The Unfailing Fall of the North Coast Journal, As Illustrated by Coverage of the Green Diamond Co.

By Fritz Wunderplot

When the North Coast Journal ran its Feb. 5, 2015 cover story by Heidi Walters, “Goodnight Korbel,” you could hear the collective jaws drop. There it was, one of the most important local reports of the decade — maybe of the century in Humboldt County, given its status as apparent coda to the 165-year history of redwood annihilation represented by the exit of the California Redwood Co. (the milling subsidiary of Green Diamond redwood company) — and the Journal utterly biffed it. The paper failed to dig beyond the spin, the outright and obvious lies, and instead played parrot to power.

There appears to be a refusal, not just by the Journal but all North Coast media, to uncover the real reasons that California Redwood Co. shut down its local mills, most recently its historic operation at Korbel. The local press has failed to help readers understand the implications of these actions and events by refusing to examine the mill closures in a historical context of resource consolidation and institutionalized overcutting, corruption of government and community gatekeepers by outside financial interests, and the resulting (and inevitable) boom-and-bust economies. Thus the media passed up a ripe opportunity to dissect the questionable if not fraudulent science concocted by Green Diamond since 1991 that has justified state and federal approval of the company’s liquidation-logging regime.

But it’s the Journal, as a purportedly “liberal” weekly that each week runs a long feature article, including the recent 3,600 words on the Korbel mill closure, that is in the best position to expose the redwood lumber industry’s smelly underbelly. Instead, readers of Walters’ article were left with nostalgic anecdotes, the woes of employee retraining, and the all important question of who will buy the Korbel mill site: newsworthy considerations, for sure, but not nearly as critical as the devious business practices that skewered the workers in the first place.

Heidi Walters is a warm person and a decent writer who has produced some good feature stories over the years. But the Korbel story sags miserably in the face of what was clearly needed: a real investigation, real reporting. The story ably documented the lives of California Redwood employees — these were some of the best elements of the piece — but its unfortunate journalistic clichés, its playground deference to power, and its utter refusal to look behind the curtain render the article worse than useless.

GreenDiamond_clearcutting

Green Diamond clear-cuts extending down toward Big Lagoon.

During the 1960s the “executive of audience measurement” at NBC-TV, Paul Klein, developed a theory he called “least objectionable programming.” Klein said that the key to economically successful television was not the creation of quality entertainment but rather the manufacturing of shows that promised to offend the least number of people. That way, said Klein, viewers wouldn’t change channels before viewing the commercials.

These days, the North Coast Journal appears to be channeling Paul Klein.

Take, for example, the Journal’s recent and near-constant personality parade: A doctor and his shroud. The outgoing president of HSU, then the incoming president of HSU, then the incoming Supervisor of the National Forest, followed by the four horsemen of journalistic boredom, the “transformers” whose visages on the cover invite a nap. And look, there’s Duane Flatmo … again! We also got the “smartest person” snooze; weed weed weed (on the cover two weeks in a row, plus a weekly column); a flood anniversary issue that repeated the fallacy that the 1964 disaster was unusually destructive because it was a “rain on snow” event (it wasn’t), leaving the sacred cows of logging and road building, which truly tipped the hydrological scales, unscathed. There was even a quintessentially somnambulant cover-story cliché of a headline, “Fear vs. Hope.” Zzzzzzzz.

Then — oh god spare us — “The Sex Issue,” which is a glaring enough gimmick, but it was worse than that. The cover story exposes an odd clique of mostly young people who like to dress up in furry animal costumes and work out their internal issues in public. This was news, presumably, because “the Humboldt Furries Facebook page has 18 friends and Humfurs, a local MeetUp group, has 22 members. They’re out there.”

“Out there” is the operational phrase, and it best describes the Journal’s beleaguered impression of what it means to be a North Coast news source. The cover story that followed the Furries? Beer.

Which is to say that in its quest to be the least objectionable paper in the land, the Journal has become boring and irrelevant, the cardinal sins of journalism. For a newspaper to become boring and irrelevant in a county as exciting and corrupt as Humboldt is unconscionable.

There’s no doubt that over the past year the Journal has produced some interesting stories and good writing. But the occasional good stuff gets crushed by a continuous stream of least objectionable blather. Of course the Journal’s unfortunate and ongoing leadership turnover hasn’t helped things at all, but it appears that the turnover reflects ownership’s almost reptilian need for social safety (and perhaps its close ties with people like Rob Arkley and Green Diamond “Manager of Forest Policy and Sustainability” Gary Rynearson, who also lectures at HSU). But a newspaper that takes safety too far, given the inertia and disinterest it perpetrates, can fail under the formula.

