Angeli Mehta reports on a community that is trying to prevent logging and use of herbicides in high conservation value forest

Walter Smith was on the original Forestry Stewardship Council’s principles and criteria working group in the early 1990s, but an unfolding situation on his doorstep in northern California has forced him to confront some difficult questions.

“Why have we allowed … a great and innovative idea to get so far away from the ideals and vision that started the whole thing,” he wrote in a blog post. “Why is the FSC (and other certification schemes) not evolving as new science emerges about climate change and the role forests play in mitigating it? It is not just the technical interpretation of the standards, but the spirit and meaning behind standards.”

What’s discomfited the former contract logger, certifier and auditor is the reaction to ongoing protests and complaints by members of his community in Mendocino County who are trying to prevent what they say is the logging of high conservation value (HCV) forest and a growing use of herbicides to destroy native standing trees, changing the biological make-up of the forest area.

Protests have led to arrests and charges against demonstrators.

The area is already harvested, so complaint is a moot point. The process takes too long

The logging firm, Humboldt and Mendocino Redwood Companies (HRC), employs a technique called “hack and squirt’ to kill native tanoaks, which it says compete with marketable Douglas firs for light, leaving the dead, dry specimens as a fire hazard.

Community members have been working for over 40 years to restore ecosystems in the Mattole river watershed. They argue that preserving the remaining old trees – of Douglas fir, oak and madrone – on land known as Rainbow Ridge will maintain an area of ecological value and provide a wildlife corridor from the redwood forests in the west to the Pacific coast. It is home to rare and endangered species such as the northern spotted owl, and marbled murrelet, explains campaigner Jane Lapiner.

The company that owns the forest is FSC-certified, so the community assumed it would address their concerns, especially as protection of the rights of communities is amongst the FSC principles.

Rainbow Ridge is home to trees of ecological value, such as the madrone. (Credit: Craig R. Chanowski/Shutterstock)

“I’m a licensed attorney and it’s a struggle for me to follow the [grievance] process,” says Nathan Madsen, a lawyer helping to steer the complaint in his spare time. “I have been engaged on forestry issues since the mid-1990s, and this is incredibly challenging to manoeuvre through.”

Since 2018, the complaints have charted a course back and forth between company and auditors and an oversight body, ASI. Meanwhile HRC has carried on logging and spraying chemicals, including glyphosate. The complainants would like to have seen the precautionary approach applied, as set out in the FSC’s principles.

“The area is already harvested, so complaint is a moot point. The process takes too long,” says Smith.

Soon our values must shift and virgin forests will be held in such high regard they will never be logged again

While a 2011 audit had judged HRC’s assessments of HCV forest to be inadequate, it took the complaint to trigger some action. Some 350 acres of HCV forest have been set aside, “but it’s temporary – they will review,” says Madsen. The company says it will reduce the use of herbicide, dependent on areas meeting criteria it has set. Lapiner complains the company’s definition of old-growth “may leave an old-growth tree here and another over there, but does not preserve the forest”.

One of HRC’s customers is US DIY store Home Depot, which advertises that it has supported sustainable forestry as a strategy and passion for over 25 years.

Ron Jarvis, vice president of environmental innovation, told Ethical Corporation that he had “walked the forest with the lead auditor to discuss the issues. … I understand and appreciate the goal of the local community to have zero logging, regardless of the certification standard. Our goal is that if forests are going to be managed that they be harvested to the highest standards and always protect high conservation value forest. This was the premise for our latest standard of no wood from the Amazon or Congo basins,” unless FSC-certified, which he said is extremely hard to get.

HRC is one of Home Depot's suppliers. (Credit:

Madsen disagrees with Home Depot’s assessment: “I appreciate his big-picture view, but this area is just not the place to make such a trade-off. Soon our values must shift and virgin forests will be held in such high regard they will never be logged again.”

However, he adds that he doesn’t want to see HRC lose FSC certification. “I want to see them honour it: I want to see them uphold FSC principles.”

In an interview with Ethical Corporation, Kim Carstensen, the FSC’s director general, said he’s aware of the controversy in the Mattole, but that “there are very different opinions” on each side.

The FSC is ignoring that communities have an alternative perspective

Nevertheless, he accepted that the complaints procedure needs an overhaul. “We do hear that our complaints system is complicated and convoluted and takes a long time. We are looking at how to improve the procedures and performance of the system.”

In a separate statement, the FSC says the lands are being managed in accordance with its principles, and that “contrary to claims made by local activists, Humboldt Redwood Company is not harvesting trees, or otherwise adversely impacting areas, in their ownership that are classified and mapped as high conservation value forest, as defined by FSC.”

It added: “SCS Global Services’ audit teams have confirmed through field observations and other analyses that the company is not adversely impacting HCVFs in the Mattole watershed. This includes old growth, which FSC defines as a high conservation value. HRC is not harvesting old growth stands or individual old growth trees in the Mattole.”

John Andersen, director of forest policy at HRC, said in an email: "When we bought the lands of Humboldt Redwood Company 10 years ago, the community was very happy to hear a company bought the land with intentions to eliminate clearcutting, preserve all old growth trees, and spend millions in restoring our salmon streams that were degraded by previous owners.  We have been successful in these intentions and will continue to do so." 

But Smith says regardless of whether HRC’s approach to high conservation value forest is correct, “the FSC is ignoring that communities have an alternative perspective.”

Angeli Mehta is a former BBC current affairs producer, with a research PhD. She now writes about science, and has a particular interest in the environment and sustainability. @AngeliMehta.

This article was altered after it was published to include a quote from John Andersen of HRC.

Main picture credit: Earth First! Humboldt
FSC  Humboldt and Mendocino Redwood Companies  deforestation  timber  HCV forest  Home Depot 

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