with conifers in order to restore the forest to its previous balance of conifers and oaks. Dean said the new company also plans to continue L-P’s practice of using herbicides to kill the tan oaks.

“It’s a typical old L-P argument,” counters Pjerrou. “We find vast areas coming back in tan oaks. It doesn’t work. It’s a failure.” She also contends that the harvest plan is in error: “What’s there now in the clearcut area is 60 percent conifers. It is not mostly tan oak; in fact it’s mostly conifers.”

Not in the Plan: Endangered Salmon
The main concern with the Elk Creek plan, Pjerrou said, is its effects on habitat for the endangered coho salmon. Salmon are known to spawn downstreamn from the cut area, and locals say they’ve seen salmon recently in the cut area itself. Logging, especially on steep slopes like those of the Elk Creek watershed, muddies streams with silt, often destroying salmon spawning grounds.

The National Marine Fisheries Service is worried about the salmon, too. In an April 7 letter to Department of Forestry officials, NMFS said there is not enough documentation in the timber harvest plan to determine whether or not the harvest might impact salmon habitat in Elk Creek.

Saying the company also is concerned about fish habitat, Dean noted it recently extended the comment period on that plan in response to the NMFS letter. NMFS’ concerns weren’t considered in the original plan because they were submitted after the California Department of Forestry’s deadline for comment.

L-P’s plan said there were no coho salmon in the immediate logging area, but Pjerrou said some local people have spotted the fish there. The difference between coho in the immediate area compared to downstream could mean as much as a 50-foot difference in the required buffer zone between logging and the stream. That would require Mendocino Redwood to amend the plan.

Even if the salmon are not in the immediate area, NMFS has concerns. NMFS fisheries biologist Kristi Young said sediment and debris could potentially be washed downstream, where a small number of coho salmon were reported found. The temperature of the fish-bearing portion of the stream also could be affected by logging upstream, she said. Salmon need cold water; logging near streams admits more sunlight and warms the water.

Young said NMFS still has not received the documentation it asked for, but Mendocino Redwood has invited her to walk the harvest plan area to check it out, along with representatives from the state department of Fish and Game and CDF.

While Mendocino Redwood appears be willing to work on the fish issue, Pjerrou is skeptical. She said the company’s extension of the comment period is nothing more than a trick to avoid having the harvest plan, which she calls “patently illegal,” rejected altogether in court.

Old Growth to Be Cut
Pjerrou also criticized the contested plans for including old-growth trees. “We call old growth anything over 100 years,” she said. That’s because there aren’t many trees older than that left in the county, Pjerrou said; according to her analysis, only 3 percent of the trees are 24 inches in diameter or bigger.

But the California Department of Forestry, as well as other environmentalists, have different definitions. “Trees standing before the Europeans started cutting trees is my own personal definition of old growth,” said Mendocino County Supervisor Charles Peterson, who was involved in an attempt to put L-P’s timberlands into nonprofit ownership and has lobbied for more restrictive timber rules. That would mean trees 150 years old and older, he said.

CDF’s definition of old growth is more complicated than Pjerrou’s or Peterson’s. For starters, they call it “late seral stands,” instead of old growth. Late seral stands include larger trees — around 24 inches in diameter; multi-layered canopies; downed logs; and snagged treetops, according to Rodger Thompson of the CDF. “They talk about the use of the forest by wildlife,” he said, not in terms of age or just size.

The company uses the narrowest definition of old growth — areas with numerous 250-year-old trees, giants 48 inches or more in diameter — and says there is very little old-growth left on L-P’s former holdings. What little is left won’t be cut — that is, until Mendocino Redwood develops a policy on old growth, Dean said. He confirmed that the company plans ultimately to harvest some old-growth trees while preserving others.

The company’s holdings include an old-growth stand called Russell Brook which environmentalists are keen to protect. Dean said the stand includes just 18 contiguous acres of old growth that has never been logged, and hundreds of previously logged acres with “a significant number of scattered residual old-growth trees.” He said the company would stay out of this area as well while it develops its old-growth policy.

Some environmentalists see it differently: Alicia Littletree of Earth First! said Russell Brook includes 300 acres of old growth, and her group intends to see it protected: “Russell Brook is our Headwaters.”

Cutting Too Much?
Mendocino Redwood also has come under fire for its plan to harvest around 40 million board feet of timber annually for the next three to four years; Pjerrou says that’s twice as much as the forest can sustain.

