Image vs. Reality

The Family Behind Hip Clothier The Gap Logs the Redwoods

Founded in ultra-hip 1969 San Francisco and named for the generational split that was then ravaging America, The Gap Inc. clothing empire has made billions selling once-egalitarian blue jeans as fashion items. Now some charge that The Gap’s founder/owners, the Fisher family, are selling out their 1960s environmental ideals by logging some of the last vestiges of the California redwood forest.

The Fishers’ Sansome investment group purchased 230,000 acres of Northern California coastal timberland from Louisiana-Pacific in July. It was the biggest timber deal since the 1986 corporate takeover of Pacific Lumber by Texas financier Charles Hurwitz of Maxxam. Local environmental activists were cautiously optimistic that the Fishers, who are worth an estimated $8 to 11 billion, would allow the overlogged lands to replenish themselves.

Photo: Hilary Adams

The Gap touts its chain as environmentally-conscious, building energy-efficient stores with “certified” woods and other environmentally-friendly materials. But so far the Fishers’ Mendocino Redwood Company (MRC) hasn’t impressed local groups with its promises to log “sustainably.” “Currently, I don’t see much difference between the old and new owners, except that the new owners are a bit better at public relations,” says Mary Pjerrou, a writer and former schoolteacher who is president of the Redwood Coast Watersheds Alliance (RCWA) in Elk, California.

MRC has kept on much of L-P’s staff and is logging nearly as much as L-P did, including making numerous clearcuts, many of them upstream from fragile habitats of threatened coho salmon and steelhead trout. The company is also spraying tan oaks with the herbicide Garlon, which is closely related to Agent Orange but supposedly safer. Sandy Dean, president of MRC, says the company uses herbicides in order to restore the conifer forest by reducing the number of tan oaks, which proliferate on overlogged lands. However, the job could be done manually by work crews at a slightly greater cost.

Dean points to MRC’s less-invasive practices that lessen erosion, such as cable yarding and building rock roads, and to the company’s support of fisheries and plans to build a market for tan oak. In some places, rather than clearcutting, MRC uses “alternative prescription” logging, whereby one-quarter acre of trees is saved for every two acres that are clearcut. The result is said to be more aesthetically pleasing, as well as friendlier to wildlife that depends on tan oaks. Activists say it’s just greenwashing, an excuse to clearcut and take out more redwoods.

Dean admits that MRC cut some redwoods to make tan oak removal economically feasible, and does cut old-growth trees if there are fewer than 30 such trees on five acres. Using a figure of 10,000 board-feet per acre standing, Dean estimates MRC’s inventory at two billion board-feet or more. “We know we’re cutting less than we’re growing,” he says.

Dean complains that no level of logging would be acceptable to activists, and that’s true for some groups that want to see California’s remaining redwoods protected. “[The Fishers] can afford to give the state the largest conservation gift ever given, and they should look seriously at that,” says Rainforest Action Network (RAN) President Randy Hayes, who met with John Fisher and Dean last November. As an alternative to that unprecedented act of generosity, RAN suggests independent monitoring of MRC’s practices. Dean says he has been looking into establishing third-party certification of MRC’s operations since last May but, so far, has not had such oversight. In the meantime, RAN returned a gift The Gap donated for a fundraising auction.

Although MRC hasn’t entered the two old-growth stands on its property, it has cut some of the scattered big trees in the path of its logging trucks, disregarding wildlife. MRC has eight timber harvest operations underway on Albion Creek, the only watershed with as much as 20 percent redwood forest. An MRC harvest plan with 606 acres of logging, including 418 acres of clearcutting and 6.7 miles of road construction, surrounds Elk Creek, where only 10 endangered coho salmon were found in 1995. The National Marine Fisheries Service has sent a letter to the California Department of Forestry, charging that the plan poses “a serious threat to survival of coho salmon in Elk Creek.”

Activists charge that MRC, following LP’s lead, is attempting to downgrade the creek from Class I, where fish are present, to Class II (no existing fish), allowing the company to clearcut around it. Activists think a shell game/stall tactic is at play, with MRC taking out as much timber as it can before word of its operations gets out. The company says it will continue logging during the rainy winter, a practice which increases erosion and silting of streams. Pjerrou fears MRC’s long-term plan is to denude the area of timber, parcel it out, and sell it as real estate. Dean denies that the company has plans to parcel any of the land, but the Fishers are longtime real estate developers, and have recently been involved in several large land deals in San Francisco.

A worldwide boycott has been called by RCWA and other groups against The Gap and its wholly owned subsidiaries, Banana Republic and Old Navy. Protests, organized quickly through the web site www.gapsucks.org, were held in at least 30 cities during the Christmas shopping season, with continuing weekly protests at the Gap’s flagship Banana Republic store in San Francisco.

The Sierra Club is not supporting the boycott, according to Daniel Silverman, the club’s press secretary, because The Gap itself is not actually logging. But the club did issue a press release urging members to write the Fisher family denouncing the kind of logging being done by MRC.

Many California activists hope that incoming Governor Gray Davis, the first Democrat in that office for 12 years, will beef up enforcement of environmental regulations at the California Department of Forestry and other agencies. But hope turned to alarm at the governor-elect’s choice of Barry Munitz, a former vice president of clearcutter and Headwaters despoiler Maxxam, to head his transition team.

If companies like MRC sell off their logged forest lands, can the redwoods regenerate? It’s a long, slow process made more difficult by corporate cutting practices. Sixteen inches is now the standard diameter for felled redwoods, which can grow as big as 20 feet in diameter. Smaller trees don’t have the rot-resistant properties of old-growth trees, and therefore are much less valuable. But if investors as rich as the Fishers can’t resist logging today, will the mighty redwoods still be here tomorrow?