Spectacular waste in redwood forests

JULY 11, 2011

As I took the nearly six-hour drive recently from the Sacramento area, past Ukiah and up to Eureka, through the heart of California’s redwood-forested North Coast, I was reminded of the spectacular beauty of California. Driving through Mendocino and Humboldt counties also reminded me of the spectacular ways the state government wastes taxpayer dollars even at a time when officials are crying poormouth.

Deep in this remote country, enveloped by state and federal parks and public forests where so much of the land is off-limits from development, the state is spending tens of millions of dollars buying up land (for conservation easements) to protect it from development threats that are even more remote than the landscape.

The public is financing land deals that are causing consternation to timber companies that operate along the North Coast. Before you ask, “What would you expect from self-interested despoilers of the environment?,” consider that these are companies with a long history of environmental sensitivity. They operate in an environment hostile to their existence and must maintain public support for their efforts as well as protect the land for their future business.

The companies, such as Mendocino Redwood Co., have long been lauded by the local environmental community for their efforts to carefully harvest and upgrade wildlife habitat in the forests and streams. But they get to watch, up close and personal, how the state is operating in these forests and they are appalled by the waste of tax dollars and frustrated by the way that these questionable land deals are driving up the cost of forested land.

Bad Deals

In a 2007 letter to the state Wildlife Conservation Board, six forest managers from North Coast timber companies argue that various “transactions targeted lands zoned for timber production that have a long history of continuous production of forest products, while containing little in the way of pristine forest attributes.” They further argued that the deals “have been completed at prices that were too high for private operators to compete, even as there are models of successful private stewardship in the same area.”

These taxpayer-financed deals, completed with the help of nonprofit foundations paid fees based on the value of the deal, are about what one would expect when other people’s money and noble goals are involved. Timber officials tell me that the same goals can be accomplished at a fraction of the cost through restoration projects and without transferring more land out of the private sector. But who cares about that these days? (One North Coast newspaper even complained that the companies represent the “private ownership/free market model” of land use, which just shows us how far California has moved from the nation’s founding principles.)

State officials in Sacramento and voters in urbanized regions want to “save” the redwood forests, even if they don’t need to be saved. These are magnificent places. I’ve driven through the Avenue of the Giants, that 32-mile stretch of giant redwood trees, and frolicked in the deep, dark redwood forests. Few things are more beautiful, but few things are less endangered.

For perspective, there’s still another two-hour drive north from Eureka to the Oregon border — and towns in the area are little more than tiny pockets of development swallowed by the encroaching forests. As the Wikipedia entry (based on official Humboldt County data) explains: “[T]he vast majority of [the forests are] protected or strictly conserved within dozens of national, state, and local forests and parks, totaling approximately 680,000 acres (over 1,000 square miles).”

No Development

This is not the next Irvine, Pleasanton or Rocklin. No one proposed major developments even at the southernmost point closest to the Bay Area at the height of the market. The steep canyons and lack of public utilities, combined with onerous local development regulations and a culture that frowns on development (but smiles at marijuana production), assures that these forests will remain in their natural state. I don’t see why we want to turn vast portions of the state into wilderness areas that few can enjoy and that are so controlled that few humans can earn a living there. How about a little balance?

The purchase of these regional open-space districts and conservation easements is a story about the waste of tax dollars and about secretive government, given that the appraisals have been largely off-limits from public scrutiny — at least until after the deals are done. The timber folks complain that the appraisals don’t consider that most of the land is largely undevelopable and that the state uses appraisals from other state-funded conservation deals, which skews the true market value.

State officials released a review of the latest appraisals and insist that they are done to the highest standards. They also defend the deals and insist the public had plenty of opportunity to object. In response to industry concerns, officials developed criteria for the conservation program — to “promote the ecological integrity and economic stability of California’s diverse native forests for all their public benefits.” Those are nebulous goals, of course, and the public hearings are dominated by no-growth environmentalists.

