A column about Cal Fire's State Responsibility Area (SRA) fees seems to be an annual ritual, but this year there are new twists and turns to the topic as well as time worn truths and avoidance thereof. The Albion/Littleriver Fire Department along with the folks at The Woods hosted a meeting on Sunday afternoon, April 12th on the topic. To answer questions from about three dozen locals, Cal Fire sent seven officers in full regalia. Cal Fire's Mendocino Unit Chief, Chris Rowney, let forester Shawn Zimmermaker answer most of the questions while he, Rowney, sat back sucking on a toothpick for much of the meeting.
Regular readers will no doubt recall the incestuous relationship between corporate foresters and Cal Fire (for most of its history this entity was known as the California Department of Forestry), which theoretically governs all timber harvest plans in our state. Many will recognize Chris Rowney's name from his stint as a Louisiana-Pacific (L-P) forester in the 1980s and ‘90s. I remember him most for responding to a question in those days about what to do with a neighboring landowner who does not see eye to eye with the wishes of the logging corporation. “Wait for him to die,” Rowney said.
One item garnered from the April 12th Q and A in Littleriver: Mendocino County residents have forked over millions in SRA fees, but have received only $7,500 back in any type of fire prevention programs. The $7,500 was paid out for a single project in the Bell Springs Road area north of Willits. Reportedly, this one $7,500 grant was the lone recipient of funding after Mendocino area Cal Fire applied for thirteen grants. The reason for the failure of the other twelve: Mendocino County's Cal Fire Unit hasn't updated their grant writing tactics in over a decade. One has to wonder how much effort or advocacy the Mendocino Unit Chief has been putting forth on behalf of fire protection for Mendocino County residents.
Albion/Litteriver Fire Chief Ted Williams and his fellow volunteer fire department board members asked several questions aimed at how they can successfully apply for grants to pay for the most basic needs of rural volunteer fire departments, like brush clearing and additional water tanks. The way the Cal Fire system is set up all such requests must first go through the countywide Mendocino Fire Safe Council.
Let's move on to the SRA fee bill itself. It states, “The fee is assessed on owners of habitable structures located on a parcel within a State Responsibility Area (SRA)."
The key words are “habitable structures.” Perhaps it is better to say the ironic words are “habitable structures” because a vast amount of the acreage within the Albion/Littleriver Fire District is owned by Mendocino Redwood Company (MRC).
This corporation owns more than 220,000 acres countywide and darn few of those acres have habitable structures on them, as in a handful or two. Thus, Mendocino Redwood Company pays a pittance in SRA fees annually while individual landowners pay in the collective millions.
The Albion/Littleriver Fire District did successfully pass Measure M last year. This allows them to tax corporate timberland owners like MRC roughly $3 an acre per year. That adds up to about $40,000 per annum for Mendocino Redwood in payments to the Albion/Littleriver Volunteer Fire Department. Repeat the key word there: volunteer.
Also keep in mind it costs somewhere around $10,000 per firefighter just for their basic gear to go out and battle a fire, let alone hundreds of thousands for a new fire truck. The only problem this citizen sees with Measure M is that it didn't charge more per acre for uninhabited, corporately owned lands.
Measure M was passed by voters rather handily despite warnings to the Albion/Litteriver Fire District from countywide power brokers that it couldn't stand up to legal challenges and/or the voters. So far, there have been no challenges. Hopefully, other rural volunteer fire districts in this county will go a similar route, with a heavier hand on corporate or absentee timberland owners.
For years Mendocino Redwood Company has been reliant on the volunteer firefighters of this county to protect its nearly quarter million acres of forest land without giving much back in return. Reportedly, before Measure M, MRC had made one $5,000 donation to the aforementioned Albion/Littleriver Volunteer Fire Department. $5,000 would be a handsome donation for a semi-well-heeled individual. For the corporate owner of tens of thousands of acres in the Albion/Littleriver area it appears as a drop in the bucket, particularly when you take into account that Mendocino Redwood Company currently maintains thousands of acres of dead, standing trees in those very same watersheds. Leaving aside the issue of “hacking and squirting” these trees with imazapyr, an herbicide banned by the European Union more than a decade ago, thousands of acres of dead standing trees represents a fire hazard unique to corporate timberland owners. Who foots the risk for these dead standing trees? Much of the time the answer is volunteer firefighters.
Readers need to know that many, many acres of these dead standing trees are not only tan oaks, but the even more combustible eucalyptus. Mendocino Redwood Co. inherited several plots (20-40 acres apiece) of eucalyptus “plantations” from its predecessor-in-interest Masonite Corp. MRC has employed the “hack and squirt” method on the eucalyptus, though at the “plantation” nearest the Macdonald Ranch dozens, if not hundreds, of eucalyptus seedlings have survived either the hack or the squirt; some of these young eucalyptus are now ten to twenty feet tall. In the Slaughterhouse Gulch area of the Albion River, MRC initially had a firewood seller remove some of the eucalyptus. Perhaps because the market for hack and squirted eucalyptus proved disappointing, MRC doesn't seem to have offered up any opportunities for locals to make firewood out of either tan oak or eucalyptus. Campbell Global has from time to time offered up firewood cutting weekends, presumably of firewood not treated with herbicides.
One minor defense of MRC stems from the fact that some of their tan oak grows on steep land that is virtually inaccessible by road. No matter how many locals profess to be environmentally sensitive, I've yet to meet any who were willing to hike up and down steep terrain just to cut firewood. That said, MRC should not be let off the hook concerning its herbicide choice for these tan oak. They could just as easily employ locals, at a decent wage, to cut enough of the tan oak to open up the forest to conifer growth.
Not only has Mendocino Redwood shown its miserly colors in refusing to cut oaks (and eucalyptus), as well as being too cheap to donate sufficiently to volunteer fire departments, local small timberland owners are reporting that MRC's log buying bids this spring have been two to three hundred dollars less than their regional competitors. Just to re-affirm that MRC's actions lie somewhere between Ebeneezer Scrooge and Uriah Heep their mouthpieces have the unmitigated gall to criticize the leaders of these volunteer firefighters for daring to question the safety of leaving thousands of acres of dead trees standing.
Top this off with a dose of former Louisiana-Pacific forestry as the head of Mendocino County's Cal Fire unit and... By the time this is published the Board of Supervisors will have heard discussion on fire safety and a resolution that might at least temporarily halt corporate "hack and squirt" methods in Mendocino County. Whether or not they take meaningful action is about as predictable as a windblown fly ball at AT&T Park.