By Glenda Anderson

The Press Democrat                                                                                                                 

November 22, 2009


Pedro Yanez pulls weeds from the bases of thousands of cloned redwood tree saplings at Sequoia Redwoods / Orchids near Fortuna. Photo by Kent Porter/PD.

Thousands of foot-tall orphaned baby redwood trees sit in rows in a Humboldt County greenhouse, products of the ongoing economic slump and changes in forestry practices.

They were grown for replanting commercial timberland then abandoned when they were no longer needed.

“One of the problems is the markets are so bad, we can’t afford to log,” said Art Harwood, executive director of the nonprofit Redwood Forest Foundation, which owns 50,000 acres of timberland in Mendocino County. When existing trees aren’t harvested, the need and financial resources to plant new trees declines, he said. The foundation is relocating about 70,000 orphaned trees through a fundraising adopt-a-tree program.

The last few years have been tough on the timber industry, which saw demand and prices for its products drop dramatically.

Timber production overall in California dropped from 2.31 billion board-feet in 2007 to 1.92 billion board-feet in 2008, a 20 percent decline, said Butch Bernhardt, spokesman for Portland-based Western Wood Products Association.

Timber value took an even harder hit, falling from $1.04 billion to $507.6 million, he said.

“The problem is, we’re not building,” Bernhardt said.

Housing starts in the 12 Western states are expected to drop to 551,000 this year, the lowest figure since 1945, he said.

In the redwood region, production has dropped by half in two years, from 1.02 billion board-feet in 2006 to 508 million board feet in 2008, Bernhardt said.

More than 4,000 wood production jobs in California were lost between 2007 and 2008, according to the Employment Development Department.

Changes in forest practices in Northern California also has contributed to the glut of nursery-grown trees.

With the demise of Pacific Lumber Company in 2008, the controversial practice of clear-cutting large swaths of land has pretty much ended in California, decreasing the need to replant.

The timberland’s new owners — Humboldt Redwood Company — has halted the practice.

“We eliminated clear-cutting,” said Mike Jani, chief forester for Humboldt Redwood Company.

Both Humboldt and its 220,000-acre sister company, Mendocino Redwood Company, are owned by a partnership that includes the Fisher family, heirs to The Gap retail fortune. The owners have vowed to use sustainable practices in harvesting trees.

But before Pacific Lumber Company was sold during bankruptcy proceedings, it ordered thousands of redwood trees for replanting, said Lin Barrett, who is leading the Redwood Forest Foundation’s adopt-a-tree effort. Trees typically are ordered several years in advance, she said.

Timber companies in general are harvesting in ways that require less replanting, said California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection forester and nursery manager Dave Derby. They try to leave behind enough mature seed trees to repopulate the land naturally, he said.

Because of less demand for nursery conifers, CDF cut the number of seedlings it planted at its Davis nursery from 1.8 million in 2007 to 1 million in 2008, he said.

It sells its trees both to private landowners and to resource conservation groups doing rehabilitation work in fire-damaged forests, Derby said.

Timber companies also are planting fewer trees because they have less income, thus less money to spend on optional restoration projects, Harwood said.

Between the decrease in logging and changes in forest practices, there’s a lot less for environmentalists to protest.

But the forests now could face threats from economic forces.

“We have loans to pay off,” Harwood said.

Financially strapped timberland owners could be forced to subdivide and sell off land to make ends meet, said Ruskin Hartley, executive director of Save the Redwoods League.

The downturn in timber production already has resulted in a decline in its infrastructure and skilled workers, said Harwood, whose Branscomb mill was sold in pieces following bankruptcy last year.

He and others in the timber industry hope that economic stimulus grants for restoration projects will keep the remaining workers and infrastructure intact.

“Then we hope to get back to logging. If not, we’re just going to be a marijuana economy,” Harwood said.

The Redwood Forest Foundation is hoping for a boost from the orphaned trees it purchased from Sequoia Redwoods in Fortuna at a discounted price, Barrett said.

The effort is going well.

“We have found places to plant them,” she said. But they still need donors to pay to have the last 30,000 of them delivered and planted by February.

The trees can be adopted for $15 each, with price reductions for larger purchases. More information about the program is available at

Most of the other redwood saplings — some 400,000 altogether — also have been claimed as timberland owners have become more optimistic that the timber market will begin picking up next year, said Sequoia Redwoods co-owner Roy Wittwer.

There are signs of recovery, but “it will be a slow recovery,” Bernhardt said.

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