There’s a long list of what’s missing in the Journal, but here we’ll return to and focus on the paper’s longstanding refusal to conduct an actual investigation of Green Diamond’s logging practices and the various scams attendant thereto. It’s not just an important story, it’s an easy one to cover. Green Diamond’s deceits are numerous and include the company’s ongoing, internally generated phony science, its consequently abysmal Habitat Conservation Plans (one hundred dead spotted owls and counting; a salmonid HCP that one local biologist calls “an extinction” plan), and the state and federal governments acquiescing thereto. These HCPs, first popularized during the Clinton Administration to allow industry to evade the federal Endangered Species Act (and perhaps most artfully rendered by Clinton, Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Maxxam’s Charles Hurwitz during the Headwaters deal), have allowed Green Diamond to decimate redwood forest life and water quality from the Humboldt Bay area to the Oregon border. None of this is covered by the local press, so the Journal is not alone in its dereliction. But the Journal did recently run a cover story on the Korbel mill closure that could have been written by a Green Diamond public relations flak.

There’s a pattern here. The most recent underreported Green Diamond debacle was the company’s receipt of “green” certification by the now questionable Forest Stewardship Council. This was followed by Walters’ Korbel mill piece. Let’s check it out.

The mill-closure story misses several bushels of low hanging fruit while painting the tale broadly with tropes and fallacies. Why did the mill close? Walters writes that it was due to “[i]mprovements in manufacturing technology, environmental regulations, recessions and other factors,” along with a drop in housing starts and “redwood decking [losing] market share to composite products.” Walters also quotes HSU Economics Professor Steven Hackett, who made it clear that the redwood lumber boom of the 1950s and ‘60s occurred “before most environmental regulations were put in place.”

A lot of weight is given to those pesky environmentalists, who apparently, once again, have forced a mill shutdown. Never mind that ninety-six percent of the original two-million-acre ancient redwood ecosystem has been liquidated, about 30 percent of it after passage of the 1973 Z’Berg-Nejedly Forest Practices Act that created California’s first real timber regulations, which are nonetheless ineffectual. Since passage of the Act major timber companies (Georgia Pacific, Louisiana Pacific, Pacific Lumber/Maxxam, and of course Green Diamond) have had no problem liquidating the last of their old-growth and nearly all of their second-growth redwood and other forest types. The “environmental regulations” delusion is one of the most infuriating lies told by the timber industry. It’s doubly infuriating to see it pasted as truth across the local weekly paper.

There was no analysis in the Korbel story of how much logging Green Diamond actually does in northwestern California. (Answer: A lot, and it’s virtually all clear-cutting.) The article doesn’t once use the terms “clear-cutting,” “overcutting,” “liquidation,” or “boom-and-bust.” (These are phrases that probably wouldn’t find their way into the Journal under any circumstances, except perhaps by letter writers, whose missives are often the most entertaining and spot-on features in the paper.) What we got was exactly what Green Diamond hoped for: The story featured two aerial photos of the mill but not one of the patchwork of destructive Green Diamond clear-cuts that blanket Humboldt and Del Norte Counties. (The public-domain images above show Green Diamond’s clear-cutting adjacent to Redwood National Park. These photos took about thirty seconds to procure.) This 420,000-acre moonscape at one time constituted one of the five most important spotted owl habitats on the West Coast of the United States, and held some of the greatest salmon runs in the world. Not anymore.

It’s not like there wasn’t enough time for the Journal to sufficiently investigate this story. It was on April 30, 2014 — almost a year ago — that Green Diamond announced, in a press release, that the company would “transition out of redwood lumber business.”

ClearcutMethod

The science of justification: Illustration hanging in the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan

Still, there was something underhanded about Green Diamond shutting down its entire North Coast milling operation. Is the company out of logs? Not entirely. So who will mill these 40-year-old baby tress whose lumber quality is so bad that most self respecting contractors are building their decks out of Canadian cedar?* It turns out that Green Diamond’s remaining redwood logs will now be milled by that “competing” company just down the freeway, Humboldt Redwood Co.

This is where things get really interesting. Humboldt Redwood Co., owned by the San Francisco Fisher family, which also owns The Gap, now controls the former Maxxam/Pacific Lumber lands, more than 200,000 acres, as well as the Mendocino Redwood Co. (formerly Louisiana Pacific), which also holds more than 200,000 acres of redwood. Combined, the Fisher companies and Green Diamond now own more than half of all commercial redwood acreage. (Two companies, half the acreage: A crucial story entirely missed by the local press.) Mike Jani heads up forest operations for both HRC and MRC. Interestingly, Jani is also on the U.S. Standards Committee of the Forest Stewardship Council which, we now know, is actively engaged in greenwashing.