New Purchases

The state officials and wildlife foundations are about to ram through two other easements now pending before the state Wildlife Conservation Board (the Usal and Gualala properties). They are soon expected to be approved by a telephone voice vote of directors. This does indeed raise open-government questions, given that these purchases ultimately are financed by taxpayers.

As the state runs out of money, even environmentalists ought to think about properly divvying up scarce resources.

At a time when the state can’t even maintain its current holdings of park lands, with an estimated maintenance backlog of about $1.3 billion, the state continues to expand its reach, grabbing control of land to protect it from imaginary threats.

If you wonder what’s wonderful and awful about California, there are few better places to start than the North Coast, where magnificent scenery contrasts with absurd public policy.

— Steven Greenhut

 

8 comments

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  1. Shelter Cove resident
    Shelter Cove resident 11 July, 2011, 14:09

    You haven’t seen anything yet. Shelter Cove is a town with 600 homes and less than 300 residents, but look at the salaries being made in our local government.

    2009 Shelter Cove Resort Improvement District Salaries

    Shelter Cove Utility Superintendant $108,989
    Shelter Cove General Manager $105,341
    Shelter Cove Utility Superintendant $97,544
    Shelter Cove Construction Superintendant $82,377
    Shelter Cove Construction Foreman $78,436
    Shelter Cove Senior Utility Operator $71,723

    High costs in your future? These managers voted in a quadrupaling of our utility fees several years ago, now we have to pay $37,400 to hook up a house to utilities in an area that is economically depressed, and where the managers are paid $100k/yr. to keep it that way.

    http://lgcr.sco.ca.gov/CompensationDetail.aspx?entity=SpecialDistrict&id=12271206700&year=2009&GetCsu=False

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  2. Bob Smith
    Bob Smith 12 July, 2011, 03:56

    “transactions targeted lands zoned for timber production that have a long history of continuous production of forest products, while containing little in the way of pristine forest attributes”

    The why of this is obvious. State “conservation” boards are filled with no-nothing environmentalists. They buy such land to stop production of forest products, not to “conserve” the environment. The notion that they are promoting “economic stability” is a bald-faced lie, inasmuch as their goal is to prevent all economic activity whatsoever on the land.

    Reply this comment
  3. David W Simpson
    David W Simpson 14 July, 2011, 11:32

    As per an OP Ed piece in the July 8th Register by Steven Greenht, Land Deals Protect Fake Threats: my disappointment in Mendocino Redwood Company (MRC) now goes beyond their meretricious opposition to the conservation easement for the important and beneficial Usal Redwood Forest, Letting loose someone like Mr. Greenhut who knows remarkably little and even manages to misunderstand that is just plain demeaning of the company (MRC).

    Sorting out the inaccuracies and contradictions in Mr. Greenhut’s text is easy picking because they are so abundant, Most important, though, is the ongoing suggestion, adopted no doubt from MRC’s misrepresentation, that there is no pressure on the Usal for development and thus no benefit to the State via its conservation easement. There is definitely pressure. It is of a different order and kind than for wild lands in Orange County, let’s say, and that’s why the appraisal is low–$395/acre. That’s how the process works. The Usal, easement is cheap and would allow permanent protection of 50,000 acres of contiguous forest land. This is not only not a fraud, it is a great deal for California taxpayers.

    Compared to a 2005 MRC deal that jacked up the price the State had to pay them for 3,300 acres of steep forested land in Sonoma County to more than 5300/acre, the Usal is a colossal deal. (MRC got this grand price by going through the motions of subdivision that they had no intention of actually doing but knew would force up the appraisal. )

    As for the transparency issue, Mr. Greenhut must have missed the Oct 6th, 2010 LA Times article outlining how MRC was secretly given a tax break by the state of over $30,000,000 in conjunction with their purchase of Pacific Lumber Company.

    So much for saving the taxpayers money or for guaranteeing transparency. Or for anything resembling consistency.

