The ancient redwood groves of California’s North Coast are among the most storied trees in U.S. history. The majestic trees that can live more than two centuries and soar higher than a 30-story building have captured the national imagination since the advent of the photograph. But their near extinction—all but about 5% have been felled in the last 150 years—has left its own controversial legacy
Since the 1980s, much of the strife has centered on the Pacific Lumber Company’s (PALCO’s) 210,000-acre holdings in Humboldt County, about five hours north of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. There, a financier named Charles Hurwitz took a Wall Street approach to turning the millennia-old trees into profit. After his company, Maxxam Corp., acquired PALCO in a hostile takeover in 1986, Hurwitz liquidated most of the old growth “inventory.” When the chainsaws came out, so did the forest activists. Skirmishes included the Redwood Summer civil disobedience campaign in 1990. Before the decade was out, one activist was dead and another, Julia “Butterfly” Hill, became famous for her two-year sit in a tree she named Luna. Nevertheless, 360,000 millennia-old redwoods vanished into lumber mills.
Fast-forward a decade. PALCO has filed for bankruptcy. The company has a new name, Humboldt Redwood Company, and new owners, members of the Fisher family of the Gap clothing empire. And they have a new plan for managing the forest—one that’s again landed the redwoods at the center of controversy. Only this time the storied North Coast forest is a new front in the “wood wars,” the battle between the world’s two biggest sustainable logging organizations.
The two groups—Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI)—are both product certification bodies charged with helping forest owners improve environmental stewardship and creating a bigger market for “green” products such as paper, lumber and furniture. Companies must comply with the rules and submit to periodic audits before their forests, mills, products or retail stores may slap on either group’s leafy logo.
Both certification systems have attracted criticism from consumer watchdogs for allowing the timber industry too much sway over the rules. But there are differences. FSC has won impassioned supporters for explicit bans on converting U.S. natural forests to tree farms and using genetically modified trees and certain herbicides. Those are areas where SFI (once a program of the nation’s largest forest products trade association) is known to allow greater wiggle room.
The two groups have jockeyed for recognition under the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification, the country’s preeminent green building certification system, which recognizes FSC but not SFI.
But it’s been difficult to compare one forest to another. That’s where the Humboldt forest holdings come in. It was aggressively clearcut in the 1980s and 1990s and spent the next seven years as a SFI-certified forest before switching to FSC forestry rules when the Fishers bought the holdings in 2009.
Seeing an opportunity to compare FSC and SFI practices on the same industrial forest, Stan Rhodes, president of Scientific Certification Systems, convinced Humboldt to let him conduct a lifecycle analysis (LCA) on the land. Rhodes and his company were involved in the development of a new approach to LCA that eschews generic estimates for site-specific hard data.
Among the study’s conclusions: SFI permitted unsustainable logging, including the removal of another 27,000 more old growth redwoods and Douglas firs. SFI also permitted tree farm-style replanting on 32,000 acres of the 210,000 acre property—just the kind of “natural forest conversion” prohibited by FSC. And SFI allowed 1,000 pounds of the controversial herbicide atrazine to be sprayed on the property annually during those years. Sixteen species lost their habitats under Maxxam’s SFI tenure: the northern spotted owl; the marbled murrelet (a small seabird); the pacific fisher (a type of weasel); and the Sonoma tree vole.
“Sustainability? What does that mean for a forest?” Rhodes asks. “While tree farming can get the trees to grow back, what about the habitat and species that lose their homes forever?”
Recovery, while slow, began in 2009 when the new owners reduced the annual tree harvests by two-thirds, banned logging of old-growth trees and embarked on restoration that has added forest carbon storage calculated as the equivalent of four million tons of net carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, Rhodes says.
The SFI years, in contrast, presided over the loss of four million tons of forest carbon storage, though much more damage was wrought during the previous Maxxam logging bonanza, when Rhodes estimates that more than 21 million tons of net CO2 emissions were released.
“SFI just leads to higher impact forestry,” says Rhodes, who has spent decades evaluating product claims in a wide variety of industries. In the forest space, his company has audited both SFI and FSC forests.
Asked to comment on his findings, Kathy Abusow, SFI’s president and CEO, said in a statement that the Humboldt holdings were too small for a “credible” comparison, particularly since SFI had not been associated with the land since 2007 and the standard has gone through two revisions since then.
She called the comparison “irresponsible and misleading to consumers, customers and stakeholders.”
SFI officials say they doubt the new standard will replace previous lifecycle analysis standards. And, the new approach has its critics among environmentalists and sustainability experts as well who question, among other things, whether forest owners with fewer financial resources than the Fisher family can afford such a costly and detailed analysis.
Mike Jani, Humboldt Redwood Company’s president and a member of the board of FSC’s U.S. chapter, who is closely watching the debate over LCA, says the company’s commitment to sustainability has made good business sense, opening access to such big retailers as Home Depot. That “market access,” he says, “can be just as valuable as price premiums, especially in these tough times.”
“A Redwood tree will grow for over a thousand years,” Jani says. “You’ve got to take a long view when it comes to managing a forest.”