Forests for the Funding

They’ve filed numerous lawsuits challenging timber harvest plans, operated their own independent sawmill, demonstrated in the streets, and supported protesters sitting in the tallest trees. Now they’re taking the next logical step: Mendocino County residents Linda Perkins and Bill Heil are fighting for the forest by buying it.

The couple, both 65, had already devoted ten years to full-time activism when, in 1997, Louisiana-Pacific Corporation decided to sell 200,000 acres of timberland in Mendocino County. “The time was ripe for a change in how the forests were owned,” Perkins says. While unsustainable logging—and the subsequent destruction of forest ecosystems—generated millions of dollars for corporate headquarters in Portland and Atlanta, the couple’s small community of Albion, like scores of other Northern California mill towns, suffered a boom and bust economy.

A few months prior to the sale, Mendocino County’s then-Supervisor, Charles Peterson, proposed that a representative group of locals, from third-generation foresters to Earth First!ers like Perkins and Heil, come together to buy and manage timberland for public use. The vision entailed a working landscape supporting selective harvesting and recreation, with profits recycled through the community, as opposed to its likely alternatives: further logging or cutting up the land for development.

But where would the money come from? Financial services company US Forest Capital suggested seeking alternative strategies, such as tapping into tax-exempt bond markets, to fund these mega-land grabs.

Heil explains why this strategy was so compatible with Peterson’s plan for a “working forest”: “If you have less to pay back on the interest, you have less forest you have to cut down to pay it back. On a local level, we realized that we had to take control. As these big companies were moving out, it was the time to acquire the base of production.”

The first attempt failed: The nascent Redwood Forest Foundation International (RFFI, or as Perkins fondly calls it, “Reffie”) had only existed for a couple of months when they lost the bid on the LP property.

Eight years and about a hundred meetings later, the organization is involved in closing its first successful deal: with Hawthorne-Campbell, the timberland investment group that snagged Georgia-Pacific’s 194,000 acres (RFFI also tried to buy the whole plot). Hawthorne-Campbell is selling RFFI 16,000 acres of overharvested—but relatively healthy—forest land along Salmon Creek and Big River for $48.5 million.

At first, Hawthorne-Campbell wasn’t interested, but as Perkins describes it, “conversation continued.” About a year later, RFFI teamed up with the Conservation Fund, a national nonprofit that protects land through conservation easement and then turns the management over to another party.

“We simply don’t have enough public money to buy and preserve large tracts as park land,” Perkins says, underlining the group’s biggest hurdle. As Heil puts it, “We understand the ecology of the forest, but the funding? It was a strong learning curve for eight to ten years, and we still are in that process.”

The partnership with the Conservation Fund, which has protected five million acres and counting across the country, was invaluable for RFFI, ensuring economic resources and a reputable track record. Funding also came from loans through the federal Clean Water Act and the state water board. These were monies, Perkins says, intended for projects such as sewage treatment but that often regulate buffer zones around creeks and rivers to prevent sedimentation. “So it’s a little bit innovative, what we’re asking for,” she acknowledges.

The immediate goal—”to wrest this land away from outside corporate ownership,” says Heil—is accomplished. Albion residents will now be able to walk along their natural waterways, previously inaccessible without trespassing on corporate-owned property.

The next challenge—to repair eroded hillsides, restore the native salmon population, and regenerate a hardy ecosystem—will test RFFI’s mettle. As the first nonprofit to receive its charter to manage a forest, there aren’t many models to follow; logging the land to pay back loans will require a keen balance between ecological stewardship and economic reality. Heil guesses that in perhaps 40 years the debt will be settled, leaving the next generation of Albionians to determine how many trees they want to cut.

These first 16,000 acres are just a foot in the door. Much of the land Hawthorne-Campbell owns is broken into outlying pieces, some with ocean views or near roads. From a real estate point of view, these pieces are perfect to subdivide and sell for profit; for Perkins and Heil, the plots are ideal to manage on a watershed level. According to Perkins, Hawhorne-Campbell just sold for development the last wildlife corridor that crosses between Albion River and Salmon Creek. They hope RFFI can step in before chainsaws and construction crews arrive.

What the forest will look like in 40 years—subdivided and just a memory or a working ecosystem controlled by locals—is still in question. But Heil, Perkins, and the “most unusual collaboration” of RFFI, are proving that while money may not grow on trees, whole forests just might be able to grow on money.

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