    Thank you.
    David Simpson
    Petrolia, CA 95558

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  4. Chris Young
    Chris Young 17 July, 2011, 08:50

    32 years ago I had a service contract in the Redwood National Park Headquarters at Crescent City CA. I was surprised to overhear a conversation one day between staff and a couple at the information counter. The couple had come from Europe with the intent of “backpacking” in the Redwood National Park. They were as surprised as I to learn there were no trails or areas to “backpack” or camp in the wilderness. They could hitchhike up and down Hwy 101 and enjoy one to three hour day hikes if they liked but there was no lengthy trail or system of trails to access the forest. And no areas that allowed camping outside of the usual large developed campgrounds.

    Not much has changed today. There are a few more “loop” and “day hike” trails in a very limited number of areas. There are a couple of interconnected systems that now allow a walk that would take all day. I am not aware of any “wilderness” camping allowed.

    From studying the current maps (and a week spent, on the ground, in the park this month) my guess is that 99% of the whole Redwood National Park, and the State Parks in and around them, are totally inaccessible to humans. With very few exceptions you cannot get more than a mile off of the main road and into the heart of the forest. If you really want to see the redwoods, gear up and go cross country. But don’t get lost. No one would ever find you.

    Nearly 40 years after it’s creation the RNP does not provide any more access to view or enjoy the redwoods than was available at the start. In fact, in most areas there is less access. The infrastructure that has been built is falling apart and some facilities and access will be closed in the near future. Bob Smith is right.

    Chris Young
    Redding, CA

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  5. Anne Litzsinger
    Anne Litzsinger 21 July, 2011, 13:42

    The writer of this story doesn’t appear to understand the definition of land-based conservation easements, which are placed on PRIVATE property — not land that will be transferred to government ownership for parks or wilderness. Here’s a definition from the Private Landowners Network, which also explains why many private landowners choose to create easements on their properties: http://www.privatelandownernetwork.org/plnlo/conease.asp

    Reply this comment
  6. Marc Jameson
    Marc Jameson 27 July, 2011, 13:21

    We are, unfortunately, going the way of Greece. We are building a massive government web consisting of unchecked agency power, public expendature, government programs, permitting and regulatory processes. All of which are supported by taxes and fees. While some of this is normal, needed, and beneficial, it has spun out of control in California. This stifles production, jobs, and initiative, while wasting both public and private money that is very sorely needed. In the end, the environment is also likely to suffer.

    The proposed Usal Forest conservation easement is emblematic of this entire scenario. A very small and select group of agency personnal will devote a very large sum of public money to bail out a private enterprise so that the private enterprise can continue to request more public funding for “restoration” activities that have not been proven to be effective or cost-effective, while producing virtually nothing from a marginally productive piece of timberland in the middle of nowhere. And this piece of timberland is already well protected without the expensive public easement, thus reducing the value of an easement. I wonder who conducts the appraisal for the Board?

    My request is that the Conservation Board spend much less, and if they must spend, buy some land and add it to the state forest system, where some production can accompany public recreation and forest restoration. In this way, at least the public gets someting tangible for their hard-earned dollars.

    Of course, none of what goes on is surprising, in a state whos population is over 80% urban, but also contains a massive acreage of the best protected wildland in the west. Those living in urban areas must believe that the entire state is in the same sad environmental condition as the urban area in which they live(suffer). They are very easy prey for environmental movements that believe that the ends justify the means by which they convince people to make donations (i.e. some truth mixed with abundant quantities of propaganda). Take, for example, the commonly cited claim that only 5% of the redwood forest remains. In fact, over 90% of the redwood forest remains. It’s not all old-growth, but a whole lot of it will be, once the protected forest in parks ages. Redwood forest is one of the best protected forest types in the entire United States, yet most people in urban areas probably believe that redwood is on the verge of extinction.

    Speaking for myself, I love wild places and well-cared-for environments. But we need to maintain balance, govern and spend wisely. Private enterprises should not request or obtain public assistance to stay afloat.

    Reply this comment

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