Image for Ecological Forestry

In 2007 Mike Fay, a Wildlife Conservation Society and National Geographic Society explorer-in-residence decided to investigate how Earth’s tallest forests had been exploited in the past and how it is being treated today. By walking the length of California’s redwood forests from Big Sur to the Oregon border, he wanted to find out if there was a way to maximize both timber production and the many ecological and social benefits standing forests provide, If it could be done in the redwood forests, he believed, it could be done anywhere on the planet where forests were being levelled for short term gain.

After more than two decades battling environmentalists and state & federal regulators overs its aggressive cutting practices, the oft vilified Pacific Lumber Company was bankrupt and up for grabs. Even with most of the remaining old growth redwood forests protected, the northern spotted owls, the marbled murrelets and the Coho salmon continued to decline. The buzz among the environmental groups, consulting foresters, and even a few timber companies & communities was that the redwoods were at a historic crossroads - a time when society could move beyond log-don’t log debate of decades past and embrace a different kind of forestry that could benefit people, wildlife and perhaps even the planet.

San Francisco’s great redwood forests were virtually levelled by the 1880s Farther north, timber barons used fair means and foul to acquire thousands of acres of federal lands in the redwood forests for $US2.50 an acre thus beginning an era of corporate lumbering that continues to this day. Of the 1,600,000 acres [650,000 ha] of redwood forest, 34% is owned by three companies; 21% by the state of California and the federal government, and the rest by smallholders. By the early 1950s redwood mills were sawing more that a billion broad feet of lumber a year*1 , a level maintaining until the mid-1970s. [One broad foot is an American measure equivalent to a slab of wood one foot square and one inch thick.] Today [2009] less than 5% pf the roughly 2 million acres of virgin redwood forests remain. Logging towns like Korbel and Orick that once boasted several sawmills are now lucky to have one still limping along. Rio Dell is home to what was once an historical timber enterprise: Pacific Lumber Company.

In 2008 after a protracted fight in federal bankruptcy court, PL - as Pacific Lumber Company is known locally - had been sold. The future of forestry was now in the hands of Mendocino Redwood Company (MRC), owned by a wealthy San Francisco family - the Fishers - who had made their fortune with the Gap and Banana Republic clothing chains. The new owners set up the Humboldt Redwood Company (HRC) and no one knew who would have jobs when the dust settled.

But the decline of Pacific Lumber Company started with a hostile takeover of PL, which had been run by the Murphy family since 1905. One man Charles Hurwitz, the CEO of Houston-based Maxxam Inc. launched the takeover in 1985 using junk bonds provided by financier, Michael Milken. Hurwitz inherited roughly 70% of the remaining old-growth redwood forests in private hands. The dark-suited businessman told his new forestry workers he believed in the “Golden Rule” - He who has the gold, rules! Hurwitz proceeded to break up the company and sell its assets. He sold PL’s head office in downtown San Francisco and a profitable welding division; he cashed out the worker’s superannuation fund, replacing it with an annuity from a poorly rated insurer. Most importantly for the redwood forests, Hurwitz adopted a business model of clear-cutting and first doubled then trebled the timber harvested annually from the company’s holdings (210,000 acres [85,000 ha]). His attempts to cut the largest remaining block of old growth on private land - the Headwaters Forest - launched an army of young protesters into the streets and up the trees and drew increased scrutiny from state timber regulators and federal wildlife agencies. 

For forest defenders, it was a dangerous time.  Tree sitters were extracted by force from their platforms hundreds of feet in the air. The late Judi Bari, one of the organisers of a series of protests in 1990, a time known as “redwood summer” had her pelvis shattered by a pipe bomb placed in her car. No one was ever charged for the crime. In 1998 David Chain and some other protesters hiked into a PL forest where they believed loggers were building roads illegally during the nesting season of the threatened marbled murrelet. One logger, caught on videotape, cursed them, saying he wished he’d brought his gun. Then he felled a redwood in the direction of their camp; the tree struck Chain killing him instantly. The logger was never charged. In 1999 the state & federal governments purchased part of the Headwaters forest, putting it under permanent protection.

The days of violent confrontations seem to be over now. California naturalist Lindsey Holm says, “Fighting for old growth redwoods is easy; it’s a moral issue, black and white - Save the old trees, the threatened species - it’s a no brainer.”

Albert Stanford Murphy decreed that his company Pacific Lumber would never cut more that 70% of a standing forest or cur more from its forest than would grow back in a year. The policies of the company held for half a century - until Hurwitz tossed them out.  The new manager of the Humboldt Redwood Company was promising to bring back selective cutting to the old Pacific Lumber lands. Its parent company, MRC, had already implemented the approach on 230,000 acres of heavily logged redwood forest. Scott Greacen, the executive director of the Environment Protection Information Centre (EPIC) is watching closely to see how Humboldt Redwood Company manages its new holdings. But the environmental watchers need to turn their attention to another industrial forest landowner: Green Diamond Resource Company.

