Are Humboldt County's biggest timber companies as eco-friendly as they're trying to tell us?


Photo by Chuck Johnson
Once a forest, now a clearing. Ewald says trees grow well after clearcuts, but sites in the Luffenholtz watershed like this will be thing of the past. The future is much "fuzzier."
Do you want to see me hug a tree?" We are trotting behind an ebullient Neal Ewald, who was recently promoted to senior vice president of Green Diamond, formerly known as the Simpson Timber Company. The tree about to be hugged is a second-growth redwood, about 30 inches in diameter and approximately 32 years old. Ewald has taken us on the grand tour through Green Diamond's Little River holdings and onto the Korbel property near Maple Creek. A forester for over 30 years, Ewald often lapses into rapid-fire industry jargon, talking enthusiastically about canopy closure, legacy trees and commercial thinning. The man loves his job. He says repeatedly that he's "the luckiest guy in the world." Then he throws his arms around the tree.

The days when wagons called crummies rattled along Eureka's waterfront carrying crews of lumberjacks off to harvest "red gold" are gone. The once ubiquitous working millyards along Highway 101 are now business parks. Your cousin who used to set chokers is probably installing solar panels. Hybrid cars are a more common sight on rural roads than logging trucks. But timber's story is far from over. We still outrank every other county in California in both board feet and income. The 220,000 board feet (valued at more than $62 million) we produced in 2012 is nearly double that of the runner-up, Shasta County, according to the State Board of Equalization.

After decades of bitter divisiveness between environmentalists and timber companies, Ewald's embrace is symbolic of what some see as a new era for the industry. Humboldt County's two remaining major timber companies, Green Diamond and the Humboldt Redwood Company, are rebranding their product under a surprising catchphrase — sustainability — and they have a seal of approval from the Forest Stewardship Council to back up their claims. But whether their practices measure up to the true definition of the word is a matter of ongoing debate.

"We've gone through the great experiment," says Ewald, referring to the massive clearcuts of the railroad logging era. "It happened 100 years ago and the forest came back with great vigor."

Ewald is a fan of clearcuts, and he makes no apologies. He refers to the tree he's embraced as proof of their value.

"Look at it; it's just cranking out heartwood," he says, "The bark's splitting, it's producing so fast."

Just across the gravel road is a different stand of trees, one Ewald says was managed under a selective harvest system. That means that the trees were thinned unevenly to promote growth, instead of all cut at the same time. Few of the trees equal those that Ewald looks upon now with obvious pride. There's little doubt that clearcuts are good news for any company's bottom line. But can they also be, as Ewald asserts, good for the health of the forest? Most of the environmental professionals we spoke to responded to this question with a resounding no.

The Forest Stewardship Council, an international member-governed organization, was established in 1993 in response to global deforestation. Its governing board is made up of members from a variety of disciplines, from timber industry professionals to conservationists. Its forest certification system has been endorsed by numerous environmental groups, from the Sierra Club to Greenpeace. Similar to the "organic" label found on food products, FSC-certified timber is meant to reflect rigorous quality assurance: companies with its seal of approval must meet high standards for the ecological, financial and social wellbeing of their communities. Their adherence is assessed by third party certifiers who report their findings to the Forest Stewardship Council and conduct subsequent audits.

But even the watchers must be watched. "Greenwashing," a PR tactic of exaggerating environmental friendliness, is a term on the lips of many. The Sustainable Forestry Initiative, which has also endorsed Green Diamond, may be a cautionary tale. Established in 1994 by the American Forest and Paper Association, many environmental groups complain the SFI is an industry-controlled organization whose endorsement is meaningless. Greenpeace and ForestEthics have both filed complaints against it with the Federal Trade Commission. Unlike the Forest Stewardship Council, the SFI has repeatedly failed to be accepted by the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program. Still, a consumer might buy SFI-certified products, unaware that their use of the word "sustainable" is a matter of debate.

Clearcuts, a word with a tainted history, has been replaced in industry jargon with "even-aged management." Both terms are equally anathema to those who view the practice as incompatible with real sustainability. The Forest Stewardship Council allows even-aged management of up to 60 acres at a time, providing a suitable amount of older trees are set aside on the parcel to promote biodiversity and soil retention. Green Diamond says the average size of its clearcuts is about 15 acres — well below the Forest Stewardship Council's limit. But these numbers don't seem to ease critics' concerns.

