New life for redwood harvesting [GMO Redwoods]

February 8, 2003


Fed up with protracted environmental battles over logging North Coast redwoods, a California timber company is cloning some of the state's grandest trees and shipping them to New Zealand, where they'll be grown for lumber.

Soper-Wheeler Co. has contracted with a Humboldt County tree nursery to grow and ship about 150,000 genetically engineered baby redwoods to the company's 10,000-acre Conway Hills plantation on New Zealand's South Island. The seedlings, transported in sterilized Petri dishes, will be planted in August, which is late winter in New Zealand.

Six months ago, Soper-Wheeler planted the first 50,000 young redwoods at the site, an old sheep ranch that the company acquired for $905,000 two years ago. The company also is establishing a Douglas fir plantation at the site.

Soper-Wheeler's New Zealand redwood plantings will continue over the next 35 years, with the first trees to be harvested and sent to U.S. mills at the end of that cycle, according to Jim Rydelius, a veteran North Coast forester who is managing the project.

Rydelius said because of climate conditions and genetically improved strains, the New Zealand trees are expected to be "significantly larger" than North Coast redwoods of the same age.

Soper-Wheeler is a century-old Sierra Nevada-based company that owns 103,000 acres of timberlands, including a 10,000-acre swath of Mendocino County redwoods. It is ranked among the state's most respected timber companies.

Soper-Wheeler's New Zealand venture is the biggest industry attempt yet to grow redwoods for commercial timber production outside the fabled species' native California coastal environment.

Rydelius said the first batch of baby redwoods planted six months ago has shot up so fast that most of them "will have grown 10 inches or more in height by the end of their first growing season."

Demand growing

If Soper-Wheeler's project proves to be as successful as earlier efforts in New Zealand to establish large-scale fir and pine planations, industry leaders and forestry experts say it's destined to reshape the commercial cultivation of an ancient tree species long considered unique to California.

"Even if North Coast redwood productivity maintains the status quo, consumer demand over the next 40 years will outstrip available supply. New Zealand redwood could fill the gap," said William Libby, professor emeritus of forestry and genetics at UC Berkeley.

Industry foresters said Soper-Wheeler's concerns about the long-term effects of environmental restraints on North Coast redwood producers are legitimate.

"We, too, know it isn't going to get any easier to grow and harvest redwoods in Northern California," said Mike Jani, chief forester for Mendocino Redwood Co. in Ukiah. Jani's company, largely owned by members of San Francisco's Fisher family, owns about 200,000 acres of timberland in Mendocino and northern Sonoma counties.

Mendocino Redwood is among a growing list of state timber companies who are looking to New Zealand for possible future investments in redwood and Douglas fir production.

Already, Mendocino Redwood and Soper-Wheeler have entered into a joint New Zealand venture to cut and mill a four-acre grove of redwoods planted in an early but largely failed experiment about 70 years ago.

Jani said the surviving New Zealand redwoods, some as tall as 200 feet, will be felled over the next few months and milled into rough planks of unfinished lumber. The boards will be shipped to Mendocino Redwood's Ukiah mill for testing and processing this summer.

"It's going to allow both companies to do a very thorough study of how redwoods grow in New Zealand, and whether the quality of the wood can in fact meet our future needs," said Jani.

Soper-Wheeler President Jim Holmes said the company's multimillion-dollar commitment in New Zealand marks an end to four decades of investment and expansion in California.

Given the state's current regulatory and environmental climate, Holmes said, "One conclusion is inescapable: it is no longer prudent to make forestry investments in California."

"Why spend money to plant trees or to raise timber or to buy timberland that you will never be allowed to harvest? Why finance someone else's 'national park?'" said Holmes.

In New Zealand, Holmes said, Soper-Wheeler is being warmly welcomed by a government that "honors property rights like we did 50 years ago."

New Zealand is so eager to expand its booming timber industry that a newly published "New Zealand Redwood Growers Handbook" was recently circulated among attendees at a series of seminars that covered all aspects of the emerging redwood industry, "with an emphasis on export of logs to the viable California market."

Friendlier regulators

In the 1980s, New Zealand ended 60 years of government ownership of a vast system of commercial timber plantations that was originally established to halt depletion of the country's indigenous forests. The government plantations were sold to private investors, whose practices are now monitored by the New Zealand Ministry of Forestry.

But Libby, an internationally recognized redwood expert who has worked and studied in New Zealand, said government regulators there judge timber companies "on the merits" of their operations, instead of relying on "prescriptive" measures favored in California to address environmental concerns. As a result, Libby said, timberland owners in New Zealand, unlike those in California, don't face "additional risks from changing political directions."

In investing in New Zealand, Soper-Wheeler is ignoring spotty and largely unsuccessful efforts over the past century to establish viable redwood production there.

"The early efforts failed because of poor location and planting techniques, but we know a lot more now," said Libby. In 1979, Libby was involved in redwood planting experiments with the New Zealand Forest Research Institute.

Libby said preliminary results suggest that redwoods, if planted in areas that mimic the temperate climate and wet winters of the North Coast, can grow even larger in New Zealand.

Getting the best

By tapping into the genetics of the best redwoods available, Soper-Wheeler's plantation forests could end up with towering trees of unusual stature and strength, he said.

Libby said as it is, New Zealand already is home to "one of the most beautiful groves of redwoods I've ever seen anywhere."

"It was planted only 100 years ago as part of a random experiment," he said. Today, the redwood grove near Rotorua is a major New Zealand tourist attraction, drawing as many visitors as state and federal redwood parks on the North Coast.

For family-owned Soper-Wheeler, the New Zealand redwood venture represents a second migration.

Time to move

About 100 years ago, company founders in Wisconsin speculated on timber investments in California and Oregon, including a 14,000-acre tract surrounding Strawberry Valley in the Sierra Nevada northeast of Marysville. Since then, the company's holdings and production capacities in Northern California have grown dramatically.

The company's turn to New Zealand is not without financial risks, Holmes acknowledged recently in a written explanation to his employees.

But Holmes said a century ago, company owners headed West "not because they wanted to, but because they felt they had no choice."

"Similarly, today's investors would prefer to continue their growth in California, but under the circumstances are convinced that growing in California is not an option and that they too have no choice."

So, said Holmes, "What goes around comes around, and here we go again."

You can reach Staff Writer Mike Geniella at 462-6470 or