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Until the latter part of the second millennium, giant redwood stands stretched from southwestern Oregon to Monterey Bay. Large groves of Douglas fir were also commonplace. All were a product of the region's moderate temperatures and plentiful rainfall, and also helped produce our climate.
Before the advent of logging, Northern California and the Pacific Northwest housed an "unprecedented carbon budget," according to Jerry Franklin, a University of Washington professor of ecosystem analysis who is known as "the father of old-growth research." As Franklin explained at a conference sponsored by the Pacific Forest Trust in Arcata this past August, the conifer-dominated "Pacific temperate rainforest," which runs from Prince William Sound in Alaska through the British Columbia Coast to California's Central Coast, contains the largest mass of living and decaying material of any ecosystem in the world. Redwood forests, he noted, exceed the capacity of any on Earth to store carbon "by a factor of three or four." The mixed Douglas fir and hardwood forests that grow adjacent to the redwoods, as well as the montane-mixed conifer ecosystems of the Cascades and Sierra mountain ranges, among other forests of the so-called "Pacific slopes," also play a notable role in regulating atmospheric carbon.
"What we have is a region full of superlatives, with the redwood piled on the top of them," Franklin said at the conference. "In the North Pacific coastal regions, which run from the Bay Area all the way up to the Gulf of Alaska, are numerous moist forests with an extraordinary capacity to sequester carbon, capable of making a real difference globally when it comes to climate change."
When European Americans arrived on the West Coast in the late 1700s and early 1800s, they quickly sought to capitalize on the enormous forests stretching around them. The government seized lands from native peoples without compensation, converting them to private property through giveaways and auctions, often to fraudulent buyers. As the Bay Area expanded, loggers vacuumed old-growth trees out of the region's forestlands, furnishing high-value timber to markets around the globe.
By the 1980s, large timber corporations, such as Maxxam and Louisiana Pacific, had initiated one of the most intense logging waves that California's North Coast had ever known. But they were opposed by ecologists who had moved into the area during the previous twenty years and who believe fervently in a forest's inherent right to exist, as well as by some loggers who recognized that their jobs were threatened by the liquidation of the large forests that still remained. In addition, scientists had developed new ways of measuring the forests' societal and ecological worth. Professor Franklin's research, for example, helped reveal the ecological importance of old-growth redwoods to numerous critters — including the spotted owl.
In the Eighties and Nineties, logging companies were met with various forms of resistance, including lawsuits and fantastical direct actions similar to the 2014 Mattole Forest blockade. By the late Nineties, protests in remote logging towns were attracting thousands of people rather than dozens, and the music at the protests was being performed by members of the Grateful Dead rather than by local dudes with guitars. Eventually, nearly all of the remaining old-growth redwoods — a mere 3 percent of California's original total — were protected by parks and conservation easements. The other 97 percent, however, were collectively more degraded than they had ever been.
The timber industry has traditionally viewed forests in terms of "board feet," the unit of measurement that represents a forest's potential financial value in lumber. When the Fishers purchased Louisiana Pacific's 232,500 acres of forestlands in Mendocino and Sonoma counties in 1998, the board foot volume of the heavily cut-over property averaged a paltry 10,000 per acre. By contrast, at the time of Euro American settlement, the board foot volume of the same forests averaged 125,000 to 150,000 per acre, according to estimates by biologists, with exceptional stands containing more than 1 million per acre (enough to build roughly fifty five-room houses).
Patrick Gonzalez, who is a National Park Service climate change scientist and a visiting scholar at UC Berkeley's Center for Forestry, is one of the world's leading experts on carbon sequestration. He notes the importance of studying remaining old-growth forests to establish a benchmark for how much carbon the degraded lands could store in the future. "Published field research shows that old-growth coast redwoods in Humboldt Redwoods State Park attain the highest carbon densities (tons of carbon per hectare) of any ecosystem in the world," Gonzales wrote to me in an email, referring to the forest directly adjacent to the Mattole Forest (of which the Fisher family owns roughly 8,000 acres in total). "They achieve such high densities because they attain the tallest heights of any tree in the world."
Gonzales is an advisor to the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). He also helped lead an effort sponsored by the California Air Resources Board to inventory the carbon in all of California's ecosystems, and to estimate their changes over time, thus providing a scientific foundation for the role of forests in meeting the greenhouse gas reduction goals of the 2006 California Global Warming Solutions Act (AB 32).
The Fisher family's fortune originated in real estate. In the Fifties and Sixties, family patriarch Donald Fisher bought and refurbished old hotels throughout California. His son John Fisher is currently the majority owner of the Fairmont Hotels of San Francisco and San Jose, and the family has numerous other real estate holdings. Reflecting the enormous financial success the family has enjoyed, UC Berkeley's real estate institute, the Fisher Center for Real Estate & Urban Economics, is endowed in their name.