"It doesn't correspond with a redwood forest's dynamics," says Gary Graham-Hughes, executive director of the Environmental Protection Information Center (EPIC) "Historically, redwoods never had hundreds of 15-acre openings."

EPIC has been one of the most vociferous critics of Green Diamond's certification. It has taken numerous aerial photographs of clearcut sites and recently threatened to file suit against the company over a proposed timber harvest plan.

"Green Diamond wants to tell you that forestry is the same thing as forest ecology," Graham-Hughes said. "It's not."

A Tale of Two Timber Companies

Graham-Hughes' reference to forestry vs. forest ecology echoes a dichotomy that has plagued the conversation about Humboldt County's timber industry for decades. In the Timber Wars of the '80s and '90s, it wasn't uncommon to see the two sides' disparate views pitched as a color war of green ideals vs. blue collar jobs. Profit and sustainability were long seen as mutually exclusive. The Forest Stewardship Council has held an important role in uniting them. It arrived at a time when many activists were disillusioned with the ability of legislation to enact real change. It also gave companies with progressive environmental practices a way to market their product to a rapidly growing base of green consumers.

Perhaps the Humboldt Redwood Company, certified by the FSC in 2009, best embodies what some feel is an ideal balance of profitability and sustainability. HRC inherited a troubling legacy along with its office in Scotia, former site of the Pacific Lumber Company, but it has taken steps in recent years to fulfill the Forest Stewardship Council's threefold obligations of economic, ecological and social wellbeing for its community.

Dan Ehresman, executive director of the Northcoast Environmental Center, is one of many environmental professionals quick to praise the company. He uses the Humboldt Redwood Company as an example of the dramatically improved dynamic between the timber industry and the environmental community.

"We're seeing a movement towards ecological forestry," says Ehresman, "The timber industry has adapted through environmental activism to better practices."

Michael Jani, president and chief forester of the Humboldt and Mendocino Redwood Companies, agrees with Ehresman on the role of activism in changing industry practices.

"The Timber Wars changed forestry for us all," he says, referring to the tense era of Charles Hurwitz, whose Texas-based company Maxxam took over the Pacific Lumber Co. in 1986. Prior to Hurwitz, Pacific Lumber was one of the largest private employers in the region. Its workers had pension plans and free life insurance. Scholarships were offered to employees' children.

While its logging practices may have fallen far short of today's environmental standards, the pre-Hurwitz Pacific Lumber operated with an eye toward maintaining its forests' long-term profitability. To do so it introduced sustainable harvest practices well before they were the industry standard. Following a hostile takeover, Hurwitz gutted employee benefits and liquidated PALCO's resources through massive clearcuts. Infuriated green groups responded with protests and a push for increased legislation.

Jani credits this backlash as the beginning of a new era. Over the span of his career, he's seen two groups once polarized — environmental activists and timber companies — gradually and grudgingly move toward middle ground.

"The rules changed," says Jani. "The industry was permanently changed."

When the Mendocino Redwood Co. consolidated and assumed control of the post-bankruptcy PALCO holdings in 2008 — rechristening it the Humboldt Redwood Co. — it gave the entire operation a hard reboot. It didn't want to repeat a bitter experience in Mendocino, where a 1998 takeover of Louisiana Pacific lands led to protests. The Redwood Coast Watersheds Alliance, among others, had accused the company of liquidation logging and greenwashing when it continued the high-yield production of Louisiana Pacific's existing timber harvest plans. When Mendocino Redwood Co. expanded to Humboldt, production halted for a week to retrofit existing harvest plans. A different assortment of trees was marked for removal; trees that met Forest Stewardship Council guidelines for a sustainable yield.

Jani often meets with guests in what was once the Pacific Lumber Co.'s boardroom. As in much of the building, the table and walls are fashioned from old-growth redwood, which combines with the afternoon sunlight to suffuse the room with an amber glow.

Jani recently discovered, tucked away in a box of files, several discs full of pictures spanning a century of the Pacific Lumber Co.'s history. He refers to a sepia-toned picture taken at Larabee Creek, which was clearcut around the turn of the 20th century.

"You don't see a stick of wood or stitch of vegetation in the background," he says.