Dean said that that’s 8 million board feet, or 16 percent, less than L-P harvested annually over the last several years, and 20 million board feet less than L-P planned to harvest annually over the next decade. (CDF confirmed that L-P’s long-range timber plan, called a sustained yield plan, called for the removal of 60 million board feet of softwood timber each year, plus another 10 million in hardwoods. L-P’s self-reported 48 million board-foot annual harvest of the last several years, on the other hand, can’t be confirmed by CDF because the information is proprietary.)

Littletree and Pjerrou believe that despite the company’s “sustainable cut” claims, the planned 40 million board-foot harvest is essentially the same rate as L-P cut over the past few years. They say it’s not sustainable, and they’re worried a harvest of that size will eradicate the last decent conifer stands left in the county. “I think they’re cleaning up the last of the 3 percent,” Pjerrou said.

One area in particular stands to be hard hit: The cuts are concentrated in the Albion River Watershed because there is so little timber left elsewhere on L-P’s former holdings, noted Linda Perkins, of the Albion River Watershed Protection Association. Of the 40 million board feet on the chopping block in the first year, 10 million — 25 percent of the proposed cut level — is in the Albion, which comprises just 6 percent of the company’s timber holdings, Perkins noted. “It’s not fair to us,” she said.

Two Percent of What?
Peterson said he sympathized, but said timber harvests will likely be uneven until Mendocino Redwood has a chance to rehabilitate the land. It’s not possible, nor is it a good idea, to cut timberlands evenly, he said. He said he, for one, is pleased the company plans to cut at the 2-percent-of-inventory-a-year rate recommended by the county’s Forest Advisory Committee in 1994 and adopted by county supervisors.

The 2 percent rule was tossed out by the state Board of Forestry after L-P and Georgia-Pacific sued the county supervisors for adopting local rules; nevertheless, Mendocino Redwood says it plans to abide by it.

But many environmentalists don’t believe there is as much merchantable timber on Mendocino Redwood’s land as the company says — an estimated 2 billion board feet.

Based on her evaluation of the sustained yield plan L-P submitted in 1995, Pjerrou said she thinks a reasonable level of harvest would be closer to 20 million board feet a year than 40 million.

That’s partly because the trees — while there may be many of them — are mostly small. Pjerrou said information in the sustained yield plan indicated 97 percent of the timber on the property is only between 1 inch and 21 inches in diameter — the bulk of those 11-16 inches in diameter.

Family Affair: A Good Example?
Despite having conflicts with the company, environmentalists have had some encouraging encounters. While Dean has mostly denied their requests, Perkins said he’s agreed to some of what was asked, including the 2 percent cut rate. “I think they’re going to give us at least a part of what we asked for,” she said.

Perkins said she also was impressed by one of the manicured logging roads the company just reopened in the Albion area. Usually logging roads look like paths of destruction, Perkins said. But this one “looks like a park.”

Still, she has mostly grave concerns about the company’s intentions. Fueling her fears that Mendocino Redwood is no better than L-P is a recent article by the San Francisco Bay Guardian portraying GAP founder Don Fisher as a power-buying, money-hungry businessman. “I was initially optimistic,” Perkins said. “I guess I’ve gotten less optimistic after I read the Bay Guardian article about Don Fisher,” she said.

The fact that Don Fisher is a big-time real estate developer, topped by the belief there isn’t enough timber left to support a timber business, has led Pjerrou, Littletree and others to speculate the Fisher family plans to take out the last of the big trees, subdivide the property for development and sell it off.

“We’d have to be really gullible to think they were going to be in it for timber,” Littletree said. “I’m concerned their real intention is to log whatever remains quickly, then convert it to ranchettes,” said Nicholas Wilson, who’s been involved with environmental actions in the Albion.

Dean and John Fisher both denied the accusation. They said they carefully evaluated L-P’s lands before buying them and are convinced they can manage the property as a working forest consistent with good environmental practices and still turn a profit — eventually.

This year, Dean said, the company does not expect to make a profit. But it’s in a position to take a loss at first because a majority of its financing for the land purchase, estimated at more than $200 million, was provided by the Fisher family itself. About $75 million was financed through lending institutions, according to the deed of trust on the property. “We financed this very conservatively,” Dean said.

Fisher said his family — which has a history of donating to and being involved with environmental organizations — is interested in changing the way logging is done and setting an example, a good one. “We think we can make a difference,” he said.

Fisher and Dean said they hope most people will wait more than two months before making judgments about how Mendocino Redwood is operating. “We would much rather be judged on our actions than our words,” said Dean. “It’s hard for anyone to make judgments about us, good or bad, in two months.”