Moneyball and Redwoods

April, 2016


If you’ve read Moneyball or seen the movie, you’re familiar with the fable of Billy Beane, general manager of the low-budget Oakland A’s. Over the years Beane recruited young talent and rehabilitated older players to come up with championship seasons on a fraction of the budget of wealthier teams. Unfortunately, when his low-cost players become free agents, the A’s lose him to a wealthier franchise.

Moneyball tells how Beane meets a math whiz who shows him another way to appraise a player’s worth. Catcher Scott Hatteberg was an undervalued asset because he’d injured his throwing arm, plus he wasn’t a great hitter. But statistics revealed that he got on base a high percentage of the time. Beane acquired him at a bargain price, put him on first base, and Hatteberg helped the A’s win some crucial games.

So how is it, decades later, the A’s ended last season at the bottom of the American League? The answer again is money. Their current troubles began in 2005 when they were bought by John Fisher, one of three sons of Don and Doris Fisher, who built a small garment business into the multi-billion dollar Gap brand by marketing foreign-made apparel to American youth.

John Fisher was more interested in making money, and began moving the family’s investments into things he considered more stable than fashion. But he and his partner in the A’s, developer Lew Woolf, upset Billy Beane’s conservative strategies by skimming off too much of the profits for their other enterprises, like a $100 million stadium for their San Jose soccer team.  An online petition by A’s fans began circulating after last year’s disastrous season, calling on Fisher to sell the team or make the necessary investment in players.

This story concerns the North Coast, not only its die-hard A’s fans, because John Fisher also invested in other discounted and distressed properties: redwood forests. He bought about a quarter million acres of logged L-P land, rechristened it Mendocino Redwood, then in 2007 picked up 210,000 acres that had been ravaged by another financial genius, Charles Hurwitz. He re-branded again as Humboldt Redwood Company (HRC).

Under the leadership of Sandy Dean, his fellow director at Sansome Partners, the new lumber companies had tentacles deep into San Francisco finance and Sacramento politics. Dean had the wisdom to hire Mike Jani, a Santa Cruz forester and advocate of sustainability, to manage their redwood empire. Jani is the Billy Beane of logging.

But like a down-market ball club, a cut-over forest requires investment—culverts and road repair and restoration, but also recovery time. John Fisher has claimed to provide this, boasting to San Francisco Magazine, “Because we are a family, and because we’re local, we could allow the trees to grow over a longer period of time.”

But that’s baloney. The Fishers are a business, they are hardly local, and there were serious flaws in the company’s business plan. The forests were more depleted than originally estimated, home building declined following the mortgage collapse, and the benefits of FSC certification, Home Depot distribution, carbon-trading, lighter regulation for “sustainable foresters” like the Fishers—the Gap also makes “sustainable apparel”—failed to make up the difference. There’d be no time for the trees to grow after all.

The poster child of impaired watersheds, Upper Elk River is only ten percent of Humboldt Redwood’s acreage, but it holds forty percent of the company’s working timber. Their proposed rotation period for Elk River, in a plan now before our Regional Water Quality Board, will take out all their merchantable trees in fifty years. Upper Elk River residents have asked the board to suspend HRC’s logging in the watershed, pending long-promised restoration and relief from silt and flooding, but their petition has not met with any more success than A’s fans have seen.

The Water Quality Board has failed to come up with a recovery plan for Elk River that does not include continued logging because John Fisher’s short-sighted business methods have overruled their staff’s environmental planning. Staff members are afraid for their jobs, and afraid of litigation. HRC has sued the board because its executive officer refused to sign off on a 600-acre logging plan in those “sensitive” tributaries.

The Fisher family is known for its philanthropy. The oldest brother, Robert, is on the board of directors of the Natural Resource Defense Council, and co-chairs Governor Brown’s Strategic Growth Council, which advocates carbon sequestration. But the Fishers helped put the governor in office, his wife is a former Gap executive, and the governor appoints the members of the Water Quality Board. Maybe that explains why Brother John, worth an estimated two and a half billion, can’t afford to stop logging Elk River.

Dr Loon is the author of The Price of a Life: Shell, Gold, Carbon Notes and Weed. Four Kinds of Money in the Humboldt Bay / Six Rivers Region, to be published locally this spring.

NCRWQ Board will consider Elk River’s new water quality regulations on Wednesday, April 7, at 8:30 pm in Eureka’s City Council Chambers.