If you were to visit the site today, well, it still wouldn't look like Founder's Grove. Maxxam clearcut it again in the early 1990s. But things are slowly improving. Humboldt Redwood Co. owns the largest amount of timberland in the county: 209,300 acres of redwood and mixed conifers. According to the company's management plan, this includes somewhere between 10 and 20 stands of protected old-growth redwood covering 100 to 300 acres. Another 6,640 acres of untouched old-growth comprise its marbled murrelet preserves.

The remaining stands are harvested under an uneven-aged management system, meaning some trees are selectively removed to create space for younger ones to receive sunlight and grow. Forests that have been clearcut and replanted often result in eerie-looking stands of second-growth trees — all the same age, all the same distance apart. Jani calls uneven-aged management an attempt to "recreate the chaos" of the natural forest.

While Humboldt Redwood Co. may be on its way to redeeming the environmental legacy of its predecessor, Scotia isn't likely to turn back into a bustling company town. Jobs felling trees and driving trucks were once in-house positions, but like many other companies in the industry, Humboldt Redwood Co. now outsources them to third-party crews. It's a financially savvy move: Logging is a high-risk profession and outsourcing these jobs substantially cuts a company's insurance overhead.

Green Diamond has one of the last in-house crews in the region, employing up to 600 workers during its peak season.

Dennis Mullins, a research analyst for the North Coast Region Labor Market, says that jobs in the timber industry have fallen by 49 percent in the last two decades. Some of this is due to outsourcing, and some to technological advances that reduce the need for a human workforce.

"Still," says Mullins, "You would expect a dying industry to have lower wages. The wages are high compared to other industries."

According to his figures, average weekly wages have actually increased over the last two decades, from $511 to $790, although these numbers have not been adjusted for inflation. (The average weekly wage for Humboldt County is about $685.)

The barricaded roads of PALCO's past have been replaced by a new openness. Humboldt Redwood Co.'s website says the company is "willing to take interested members of the public anywhere on the forestlands." Both Humboldt Redwood Co. and Green Diamond have adopted a transparency of sorts, making their management plans, FSC audit reports and (in the case of HRC) emails to employees available on their websites.

Green Diamond received guidance during the certification process from a source that understood the challenges all too well: its closest competitor down the road in Scotia. Michael Jani sits on the FSC board as co-chair. He says that rather than taking it easy on Green Diamond, the council actually tightened language around even-aged management or clearcuts to make sure the standards were clear. Taking a page from Humboldt Redwood Co.'s playbook, Green Diamond also paused after getting certified to retrofit harvest plans where production hadn't commenced.

But public trust will be hard-won, and memories run long. Just as Ewald refers back to even-aged parcels as "clearcuts," many of the old guard on the other side of the divide often refer to Green Diamond by its original name, The Simpson Timber Company. It might be habit, or it might be a grim refusal to forget the company's past.

Green Diamond owns close to 400,000 acres of land in Humboldt and Mendocino counties. "Green Diamond" was the name chosen by shareholders when the company split from the Simpson Investment Company in 2006. The two companies still share the same subsidiaries and shareholders. Green Diamond has formed an additional spinoff, the California Redwood Company. Officially the separation of Green Diamond from Simpson was a logistical maneuver meant to ease investor confusion. Others see more sinister motives.

Scott Greacen, executive director of Friends of the Eel River, does not mince words.

"There's very little that's green about Green Diamond," he says. "The fact that they have become FSC certified shows how completely meaningless that certification has become."

Greacen is old school: an environmental advocate since the 1980s, he's described himself as a "long-time, hard-core timber fighter."

He says that the average consumer is in the dark about whether their dollars are actually going toward an ethical product, especially now that the FSC stamp has been degraded by bringing Green Diamond into the fold. If the company wasn't so driven by short-term profit, he alleges, it could operate using more sustainable, long-term management. It could follow the Humboldt Redwood Company's example of harvesting older trees, wood "that's actually valuable." Following this philosophy, environmentalists and timber companies could align along a common goal: quality.

"We need to use wood in a way that recognizes its highest value. Green Diamond product is by and large crap. I guess they expect people to move every twelve years or so. That's how long a deck built with their wood will last."

Bolstering the reputation of redwood products has been at the center of rebranding campaigns for both Green Diamond and the Humboldt Redwood Co. Heartwood, that lovely rose-hued stuff at the center of old-growth trees, is the holy grail of master woodworkers. Besides its inimitable beauty, it's also resistant to termites, rot and moisture. What Greacen refers to as "crap" is the less valuable sapwood, the pale, young stuff that makes up the outer rings of the tree.

