Ted Williams
Ag Alert/California Country Magazine
March/April 2004

On June 30, 1998, a new forest products company was formed on the North Coast-Mendocino Redwood Co.-with a fresh approach to the age-old business of logging.

With about 233,000 acres of forestland in 75 coastal watersheds under active management, MRC adopted a straightforward goal: restore its timber property to a redwood and douglas-fir dominated, selectively-harvested forest and adhere to the highest standards of stewardship-while, at the same time, operating as a successful business.

California has 39.7 million acres of forestland, almost 40 percent of the land area of the entire state. Timberland in California, which is defined as suitable for producing commercial timber crops, totals about 17 million acres and contains an estimated 258 billion cubic feet of saw timber.

The state's largest timberland areas are in Humboldt, Mendocino, Plumas, Shasta, Siskiyou and Trinity counties. About 25 percent of California's timberland is owned by forest companies like MRC, 6 percent by private farmers and 14 percent by other private parties, according to the state Board of Equalization.

Currently, MRC harvests each year about 1.5 percent of its standing conifers, from about 2 percent of its lands. Since the forests grow about 3.5 percent a year, growth exceeds harvest levels.

Not everybody likes the idea of a commercial timber operation. North Coast timber operations have been the target of protests by environmental groups for years.

But, even as controversies have swirled, MRC has adhered to its forest stewardship objectives and business goals. Along the way, the company has improved aquatic and upslope habitat and protected old growth forest areas on its lands. It also has improved water quality in streams and helped ensure the well-being of communities where MRC operates.

In 2000, the international Forest Stewardship Council awarded MRC a five-year certification of its forestry management practices, subject to annual audits. The council is a non-profit organization devoted to encouraging the responsible management of the world's forests. MRC has been audited and recertified by the council each year since.

MRC's companion company, Mendocino Forest Products, sells redwood lumber for fencing, decking and garden uses. Lumber and other company products go to such familiar places as Home Depot and local lumber yards. In addition, the company operates sawmills at Ukiah and Fort Bragg that produce about 40 million board-feet of softwood lumber a year.

On a rainy morning this winter, MRC's Chief Forester Mike Jani looked out his office window in Calpella and complained about not being able to get into the forest. It wasn't just the rain that kept him indoors, he said; it's also increasing regulation and reporting requirements that tie forest and lumber managers like him to their desks.

Seasonal rains slow logging to a trickle, with helicopter harvesting or full suspension cable yarders being used to avoid disturbing the ground. With soils moist and receptive, winter is the time for planting new trees, Jani said. MRC crews planted through most of January and February.

One of the frustrations of my job is that the practice of forestry has gotten to be more of a paper exercise, because of the morass of regulations we have to wade through," said Jani, who is chairman of the California Farm Bureau Federation Forestry Advisory Committee. "When I first started in the business, the California forest practice rules were 24 pages long; now they're 270 pages.

"For any forester, this change alone has turned us into desk jockeys," he said. "Forestry plans used to be eight pages and a map. Now they're 150 pages. The bulk of the documents are for legal purposes. And the plans don't even include improvement practices in the field. We definitely need to refocus this process.

"I've been doing this work long enough to know that some of the industry's bad press was deserved,"Jani said, "But that's history. I come from a different perspective.

"I cut my teeth in the business at Big Creek Lumber in the Santa Cruz Mountains in the 1970s, when environmental concerns really began to change, "Jani said. "Logging in the Santa Cruz Mountains meant we were in the eye of a huge population. Our practices were highly impacted by that scrutiny."

What Jani found when he joined MRC shortly after the company was formed is that North Coast redwood forest managers are dealing with a variety of "legacy" issues. This term refers to the impact of old logging practices on modern timber activities.

For example, construction practices used in building old logging roads and skid trails in the past created some unreliable culvert crossings at streams, impeding fish migration and increasing the threat that high stream flows and debris would cause a crossing blowout, sending accumulated sediment downstream.

Then there are the problems created by decades of "high grading" trees for harvest: taking the best and leaving the rest. Previous owners of MRC lands used harvesting techniques that substantially reduced the number of redwoods and Douglas fir. The practice limited diversity and damaged habitat.

"If that's done (high grading) year after year, what you are left with is a forest that's all one age and type,"Jani explained. "What has happened here is that fast-growing trees have crowded out the slower-growing, more valuable species. In some places we have stands that are all tan oak. We can't get an economic return from tan oak-even as firewood And the redwood trees don't have a chance to grow.

"Now, we're just trying to clear it out so we can plant trees that will yield a forest with more diversity,"he said. "Today, we use uneven age management in all our conifer stands to ensure diversity and maintain forest health."

MRC, through a process known as watershed analysis, is identifying watercourse crossings that need improvement. Jani estimates that about 60 percent of the old crossings have been cataloged and action plans developed for the most sensitive ones. On average, they cost $150,000 to $200,000.

He said crossing improvements often call for removing a culvert and replacing it with a rocked dip and installing a new, appropriately sized culvert, properly aligning it to the stream channel or, when needed, installing a bridge. Although expensive, bridges are a favored solution for stream crossings on large watercourses used for fish migration. MRC tries to complete several projects a year.

A forest is more than a timber farm, Jani stressed. A natural forest contains healthy trees, dead standing trees (snags), logs on the ground, and a mosaic of plant species. Historic fires created cavities in the bases of trees.

"These forest elements are host to other species that benefit from the food or shelter this diversity provides," he said. "A more diverse forest structure increases the complexity of the forest ecosystem. But many of these habitat elements cannot be replaced in short periods of time. That why our management is committed to the long-term conservation of existing forest elements and cultivating replacements for the future.

"There are a whole lot of good things going on in our forests today, but all we hear is the bad news," Jani said as he eyed the dreary skies from his office window. "Bad press is the result of certain groups who depend on delivering bad news for self-perpetuation. I don't think the industry has done a very good job of telling our story to the public. That is one of our industry's biggest challenges."

Jani said almost every forestry company today offers tours of its operations. MRC hosts non-profit groups and the media. The company provides virtual access to its operations through its Web site.

"We include the bad press, as well as the good,"he said. "This company is committed to transparency because we believe the more people know about our operation, the better they will understand and appreciate good stewardship."

To learn more about MRC and its operation, visit the company's Web site at www.mrc.com.

Kate Campbell is a reporter with the California Farm Bureau Federation. She may be reached at (800) 698-FARM or by e-mail at kcampbell@cfbf.com.