It was Jani, wearing the FSC hat, who pushed to get Green Diamond FSC “certified,” which occurred on Feb. 11, 2013. The FSC cert generated howls of protest from anyone with even an inkling of what Green Diamond is up to in the woods. The Environmental Protection Information Center charged, “The award of FSC certification to Green Diamond has very serious implications for the future of the Redwood Temperate Rainforest, and suggests an unraveling of credible forest management certification processes.” EPIC decried “Green Diamond’s aggressive clearcut logging, their legacy of toxic pollution [the company loves herbicides], their decades long history of antagonistic relationships with local communities and civil society organizations, and their corporate culture of greenwash, impunity, and lack of accountability.”

At the time, Green Diamond’s FSC cert was counterintuitive. It wasn’t just that anyone with a set of eyes understood that Green Diamond’s liquidation logging is about as far from green as black is from white. There was also the puzzling question: Why would one redwood company assist the bottom line of another? Granted, the certification did get a significant scientific leg-up from one Gary J. Roloff, Associate Professor in the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife at that great college in the redwoods, Michigan State University. Roloff came to the college after eleven years as a “Wildlife Management Specialist” for Boise Cascade Corporation. Now, says Roloff on his MSU web page, “I … maintain close ties to the forest products and paper industry.” But someone like Jani must be intimately familiar with the nonsensical blather churned out by hacks like Roloff. Jani of all people should have seen right through Roloff’s bland assertion, put forward in defense of FSC certification, that he is “completely convinced that [Green Diamond’s] wildlife and plant research programs directly interface with the timber management program to produce on-the-ground results that help conserve native biodiversity.” He’s completely convinced! But was Jani? Apparently. But won’t Jani’s companies, which are FSC certified, have a competitive edge over Green Diamond if the latter were not certified? Why would Jani accept the obvious lies and obfuscations that run throughout Roloff’s four-page screed and Green Diamond’s phony science when the act of certifying Green Diamond would likely dig into Fisher company profits? It didn’t make sense.

It didn’t make sense, that is, until the Korbel mill closure, which followed closely on the heels of HRC adding an entire second shift at the redwood mill in Scotia. How would it be possible for HRC to virtually double its redwood lumber production without cutting every last tree on its property? It would need another, quite large source of redwood logs. And wouldn’t those logs also need to be FSC certified? Of course they would!

Which leads to a math lesson for the North Coast Journal, as well the Times-Standard and those scrappy overwrought scribes at the Mad River Union, and all those former Journal reporters at the Lost Coast Outpost: 1 + 1 + 1 = ? That’s right: 3! There’s your low-hanging fruit, reporters, it’s as easy as preschool math. 1) Green Diamond becomes (unbelievably) FSC certified with the incongruous help of a competitor; 2) HRC announces a second shift; and 3) Green Diamond closes its mills and sells its newly certified logs to the alleged competitor. If you don’t believe us call up Mike Jani and ask him: Where are the new logs coming from? And he’ll tell you what he’s told anyone who asks: The logs are coming from Green Diamond. (He’ll also tell you the agreement to take the logs came after the announced Korbel mill closure. Ha ha ha! That’s a good one, Mike!) But there’s not a single breath in the local press of this dark chapter in the redwood industry’s ongoing flim-flam. How is this possible? Are you all dressed up as fluffy animals and parading through old town, forgetting that you are supposed to be reporting the news?

Recently we heard from a thirty-year Humboldt resident who knows a lot about the local timber industry. “Greed Diamond,” he said, “is just one example of the Journal’s malfeasance. When they start writing about poisoned estuaries, white-collar crime, corruption and collusion between business and government, and the real value of biodiversity, I’ll start reading it instead of just starting fires.”

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*The increasingly poor quality of today’s mass produced redwood lumber led to the highly suspect 2012 Headwaters Fund grant of $750,000 to promote redwood products put out by Green Diamond and Humboldt Redwood Co. It may not surprise readers to learn that the Headwaters Fund is run by Dawn Elsbree, wife of Green Diamond executive Andy Elsbree. Last year Andy Elsbree was put in charge of Green Diamond’s acquisition of 600,000 acres of Oregon timber. Green Diamond now owns 1.3 million acres in California, Oregon and Washington.