Redwood Forest Foundation
Interview with Stephen Levesque
by Heidi Knott
Stephen Levesque is the Area Manager at
Campbell Timberland Management
in Fort Bragg, CA, with whom RFFI has contracted to manage its 50,000 acres of
Usal Redwood Forest.
He holds a BS degree in Fisheries Management from Humboldt State University, Arcata, and a graduate degree from Oregon State University in Forest Engineering and Hydrology. He worked for the forest service in Alaska and has been with Campbell now for over eight years.
RFFI: RFFI is a very "hands-on" client. How has it been developing management plans with a group so engaged in the day to day operations?
SL: It has taken our full complement of staff to fully interact with the people at RFFI and to be able to provide the baseline information and the context to make well-informed decisions. It is a complex landscape and some of the people are new to the process, whether it's a forestry application or a permitting aspect. We bring a lot of experience to the table and RFFI is bringing a vision to the table. So we're trying to blend those two as we move forward.
RFFI: How has the process of bridging this gap been?
SL: From the very early days, the relationship has continued to develop - more information has been exchanged and I think both parties are much more knowledgeable about the collective goals for the property. It has taken some time to clear through a number of issues, focusing on both the here and now, as well as maintaining the longer term vision for the property.
RFFI: Have there been any shifts in the way you do things?
SL: Because of the organizational structure of RFFI with a board, advisory, and an executive committee to manage the property, there are several layers of approval authority that need to occur for management decisions - such as signing a lease. For our normal suite of clients, that might be a responsibility that I would handle myself, whereas the structure of RFFI, coupled with its legal requirements, demand that many management decisions must be approved by a board and people delegated as signatories. So there are certainly some new processes that we are starting to understand.
RFFI: Is Campbell profiting in any way from this new sort of relationship or has it been more of a burden?
SL: We've learned a lot from the experience, whether it's been interaction as a group or whether it's been something we've taken home as individuals.
It's a challenge for the staff. We have the privilege of working for different clients on the coast and one of our core objectives as a company is to manage to our client's objectives. We want to provide good client service, whether it's for one client or the other. With different clients with different objectives, we are exposed to a wide range of alternatives.
RFFI: Now that you are managing towards different goals, has it affected your staff in any way?
SL: We look at it more on a technical basis. I think of it more as how do you modify a growth-and-yield model, how do you meet a different set of silvicultural objectives? Or what is our role to help RFFI educate members of the public and facilitate their tours? I'm not so much engaged in the political and social contexts, as I am in the details that are involved in running the property, making sure the gates are locked, the roads are well-maintained and things of that nature.
Solving the budget was a very interactive process. We formulated a draft based on what we had talked about in terms of a framework and then we presented options to go with that draft. Consider road management, as an example. There is a certain amount of basic funding required to maintain a road system, and management needs to be pro-active. We discussed five different road projects and RFFI selected three. So we took these and incorporated them into the budget.
Another good example of a tough decision - it may seem simple, but it has financial impacts - is managing the inventory on the property. You spend a significant amount of money every year going out and defining new plots to determine how many trees you have, what the species composition is, and what the growth is like. It is a pretty extensive exercise. One could say, well, "Times are tough, I'm not going to do that." But to have good information available you need to keep an active inventory and so you must make some tough decisions such as, how much do I need to do, how much can I afford to do, what do I need to do versus what I would want to do. Having an active inventory means assessing your timber. For example, it's not feasible to go out and inventory every year. What we have is called a "cruise plan", where over time, there is no one inventory plot that is older than a certain number of years. So you're constantly actively updating your inventory and staying on the schedule. That takes commitment to maintain in difficult times, so that five years from now you're reaching your objective of maintaining a good quality of your inventory.
RFFI: RFFI is designed to be responsive to the community in "real time." How has it been to try and accommodate the number of field trips, meetings, and other components of "community forestry?"
SL: That's an area where certainly we've had a lot of involvement, interacting at community meetings and being out on the tours on the property. It has been very interesting and educational and we hear a variety of different perspectives. Often we hear things and think about how that blends with the mechanics of working the property or how we analyze various components - whether it is something to do with herbicides versus mechanical control, clear-cutting versus selection, or how we can model those implications and provide those information sources.
