Timber Decline Article
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Published on July 9, 2003
2003- The Press Democrat




UKIAH -- The volume of timber production in Mendocino County, once the state's No. 2 producer of wood products, has plunged to an unprecedented low in a tumble that marks the end of an era on the North Coast.

For the first time since the county began to keep records in 1967, the volume of Mendocino County logs delivered to North Coast sawmills in 2002 fell below 100 million board feet. In comparison, just 13 years ago log production in Mendocino topped 515 million board feet.

Historically, the timber industry has been the economic engine that has driven the economies of North Coast counties like Mendocino, Humboldt and Del Norte. But in Mendocino, the decline has been so dramatic that timber is no longer the county's top income producer, according to Agricultural Commissioner Dave Bengston.

The local wine grape industry, despite facing its own economic doldrums, surpassed the value of Mendocino logs delivered to local mills last year. Mendocino grapes were valued at $81 million last year, compared to $54 million for timber, Bengston said.

Log production in Mendocino County, which regularly ranked statewide second only to Humboldt County, is now less than 20 percent of what it was in 1989, according to timber production statistics kept by Bengston's office, and the Timber Tax Division of the state Board of Equalization.

The precipitous decline has startled Bengston and other industry observers. ``Four or five years ago I predicted that wine grapes might eventually surpass timber production in Mendocino County. But it's happened a helluva lot faster than I thought it would,'' Bengston said.

Rick Standiford, co-director of the Center for Forestry at UC Berkeley, said Tuesday the trend is clear: The North Coast will never see the return of an era in which every town from Ukiah to Eureka had strong economic ties to the timber industry.

Underscoring that trend was last month's announcement by Mendocino Redwood Co. of its plans to close the last lumber mill on the Mendocino Coast by Aug. 1. The declining supply of local logs was one reason behind the decision to shut down the Fort Bragg mill, company President Richard Higgenbottom said.

Mendocino Redwood's owners continue to view the company's 210,000 acres of county timberlands as a long-term investment, Higgenbottom said.

But even when young commercial forests now growing on the North Coast mature and are available for harvesting in 25 to 30 years, there are likely to be fewer mills left in operation, Standiford said. Those that remain will be more efficient and provide fewer jobs.

In the meantime, the timber industry will likely face tougher regulations, Standiford said. Government agencies are facing growing public demands to treat even privately owned forests as integral parts of local environments, requiring their owners to restore waterways and fisheries.

``There is no doubt that we are moving away from viewing logging operations individually to seeing them in context of landscapes and watersheds,'' said Standiford.

Mendocino County's timber production decline may be the most dramatic, but local and state statistics show that timber production statewide has plummeted by two-thirds since 1989.

As in Mendocino, past overcutting of corporate timberlands, increased regulatory restraints and surging imports of more cheaply produced logs from around the world are blamed.

The sharp decline is also reflected in changing state and federal logging policies on publicly owned lands. In 1989, government lands provided nearly 44 percent of the available log supply in the state. Today, only 10 percent of the current log supply comes from government lands.

Art Harwood, whose Branscomb family operates Mendocino County's last independently owned sawmill, predicted California consumers ultimately will be the ones to pay for increased environmental protections.

``Locally, private timberland landowners are finding that the costs of preparing and winning regulatory approval for timber harvesting in many cases nearly equal prices the logs will bring in the marketplace,'' said Harwood.

As a result, Harwood said he is buying and importing logs from Washington and Canada to run through the Branscomb mill for less cost than if he were to succeed in finding a larger supply of available local logs.

``Two-thirds of the logs we run through our mill are from those areas,'' said Harwood.

Harwood said globally there's a glut of cheaper logs, not only from Canada but from Siberia, New Zealand and the Tropics.

``The sad truth is we're protecting our own environment at the expense of these other states and countries, where timber producers operate with far fewer restrictions,'' said Harwood.

The new figures show just how quickly Mendocino County is shifting from a natural resource-based economy to a more service-based economy that relies on tourism, light industry and government jobs, Bengston said.

``I suppose it's inevitable, but I'm sorry to see it happening,'' Bengston


You can reach Staff Writer Mike Geniella at 462-6470 or