Green Diamond says that around 30 percent of its lumber production is sapwood decking, which is often treated upon installation to improve its rot resistance. The remaining 70 percent is "construction heart grades, clear lumber, shop lumber and lower-grade merch lumber."

Over the phone, Toby Mays, a local contractor, says heartwood is unusual to find in the decking industry, but that a properly treated deck made with sapwood could last up to 20 years.

That "Fuzzy" Look

Beside "clearcut," Ewald's second-favorite word might be "fuzzy." He uses the adjective often as he stands in front of a different tract in the Luffenholtz watershed, one the company purchased from Louisiana Pacific in 1998. It was clearcut four years ago, leaving older trees only around watershed areas, as mandated by the California Aquatic Habitat Conservation Plan. All of the woody debris left behind by the logging operation, called slash, was removed.

"Redwood responds really well to sunlight and openings," he says. And a glance seems to prove him right. Tiny hand-planted redwoods and Douglas firs are growing like gangbusters here. Ewald says he often sees bears and deer pass through the clearing.

But these trees don't meet the "fuzzy" look Ewald hopes to see going forward. They're all the same age. The topography of the clearing is static, bearing no resemblance to a natural forest.

And while redwoods do grow rapidly in full sunlight, slow growing wood might be better. A study conducted by the UC Cooperative Extension concluded that shade-grown conifers tend to be hardier, denser and more rot-resistant.

Ewald asserts no intention on the part of Green Diamond to convert to uneven-aged management on stands where there are trees of high commercial value. Limited clearcuts are working, he insists, for the company and for the forest. He reiterates that the company is far below the FSC acreage limits for even-aged harvest.

Green Diamond's path to certification wasn't easy. The reoccurring theme brought up both by FSC auditors and independent environmental agencies was "lack of retention." Green Diamond was not keeping enough older trees on its clearcut parcels. After the company agreed to comply with the recommendations of the independent auditing agency's November 2012 report and keep more old trees, it was certified as a "Well-Managed Forest" by the FSC in February 2013. When the auditors returned in June they were still unsatisfied. Ewald says the company responded promptly and stepped up its level of retention. Green Diamond passed another audit inspection in October 2013.

Just down the road is a different parcel, clearcut in July, that has the "fuzzy" look Ewald is seeking. In accordance with FSC guidelines, multiple older trees were left behind. Walking here is difficult; slash and debris cover the site. Some of it will be hauled off to be converted into biomass fuel. Ewald points out a redwood seedling growing from a stump. The starkness of the site is emphasized by the ring of standing trees that surround it. Viewed from above, it would look like the head of a man going bald from the middle of the scalp outwards, the few older trees in the middle of the clearing like the stray hairs of a bad comb-over.

Logging is a seasonal business. When the rains arrive much activity will cease on Green Diamond property. Logging in the mud is hard on employees and hard on the soil. Ewald cites shovel logging as a major advance in the field. Where in the past trees would have to be dragged or "skidded" across the site, now heavy equipment can grab and lift the logs from a distance, reducing impact on the terrain.

Back in Korbel, not far from Ewald's favorite tree, Green Diamond's wildlife field coordinator, Carol Gress, leads us down a hill into a thick stand of second-growth redwood. She carries a box containing some very nervous mice and a recorder with a loudspeaker on it. The recorder can play back the sound of several owl calls, but first Gress tries using only her voice. It's uncanny. Within a few minutes a northern spotted owl appears, swooping down to pluck a mouse she's proffered from the end of a stick. Gress and Ewald both beam. The owl perches nearby, cocking its head to see if another treat is in store. The company says owls are moving into stands of third-growth trees a full decade before biologists anticipated, but Green Diamond's 2012 report to Fish and Wildlife admitted that the birds were not recolonizing fast enough to make up for those displaced.

Species like this owl may be the ultimate arbiters of whether the company's move toward sustainability is sincere or just greenwashing. Does the owl recognize the sound of Gress' voice as the precursor to an easy meal, or does he sincerely mistake her hoots for those of a mate? Does this stand of trees, replanted after a massive clearcut almost a century ago, feel like home to him? Do they, as Jani said, "replicate the chaos" of a natural forest? Are we getting better at imitating nature, or are we moving further away with each attempt? The sometimes-uneasy partnership between activists and timber companies may have the answer.