The public appears to have a very high set of expectations for RFFI. I think the California public holds every landowner to a high standard, but in this case, clearly there are some expectations in the community that RFFI is going to deliver on sustainability, rural development, and economics.
RFFI: In the beginning people were skeptical about working with the same company that had been cutting all these trees previously in an unsustainable way, as many people felt. Now there seems to be a coming together, a working together which everybody welcomes. Was there some apprehension on your behalf before about taking on RFFI as a client?
SL: Criticism isn't uncommon in our industry. Over time we tried to develop a reputation as a good land steward / forest manager and I think this opportunity with RFFI has allowed us to further demonstrate our capacity to be good stewards in a variety of capacities. It is a challenge and it's been satisfying to date.
RFFI: A community based forest company has to be more sensitive to outreach and transparency than a conventional privately held forest company. What has been a challenge for you in addressing this new reality?
SL: Our experience in California has shown us that the need for transparency is ubiquitous, regardless of the nature of the client. If a management company is not transparent, they are not going to satisfy the critics or get permits.
RFFI: How is it different from Oregon or Washington?
SL: Nowhere else in my experience is there the level of public involvement that we have in California, because of the Timber Harvest Plan process as it's designed. Because there are so many different agencies, you just have a lot of third party oversight. You just don't see that anywhere else.
RFFI: What about involvement from environmentalists? Is that stronger here, too?
SL: It's different. Our interaction with environmentalists in other states is largely focused on questions of how we conserve this, that, and the other.
My job is often to think and plan for the worst-case scenario. I plan for the worst and hope for the best. So I need to plan for the possibility of some very smart member of the public going through the plan with a fine-toothed comb and finding some small thing. I had a 500 page plan bounced, because the guys got the wrong section number. In another case we missed one Native American tribe on the notice list. That's why we have so many people on staff - so that we can manage these things internally.
RFFI: What have you enjoyed about RFFI and working on a sustainable forest where profit is not the objective during the rehabilitation phase?
SL: I think of it primarily in terms of what the silvicultural objectives are that we're trying to meet. In RFFI's case, there are different end-goals for the forest, such as transitioning away from even-aged management to a mixed-aged forest and that requires a different set of silvicultural tools and a different set of models. It is an interesting challenge for us to deconstruct what we have and rebuild it to be in line with the client's objectives.
The there are two prominent positions in the debate over how to best
manage redwood forest land.
Proponents of even-aged management
(clear-cutting) argue that it is a faster and less expensive way to
Opponents say that uneven-aged management (selective
harvesting) produces wood as quickly and it is no more expensive when
environmental costs are taken into consideration.
RFFI's interests in
moving towards uneven-aged management, as mentioned in this interview,
are consistent with our goals of long-term, sustainable forest
The pros and cons of these two divergent and often
conflicting styles of forest management are complex, unresolved and
worthy of detailed consideration. We hope explore this issue further
in future issues of this newsletter.
RFFI: Is this the first time you've had the chance to try and create an uneven-aged forest?
SL: Absolutely, at this scale. On a smaller scale, with any landowner in the state of California, there are certain parts of the landscape that are required to be managed for certain values - maybe it's near a stream area or habitat for Northern Spotted Owls. But looking at a larger scale of 50,000+ acres and saying, we would like to take this entire landscape and transition it over to long-term selection harvest in the next 60 years, that's something we've never done before. That is an interesting challenge. Yes.
RFFI represents a new element of change. For decades we had integrated fiber companies. In fact, this property right here was the first one to split - Georgia Pacific in 1999. The investors said at that time, these timber lands are undervalued in our portfolio, we should sell them and recoup that extra value and then went Champion, IP, and Boise Cascade. These lands were all picked up by TIMOs (Timber Investment Management Organizations). Now the non-profits are looking at this marketplace and saying, we can get in at that scale and we can compete, too.
RFFI came in and competed and acquired a piece of property. They've hired us to help them. Now we want to manage it to meet their set of objectives.