The world's largest remaining contiguous stand of old-growth redwood forest resides in Humboldt Redwoods State Park in Northern California. On the park's northwestern flank, six people gathered last May to oppose a logging venture on adjacent private property. For four days, the activists shadowed the loggers and their supervising forester, as well as three Humboldt County sheriff's deputies who were keeping a watchful eye on the forest defenders in case they edged over the park boundary.
The activists sought to obstruct the logging operation. But initially, the Humboldt Redwood Company (HRC) loggers ignored them, toppling Douglas firs and madrone within thirty feet of where the protesters stood. The supervising forester dispassionately informed them that if any of them died, it would be ruled a suicide. Soon after, a tree crashed against the dead top of a smaller one, sending an errant wood chunk sailing perilously close to an activist's head.
"There was a lot of bravado early on, but after a while, the loggers questioned what they were doing and stopped," recalled the forest activist who goes by the name "Farmer," and whose head was nearly hit by the airborne tree chunk. "They basically said they weren't going to keep working under these conditions [with the protesters present]."
HRC crews soon turned to logging a far more remote 800-acre area of the same stretch of forestland, located in the rugged headwaters of the 72-mile-long Mattole River, which flows northwest through Mendocino and Humboldt counties. On their way to work on a late-June morning, loggers crossed over a high mountain pass — the sole access point to an area known as Long Ridge. They were met by an elaborate and fantastical blockade: Under the cover of darkness, activists had lashed together a jumble of logs, forming a wooden contraption reminiscent of a massive woodrat's nest that splayed across the entire roadway.
The logs anchored ropes that were tied to a platform suspended in mid-air above the adjacent canyon. An activist was sitting on the platform, which was secured on the side of the canyon opposite the wood jumble by ropes wrapped to a tree that was clinging to a steep slope. Removing any part of the odd wooden structure would topple this perch. The loggers withdrew, and HRC has not cut in the forest since.
Direct actions that aim to escalate the cost of cutting talismanic forest stands have a long history on California's North Coast. But efforts to protect the Mattole are notable, in part, because of who owns both the forest and the lumber company that has sought to fell it: the Fisher family of San Francisco. Best known as owners of The Gap and Banana Republic retail clothing empire, family matriarch Doris Fisher and her sons Robert, William, and John (who is also well-known in the East Bay as the majority owner of the Oakland A's) are all billionaires. Their collective worth exceeds $9 billion. Within the Fishers' 440,000 acres of forestland in Humboldt, Mendocino, and Sonoma counties, the family owns more coastal redwood forest than any private entity ever has.
While trees continue to fall in prodigious quantities in California's North Coast and other regions of the state, environmentalists and anti-logging activists have curtailed some logging operations in recent decades by pointing out that forests provide important habitat to numerous species, many of them endangered, including the northern spotted owl. But in the past several years, conservation of these forests has gained new impetus as many scientists have begun to view them through an altogether different lens: as essential tools in the fight against climate change.
As the environmental effects of carbon dioxide emissions have become devastatingly clear, ecologists have started to measure the ability of forests to absorb CO2 — a process known as sequestration. They have found, unsurprisingly, that the world's largest trees — coast redwoods (sequoia semprvirens) — store the most carbon of any living thing on Earth. Douglas firs (pseudotsuga menziesii), such as those that grow in majestic stands in the Mattole watershed, also rate as among the world's most effective trees when it comes to storing greenhouse gases.
While many environmentalists credit the Fishers' businesses as being more environmentally sensitive than many of their timber industry counterparts, the family still profits by cutting down trees on an enormous scale, thereby diminishing the forests' unique carbon storage capabilities. Given that the Fishers' North Coast properties probably have as much carbon sequestration potential as any forest of equivalent size on the planet, the family is a potential lightning rod in the growing climate change movement.
That's especially true given the fact that the eldest Fisher brother, Robert, also serves as co-chair of a little-known cabinet-level body in Sacramento called the California Strategic Growth Council (SGC). Enacted by the state legislature in 2008, the SGC is a cornerstone of Governor Jerry Brown's efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions. The panel has the broad and unprecedented mandate of coordinating implementation of California's climate change prescriptions across all levels of state government, while also preparing the state to accommodate a projected population of 50 million by the year 2050.
As such, Robert Fisher, whose close relationship with Brown is well-known within the corridors of the state Capitol, is not only in charge of helping set California climate change policy, but he also profits handsomely from harvesting living species that are increasingly being recognized as one of our last best hopes for forestalling the catastrophic impacts of global warming.