by Will Parrish on Dec 5th, 2012

The Kashia Pomo of northwestern Sonoma and southwestern Mendocino Counties refer to it as “Chishkale,” meaning “beautiful tree.” Northern California pioneers selected their name for it on an altogether more utilitarian basis: Its bark was central to the vast leather tanning industry of the late 1800s and early 1900s, so they dubbed it “tan-oak.” Today, the timber industry often doesn’t even give it the dignity of a specific name, typically referring to it merely as a “hardwood.”

To wit, Mendocino Redwood Company Chief Forester Michael Jani, who published a letter in the Anderson Valley Advertiser this past August explaining MRC’s rationale for using an average of 5,500 pounds of the herbicide Imazapyr every year to eradicate tan-oaks, which are not marketable in the timber industry’s current economic climate:

“Herbicide use has been an important and necessary tool in the replanting and restoration of the natural balance on more than 60,000 acres of MRC forestlands and the establishment of nearly six million redwood and Douglas fir trees that otherwise would not be on the land… Today, there are areas of the forestlands that still contain a much higher proportion of hardwoods to conifers than is natural.”

Earlier this summer, Elaine and Mike Kalantarian of Navarro helped spark a modest outcry regarding “Hack and Squirt,” a method of killing tan-oaks (and occasionally other hardwood trees) that timber outfits have widely used in Pacific Northwest forests during the past few decades, in lieu of aerial spraying. The practice involves cutting around the base of the trees, peeling back the bark, and spraying a systemic herbicide into the freshly opened gashes.

This past April, from a ridgetop knoll on Bald Hill, in Anderson Valley’s “Deep End” outside of Navarro, the Kalantarians noticed the leaves on several very large swath of trees suddenly turn brown. The trees — hundreds of them — were standing dead. The bark soon turned an orange tint and the leaves, themselves having turned red, dropped. Within a few months, the trees’ now-rotting stems were eerily visible, an entirely unfamiliar sight in the early summer, whereas the leaves on their branches had once covered them.

Similar forest dead zones appeared at roughly the same time visible from major roads and adjacent to people’s properties in Elk, Comptche, Rockport, Westport, in the hills west of Willits, and near Orr Springs outside of Ukiah. Many more stretch out across more remote areas of MRC’s land — out of sight and mind.

The Kalantarians published a series of strongly-worded letters in the AVA about what they had discovered. The AVA followed up by publishing a handful of in-depth articles on the subject. Petition drives emerged in some of the more heavily impacted areas of the county. A Comptche resident rented a private plane and flew over a large portion of MRC’s land to gather photographic documentation of the damage. A groundswell of opposition had begun.

Mendocino Redwood Company owns roughly 227,000 acres, or 10% of the private land in Mendocino County, so MRC management’s decisions about how they manage the land have major consequences. Decisions such as whether they clear-cut, or not (they have). Whether they deforest near waterways, or not (they have). Whether they conduct stream restoration work, or not (they have). Whether they use herbicide, or not (they do — on a routine basis).

Nearly everyone in western Mendocino County shares a watershed with either MRC or the other largest timber outfit in the county, Hawthorne Timber Co., which uses similar herbicide practices. Nearly everyone is affected.

In late July, Mendocino Redwood Company Chief Forester Mike Jani wrote his conciliatory letter to this paper apologizing for the “visual impacts” of the forest dead zones. The letter was mainly an effort to reframe public perception of the company’s herbicide practices, which Jani described in the letter as always having been “carried out under strict, rigorous and long-standing existing internal policies and controls.”

“In our overall planning for the scope of this herbicide treatment, we underestimated the visual impact to the general public, as well as to our neighbors,” Jani wrote. “We understand and appreciate the concerns raised, and the fact is we likely could have minimized concern by better communicating our plans with our neighbors and modifying our treatment to reduce the visual impacts.”