Green Diamond is now the largest clear-cutter in the redwood forests, with more than 70% of its 430,000 acres given over to single age, uniform stands that are logged every 50 years. When asked if this company was EPICs new target, Greacen replies, “I think we’re going to have something to say about short-term, even-age forestry.”

Green Diamond’s puzzle-piece forests, with blocks of tightly packed small trees up to 20 years old separated by slivers of older trees in the 150-foot wide buffer zones around streams, is claimed to provide ‘good wildlife habitat’ according to the company’s vice-president and general manager, Neal Ewald. “Fifty years from now 20% of this landscape with stick up like veins on a maple leaf, with a network of old trees around the streams. We’re on target to create the same kind of trees you see in the Redwood National Park; in a hundred years.”

In the 1990s California reduced the maximum allowable size for a clear cut coupe from 80 acres to between 20 to 40 acres. Heavy tractors that cause so much soil erosion have largely been replaced by smaller, lighter shovel-loaders. According to Green Diamond management, the switch in the scale of logging and the machinery used, along with fewer, better-built logging roads and mandated buffer zones along streams has significantly reduced sediment going into salmon-spawning waters. The company illustrates the benefits to biodiversity by its research on the abundance of an iconic species of the redwood forest - the spotted owl - in regrowth forests as long as they have enough old trees with cavities and platforms for nesting. The mix of young regrowth forest blocks of various ages created by clear-cuts provides good habitat for the owl’s favourite prey - the dusky-footed wood rats. In 1992 Green Diamond’s biodiversity research with their forest management encouraged the US Fish & Wildlife Service to approve the first Habitat Conservation Plan for spotted owls. The Plan allowed the company to continue logging in spotted owl territory. Despite the new approach to the conservation of this critical keystone species, the owls have been declining by about 3% every year across their whole range - including Green Diamond - since 2001. Part of the owl decline is attributed to a mysterious decline drop in the dusky wood rat population, as well as increased competition from the barred owl- an opportunistic and more adaptive species - that has entered the spotted owls’ territory. Other wildlife also adapted to the mosaic of younger forest blocks and old trees protected along streams. In spring, before wild foods are available, black bears depend in part on the sap under the bark or redwoods and other conifers. Bears only become nuisance wildlife when forestry companies began growing trees as a single-age crop.

How to grow bigger trees, which can maximise wood production while providing good habitat?  There has to be a better way. Mike Fay says, “You’ve got to start thinking about this as an ecosystem; all these plantations might as well be growing corn. But if you want clean water, salmon, wildlife, and high-quality lumber; you’ve got to have a forest.”

Jim Able, a former industrial forester for company manages small private forests; most are fewer than a thousand acres. Jim and his foresters mark every tree they want to cut down, aiming never to exceed 30-35% of the volume of the forest stand. Unlike ‘high-grading’ - a form of selective logging that able considers worse than clear-cutting because it takes the best and leaves the rest - Able cuts weak and poorly formed trees, leaving the straightest and strongest to thrive in the newly available light. And unlike timbermen who harvest clear-cuts every few decades, Able’s foresters come back once a decade to evaluate whether to cut again. He never takes more wood from the forest have grown over that time, which means that the remaining trees continue to increase in height, volume and quality.

Some call this ‘ecological forestry’, in which the forest is managed to provide wildlife habitat and clean rivers as well as forestry jobs and wood products. The 2,200 acre van Eck Forest near Arcata, managed by the Pacific Forest Trust has another purpose. The Trust earns some of its keep by providing greenhouse gas reductions used to offset carbon emissions from Californian gas and electricity companies. Redwood forests, thanks to their phenomenal growth, longevity, resistance to disease, insect attack and rot, are considered the best of all forests at capturing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and locking away the carbon in their wood.  California’s government agencies are now adapting to the shift - they plan to adopt an updated carbon protocol for forestry, hoping to attract the industrial timber owners. Lon-term, the carbon incentives in forest sequestration will dramatically increase the redwood forest estate.

The science of redwood forests has been reassessed. The mantra of industrial foresters had long been to grow trees as fast as possible to maximise return on investment and provide a steady flow of wood products to market. For them, the profitable time to cut redwoods is at 40 to 50 years of age, even though such young trees contain mostly soft, low-quality sapwood, with little of the redwoods’ legendary rot-resistance. But after coring and measuring two dozen trees 30 to 110 meters tall - from canopy to base in the Humboldt Redwoods State Park, scientists concluded that a tree’s annual rate of wood production increases with age for at least 1,500 years. The older a redwood gets, the more high quality, rot-resistant heartwood it produces. The bottom line: Redwoods produce more wood and better wood, if they are allowed to age. This is also true for the tallest flowering trees in the world - the giant eucalypt forests of Australia and Tasmania.

*1.  A United States measure: 1 broad foot of timber is equivalent to 0.00236 cubic meters; 1 billion broad feet = 2.36 million cubic meters