Mendocino Redwood claims exemption from measure limiting tree poisoning

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The controversial practice of poisoning unwanted hardwood trees and leaving them in place to die is continuing in Mendocino County forests despite a voter-approved initiative that sought to sharply limit the practice.

Mendocino Redwood Co. contends the new ordinance, approved by 62 percent of voters in June and which took effect a month ago, does not apply to operations on the 228,852 acres of timberland it owns in Mendocino County nor to any other commercial timber properties.

Company attorneys have determined “we are exempt,” said John Andersen, Mendocino Redwood’s director of forest policy. Hack and squirt operations, along with other standard timber harvest practices, are governed by state regulators and not subject to county nuisance ordinances, company officials said.

Forest activists and proponents of the ordinance decried the company’s assertion and vowed to continue protesting the practice. They have blocked logging roads and held protests at company offices in Ukiah and the Bay Area.

“I think the public is going to keep doing what we’re doing, which is to protest,” said Mendocino coast activist Naomi Wagner.

In a letter dated July 6 and addressed to Mendocino County’s CEO Carmel Angelo, the company’s executive vice president of forestry cited several state regulations and part of the Mendocino County Code of Ordinances that timber officials believe provide the exemption.

Mendocino County Counsel Katharine Elliott is still evaluating the company’s legal arguments. County officials declined comment until Elliott’s legal opinion is issued.

Supervisor John McCowen said he suspects the county won’t decide the fate of the ordinance.

“The legality of Measure V and whether it applies to commercial timber operations is a question that can only be decided in a court of law,” he said.

The ordinance makes it a nuisance to leave standing for more than 90 days any intentionally killed trees at least 16 feet tall. Landowners are liable if such operations cause damage to structures, water sources and telecommunication lines within 3,300 feet of the dead trees. Unwanted trees are most commonly killed with poisons, using a practice referred to as “hack and squirt” because it entails making a cut in a tree, then applying herbicide to the wound.

Measure V did not specify who would be responsible for enforcing the rules.

Proponents of the ballot measure said the practice has escalated in recent years, creating a dangerous fire hazard by leaving millions of dead trees standing in already tinder-dry forests. Albion-Little River Volunteer Fire Department Chief Ted Williams, who was at the forefront of the ballot effort, estimated 1.5 million trees are killed annually.

Officials with Mendocino Redwood Co., the primary target of the ordinance, contend the fire hazard alleged by the measure’s proponents is exaggerated.

The company says the tree-killing process is a safe and necessary way of restoring conifer forests previously overcut and mismanaged.

The company has spent more than $20 million replanting conifers since purchasing the Mendocino County property 18 years ago, Andersen said. He said it wouldn’t do anything to jeopardize that investment.

“It’s a safe practice,” Andersen said.

The company’s letter to the county cites a state law that protects all agricultural operations, including timber, from being declared a public nuisance.

“This section shall prevail over any contrary provision of any ordinance or regulation of any city, county, city and county, or other political subdivision of the state,” reads the pertinent section of the California Civil Code.

The county’s own code affirms a nuisance exemption for agriculture, the letter notes. In addition, the state Forest Practice Act prevents counties from regulating timber operations in most cases.

But Williams said it’s wrong for Mendocino Redwood to ignore the will of county residents.

“If the people are found to not have authority to make findings and enact laws governing health and safety, we have greater problems than this ordinance alone,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Glenda Anderson at 707-462-6473.

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