Since that time, the impact — visual and otherwise — to the hill that rises out from John Smith Creek, across from the Kalantarians’ home on Bald Hill in Rancho Navarro, has greatly increased. It takes at least a few months for the death of the trees, once they are poisoned, to become visible from the distance. Consequently, the damage the Kalantarians originally observed was the result of a “Hack and Squirt” operation from this past winter.

MRC conducted a second “Hack and Squirt” project in the area in May, which became visible only following the publication of the original articles. As an off-hand estimate, Elaine Kalatarian said that the area is perhaps three times greater.

She asks, “Who gives them the right to poison our environment, just because they own all this land? The water washes through and comes to our property and our groundwater. I don’t think they have a right to poison it.”

The Kalantarians created a website information clearinghouse regarding MRC and its use of Imazapyr. They also initiated an online petition drive, which has 497 signatures as of this writing.

Jani also justified the targeting of tan-oaks with Imazapyr on the grounds that more tan-oaks are currently growing than are healthy for the forest as a whole. “This is a result of poor harvesting practices and fires that pre-date our ownership of these lands,” he wrote. “Herbicides are a crucial tool to restore the conifer balance. Once this balance is achieved and properly managed, the use of herbicides will no longer be necessary except for rare circumstances to fight potential incursions of exotic species.”

Frederica Bowcutt, an ecologist and member of the faculty at Evergreen State College, is currently writing a book titled Tanoak Dreamtime: Safeguarding a Native Nut Tree, which she began working on in response to Sudden Oak Death’s (SOD) spread throughout the Central and North Coasts of California, where it has killed innumerable tan-oaks and coast live oaks.

Bowcutt says that the idea of a “balance of nature,” to which Jani has referred in justifying Hack and Squirt on ecological grounds, is “outdated.” “In terms of plant ecology, it’s completely not current,” she says. “The focus is on how random factors shape vegetation.”

Spanning the coastal zones from near Santa Barbara to just north of the Umpqua River in southern Oregon tanoaks — their Latin name is lithocarpus deniflorus — grows most prolifically in northwestern Sonoma, Mendocino, Humboldt, and Del Norte Counties. As Bowcutt points out, there are numerous ways in which tanoaks are ecologically important for which Jani’s rationale fails to account.

Tanoaks reduce erosion through their interwoven network of roots that quickly become established after disturbances like logging. The leaf litter of tanoak moderates soil temperature, restores soil texture, and increases microbial activity including nitrogen-fixing bacteria that improve soil fertility damaged by disturbance. Its deep roots move subsoil nutrients closer to the surface where the shallower rooted conifers can access them.

Laminated root rot has become a major impediment to Douglas-fir production in the Pacific Northwest. Many speculate that use of monocultures in forestry allowed this native disease to rapidly expand its populations causing significant losses in yields. Tanoak and other hardwoods are immune to laminated root rot, so periods of tanoak dominance in the forest function much like the agricultural practices of crop rotation whereby leaving fields fallow occasionally reduces disease problems.

Many wildlife species, including band-tailed pigeon, deer, elk, and bear, depend on the large, oil-rich nuts of the tanoak for fattening up for the winter. Many species, such as acorn woodpeckers, squirrels, and chipmunks, store the acorns in caches.”

As Bowcutt also points out, the idea of a “natural balance” also papers over the role of Native people in shaping the landscape. The landscape that US colonizers discovered upon arriving in tanoaks’ native range was not “natural” or “wild,” but rather had been carefully tended by the original inhabitants of the land. Bowcutt and other academics, such as UC Davis ethnoecologist Kat Anderson, have rigorously documented the sophistication of Native people’s management of tanoak landscapes.

For millennia, tan-oaks produced regional Native people’s staff of life. Mature tanoaks generate a prodigious amount of acorns. Old-growth trees can produce 300-500 pounds of this traditional staple food item every year. They are more pest-resistant and thus easier to store than other varieties. Coastal Pomo groups managed the landscape to enhance the growth and vitality of the trees through controlled burning and by coppicing and fumigating the trees.

