There’s probably a whole lot of people around Humboldt County who got their first introduction to Redwood Forest Foundation, Inc. (RFFI) a few months ago. A non-scandal had erupted, then quickly fizzled, over the work of Times-Standard reporter John Driscoll , who had been covering the Pacific Lumber bankruptcy hearings in Corpus Christi, Texas. A group of people, including activist Mark Lovelace , had been following the proceedings through a paid conference call service; they invited Driscoll to join them, and he did, covering the proceedings for his paper. When the T-S ’s opponents on the Eureka Reporter editorial board heard of this, they got into a great huff. (See “Town Dandy,” March 15.) One stray bit of information that emerged from the ensuing fallout was that RFFI had paid for the conference call.
There wasn’t much follow-up at the time. That name — Redwood Forest Foundation, Inc. — floated out there, and there it hanged. For myself, the name jogged a bit of a memory. Four or five years ago I spoke with Mendocino County mill owner Art Harwood in his offices in Branscomb, out east of Laytonville. We were talking about a logging shutdown in the nearby Jackson State Forest, which had been a significant source of timber for Harwood Products, the family-owned company co-founded by his grandfather. Naturally, Harwood wasn’t entirely happy with the shutdown — California “state forests,” as opposed to “state parks,” are expressly intended to be working forests.
But he wasn’t as glum as might have been expected. In fact, he was fairly bullish about the long-term prospects of the local timber industry. He recommended that I check out the work being done by two groups. The first was Humboldt County’s Buckeye Conservancy , which sought and seeks to reform the way small timber land owners are regulated, making smaller, ecologically sensitive timber harvesting more financially feasible. The second was the Redwood Forest Foundation, a coalition of environmentalists and timber industry people that he chaired. I’d be hearing a lot more about the Redwood Forest Foundation someday, he said.
Foolish me. Somehow I mentally filed away the RFFI as a kumbaya group, a talk shop with big, unattainable dreams of getting beyond the Timber Wars through community land ownership. Harwood I knew to be the real deal — a visionary, in his unassuming way, and a man the late Judi Bari could count as a colleague and a friend. But the RFFI seemed just another addition to the sea of organizational initials, and I didn’t think it odd when no news emerged from that quarter for years. Until the Pacific Lumber bankruptcy. And then until a couple of weeks ago — June 14 — when it rocked the world.
On that day, at a press conference in San Francisco, the Redwood Forest Foundation announced that it had acquired just over 50,000 acres of timber land in northerwestern Mendocino County — the so-called “Usal Redwood Forest,” which borders on the Sinkyone Wilderness. The $65 million deal was fully financed by Bank of America, which a few months earlier announced that it had created a $20 billion fund “to support the growth of environmentally sustainable business activity to address global climate change.” RFFI announced that it would pay back the loan through the sale of conservation easements, and through sustainable logging practices that adhered to the organization’s “three E’s”: environment, economy and social equity. The sale was covered in the San Francisco Chronicle and the Los Angeles Times , and several major financial publications are apparently working on their own stories.
“It’s pretty neat,” said Harwood from that same Branscomb office on Tuesday. “In my mind, what’s really cool about all this is that it really has everybody all in the same boat, rowing in the same direction. I don’t know of anybody who’s against what we’re doing here.”
The goal for Usal, and for any other project RFFI will become involved with, is what the group is calling “community forestry.” The term isn’t yet well defined, Harwood said, and so one of the first things the foundation will do is arrange what some are calling a “constitutional convention” down in Mendocino County, bringing everyone to the table to hammer out the specifics. But there are a few baseline measures that are not only part of the foundation’s bylaws, but also written directly in the terms of the Bank of America loan. The rate of harvest must be sustainable over the long term. The land must be managed to support the local economy; logs will be sold on the open market, but only to mills in Northern California. In sum, the land must be managed as a community trust, so that future generations will continue to benefit from it economically.
Harwood acknowledged that there has been one segment of the community that has yet to be significantly drawn into the RFFI fold. Apart from himself, there are few industry people at the table. But that won’t last forever, he believes: “In light of this Usal transaction there’s a lot of people looking at this here and saying this is a good deal,” he said. Most importantly: The conservation easements the foundation hopes to sell will insure that the land remain as working timber forest — it will never be divided up and sold off for the real estate value. This is one reason why Harwood figures that the idea of community ownership — whether through RFFI or another RFFI-inspired vehicle — is only going to grow in the coming years.
So it’s not hard to figure what the foundation was doing funding a conference call into the Pacific Lumber bankruptcy hearing a couple of months ago. The foundation has been working with a loose local group for several years, long before the Usal purchase went through. Members of the group include Kathy Moxon of the Humboldt Area Foundation, who also serves as vice-president of RFFI, Petrolia activist David Simpson and Tracy Katelman of the Alliance for Sustainable Jobs and the Environment, which recently held its second workshop for laid-off Palco employees and others with claims against the company. They’ve recently formed something called the Timber Acquisition Group (TAG), which is looking to make a Usal-style purchase with RFFI in Humboldt County. There’s a chance that the Palco bankruptcy will end with the company’s 200,000 acres of forest on the market; if so, TAG and RFFI want to be ready to jump. “When there is an interested seller, RFFI is an interested buyer,” said Harwood’s daughter Judy Harwood Tuesday. (Judy Harwood just received a degree in environmental economics from U.C. Berkeley and is working with the foundation.)
“I firmly believe that there is a change in the way that the financial world is viewing environmental issues,” said Mark Lovelace, who says he is only on the periphery of the TAG group. “I think that there’s a lot of opportunity for doing these kinds of things. Not taking land out of timber production — not locking it up in a park — but just finding a better model.”
Meanwhile, things will soon be hotting up again down in Corpus Christi. And if you want a glimpse at the way the old model works, you can’t do better than to look at Pacific Lumber’s recent motions in their bankruptcy case. Having already laid off hundreds of workers, having underfunded the company’s employee pension plan by $23 million, the company is seeking to borrow an additional $75 million to add to its already insupportable debt. It’s also looking to award Pacific Lumber CEO George O’Brien a $450,000 bonus, contingent on O’Brien’s ability to further slash costs. This after Charles Hurwitz , majority owner of Palco’s parent company, Maxxam Corp., awarded himself a million dollar-plus bonus earlier in the year.
People are watching.