Beyond the Gold Star
Certification Faces Its Toughest Test Yet

By Seth Zuckerman                                                                                                                                               11/30/2000

Forest certifiers took a bold step this month when they gave their blessing to northern California's Mendocino Redwood Company, which is the target of some activists' ire for its use of herbicides and its pace of logging -- and is the focus of a consumer boycott as a result.


The certification may be the first time in the United States that the international Forest Stewardship Council seal of approval has been awarded in the face of nationwide environmental controversy.

Certifiers point to significant changes that have already occurred in the company's actions, and to further improvements it must make as a condition of keeping its certification.

Even more importantly, it appears to be one of the first instances in which the prospect of certification has catalyzed major changes to on-the-ground practice at an industrial timber ownership in the United States. Until now, most certifications have simply recognized good management, and amounted to awarding a gold star for good behavior.

In the Mendocino case, the process has come closer to its promise of providing an incentive for companies to adopt better forest practices. That incentive was especially acute for Mendocino Redwood (MRC), which distributes much of its lumber through Home Depot -- a retail giant that has committed to giving preference to certified suppliers by the end of 2002.

The certification is also unusual among U.S. companies because the firm's 232,000 acres of forestland were run into the ground by their previous owners, Louisiana-Pacific. If MRC succeeds in turning a profit while meeting certification standards, it will demonstrate that good forestry can be practiced commercially even on land that has been stripped of much of its natural endowment.

Mendocino Redwood first sought certification in summer 1999, when it brought both of the U.S. agencies that are accredited by the international Forest Stewardship Council to inspect its operations. The certifiers -- the non-profit Smartwood and for-profit Scientific Certification Systems (SCS) -- handed the company an extensive list of pre-conditions it would have to satisfy before it could be granted certification. A year later, MRC invited the certifiers to return to its lands 100 miles north of San Francisco and verify that it had cleared those hurdles.

"My interactions with MRC were so positive," says forest ecologist Yana Valachovic, who was a member of the Smartwood assessment team. "We would point out a weakness and they would come back to us saying, 'this is how we can address that.' "

Since the first assessment, the company has taken strides toward ecological sustainability, certifiers say. Before certifiers came on the scene, the firm had replaced clearcutting with a controversial policy called "variable retention," which critics dismissed as clearcuts with green window dressing. Now the company's guidelines for variable retention call for leaving more trees in patterns that have greater ecological value. Mature stands are barred from variable retention, and instead are to be cut only through selective harvesting.

Critics had also charged that MRC was continuing to over-cut the forests, as previous owner Louisiana-Pacific had done. Mendocino Redwood bought the lands from L-P in 1998, and reduced the average annual cut by 15 percent, to 40 million board-feet. But the company was cutting heavily in those few watersheds where significant timber remained. Prodded by the certification team, MRC embarked on an inventory -- to be completed by the end of next year -- that will determine how much each watershed can sustainably produce. As a condition of its certification, MRC must reduce the cut in each watershed to that level.

Third, the company's use of herbicides was a hot-button issue. L-P's clearcutting had set the stage for about half of the company's land to become dominated with tanoak, a hardwood that is naturally a minor component of the coastal forest, but sprouts vigorously from its stump. MRC has cut the tanoak and sought to bring these lands back into redwood, a much more lucrative timber species, and has been using hand applications of the potent herbicide Garlon to keep the tanoak from sprouting back.

MRC agreed to reduce herbicide use by 60 percent within four years, and provide for its eventual elimination. It already has a study underway of more than a dozen alternative treatments to control tanoak, ranging from the application of naturally occurring toxins like eucalyptus oil and acetic acid (the active ingredient in vinegar), to covering tanoak stumps in black plastic to keep light away from the sprouts. "We're leading them away from herbicide use," says Smartwood western regional manager Walter Smith. "It's like any other change in human behavior."

Nevertheless, MRC's herbicide use is probably the most controversial aspect of the agencies' decision to certify the company. Smith admits that he himself would not want to work on a crew that was applying Garlon to tanoak on MRC lands. Valachovic acknowledges that if MRC owned land upstream from her rural homestead, she would work with them to shift to manual, instead of chemical, control of hardwoods. "Sure, we'd all like to see the change be instantaneous, but it isn't going to work like that."