Hawk Rosales, executive director for the InterTribal Sinkyone Wilderness Council, has stated, “Each year there are fewer of the productive tanoak trees that are so necessary for the maintenance of California Indian peoples’ traditional cultures.”

Tan-oaks were no less central to the Californians of the late-19th century, providing the raw material for the most lucrative regional industry of the time. The trees were cut, stripped of their bark and exported to large ports along the coast for tanning cattle hides (i.e., to make leather). The practice was first used by the Spanish. Prior to the petroleum age, many things now made with plastic were made with leather.

As California’s economic structure took shape in the second half of the 19th century, the tanbark industry helped render Mendo economically and culturally subordinate to San Francisco, where California’s commerce and industry were born in the 1850s. As the capitalist markets expanded, San Francisco developed a surrounding archipelago of towns that acted in a cooperative but subordinate role, including most of Mendocino County, serving essentially as colonies in unequal market-exchange relations, and allowing the city to drain the wealth and resources of the less advanced areas.

Leather manufacturers located much of their production in urban settings to maximize access to cheap labor sources, such as Chinese and European immigrants, those being in San Francisco in particular. Bowcutt writes, “San Francisco stank, literally, from approximately fifty tanneries. The rotting flesh still stuck to the hides reeked while animal skins were left in vats of oak bark decoction for months to cure.”

That general economic structure remains in place, although the whims of the capitalist marketplace has greatly redefined the role of tan-oaks. Since roughly the 1950s, when plastic became dominant, the timber industry has redefined tanoak as an invasive weed that should be eliminated at all costs, given that its wood is not marketable on a broad scale.

Whereas ownership of the tracts of land where tanoak was harvested in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was somewhat dispersed, now a single obscenely wealthy family, the Fishers, own much of the forest where tan-oak grows on the North Coast. One of the private equity firms of which the Fishers are majority owners, named Sansome Partners, is MRC’s parent company, as well as the parent company for the roughly similar-sized Humboldt Redwood Company.

The Fishers, of course, are based in San Francisco, where their real estate empire is based and also where they found their enormous retail clothing chain, The Gap.

If all that was not enough, tan-oaks have also been contending with the spread of a deadly pathogen that has killed hundreds of thousands of the trees since 1995. Sudden Oak Death, as it is called, is a tree disease caused by a plant pathogen imported from overseas via imported decorative flowers that has laid waste to countless tan-oaks and coast live oak trees. We will report more on the current status of SOD in an upcoming issue of the AVA.

Voices like Fredericka Bowcutt’s, which tout the ecological importance of allowing tanoaks to grow and thrive, have been systematically marginalized for exactly as long as the profit motive has been around in NorCal. Emanuel Fritz, a University of California-Berkeley forestry professor, warned in 1949 that clear-cutting and subsequently broadcast slash burning damaged the soil and reduced the chances for reforestation. Instead he advocated an ecosystem approach by allowing tanoak and brush species to rehabilitate the soil by maintaining its moisture and friability, which ultimately allowed conifers to reassert themselves. State and federal foresters as well as private timberland owners opted not to follow the advice.

Many forest defenders overlook tan-oak trees, which are, after all, literally overshadowed by the charismatic giants — redwoods and Douglas firs — that grow among in their native range. Arguably no other tree is more ecologically important. Moreover, arguably no other tree in this region has a more compelling history.

Central to that history is the tree’s relationship to Native people. Ray Raphael, in his book An Everyday History of Somewhere, excavated a story of how one of three Sinkyone Indians on the Humboldt Coast near Briceland who survived into the days of the tanbark boom described the sight of tanoaks lying on the ground. He “told of a visit from Nagicho, the Sinkyone Creator. Naigacho had looked at the area around Briceland and rematked sadly, ‘It looks just like my people lying around, lying around with all their skin cut off.”

Now, rather than having their skin cut off, they are injected with poison.