In an even more innovative move, MRC is attempting to turn the tanoak into a useful product in the first large-scale operation of its kind in California. It is currently producing 5000 square feet a day of its new line of "California Chestnut Oak Flooring," in milling operations that employ 53 people.

The certification reports spell out many other issues, such as landscape planning, biological inventories, and communication with native peoples, that MRC must address in order to keep using the Forest Stewardship Council label.

The environmental community -- in Mendocino County and beyond -- is divided on MRC's certification, depending on their tendency to see the forest as half logged or half standing. Kathy Bailey, California forestry spokeswoman for the Sierra Club, faults MRC for failing to protect the coho salmon adequately under the Endangered Species Act, and for cutting too many of their scarce large trees. "They should be fulfilling more of their commitments to improve before they get certified, not after," says Bailey.

Others have even sharper words for the company and its certifiers. "The Forest Stewardship Council has given this company the public relations tool they need to complete more than 200 logging plans," says Mary Pjerrou of the Greenwood Watershed Association. "They have besmirched their green labels."

Pjerrou has spearheaded a campaign "Save the Redwoods - Boycott the Gap," which targets the Gap and associated stores because members of the Fisher family, founders of the Gap, are the principal owners of Mendocino Redwood Company. "They should shut down their forestry operations until they can demonstrate that they can get the coho and marbled murrelet back," she says. "The Fisher family can afford to save this forest for fish and wildlife."

Salmon restorationist Craig Bell disagrees. He lauds the company for providing access, data, money, and in-kind contributions toward salmon habitat work on its land. And he's no apologist for bad timber companies: the sport-fishing guide and ex-logger locked himself down to a gate on Pacific Lumber land two years ago to stop cutting in old-growth Douglas-fir forest. "Mendocino Redwood is the best company operating in Mendocino, Humboldt, and Del Norte counties," Bell says. "They're the first people who offer the promise of commercial forestry that's going to do things right -- and in the meantime, they have to have some logs."

It's that transition period which raises many questions for local observers. MRC's neighbors have seen a succession of industrial landowners cut and run. Like the child of a troubled home who has a hard time learning to trust anyone again, they are wary of the company's pretty promises.

But for certifier Valachovic, the act of certification cements the company's commitment to improve. "If we don't certify and just give them a list of preconditions, the report stays private," she says. "But if they are certified, they become committed to a set of conditions, and accountable to a much wider audience." By accepting certification, MRC committed itself to a five-year contract, including more than a dozen significant conditions from each certifier. Outside critics will be sure to watchdog the company as it strives toward these criteria -- and will undoubtedly hound the certifiers as well.

The basic question at hand has changed little since Tidepool first covered MRC two years ago -- how green is green enough. The company's performance has improved, but it still doesn't satisfy some critics. "They don't need to be perfect," Valachovic says. "No company is perfect." And they are charting a new direction, something that they couldn't have begun to do two years ago because they hadn't replaced the leadership of the forestry staff.

But the greatest value in MRC's certification may be to push it toward becoming a model of restorative forestry. It is more challenging for MRC to make a profit at ecologically sound management than for many of its certified counterparts, because of the condition of its lands when it acquired them. Many showcase certified operations, such as Collins-Pine in the northeastern corner of California, have been managing wisely since the land's first round of logging.

In contrast, MRC bought its lands after previous owner Louisiana-Pacific had liquidated almost all the standing timber, bringing the average inventory down to a measly 10,000 board feet per acre. They face the challenge of making the operation pay for itself without grinding up their seed corn. Their progress toward financial profitability is unknown: MRC is a privately held company, and chairman Sandy Dean declined to release any financial results. Mendocino is also a challenging place to attempt certification, given what MRC's Director of Stewardship Nancy Budge calls its "history of discord, distrust, activism, and polarization."

The landscape is studded with much more forest like MRC's than like Collins-Pine's, and with an increasing number of places that are as contentious as Mendocino. MRC will be certification's New York: if you can make it here, kid, you can make it anywhere.

Ecotrust circuit rider Seth Zuckerman does occasional paid consulting for Smartwood, one of the certifiers that gave its approval to Mendocino Redwood Company's operations. He was not involved, however, in deciding whether to certify Mendocino Redwood.