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September 28, 1998

The Redwoods Weep

In California's ancient forests, the clash between industry and
idealism culminates in tragedy

by John Skow

A bitter environmental battle over logging in redwood groves
turned deadly last week when Earth First activists challenged Pacific Lumber
Co.loggers at work above Grizzly Creek in California's Humboldt
County.Cat-and-mouse taunting between protesters and timber crews had gone
on for years, but recent confrontations had turned sour. Earlier this year
an activist took refuge in a 40-ft. redwood sapling, and loggers felled the
tree. Somehow the climber tumbled out unharmed. Last week's skirmish ended
differently: with shouts, the whine of a chain saw and a falling redwood
hitting another tree. As the confusion of distant noise subsided, activist
David ("Gypsy") Chain, 24, of Austin, Texas, lay with a crushed skull, dying.

By week's end no charges had been filed. Chain's death was both
an accident and the darkest of ironies, because this environmental war
was supposed to be over. Lawyers and legislators had stepped in to settle the
dispute, but PacificLumber did not see fit to stop felling trees, and the
activists, who charged that the cutting destroyed the habitat of endangered
seabirds, did not stop trying to block the loggers.

The bill that the California legislature passed this month tohandle
the controversy, referred to glumly by environmentalists as "the
Deal," sounds good. Some 300-ft.-tall old-growth giants along the northern
part of the state's coast are saved, along with scraps of wildlife habitat,
and if a financier named Charles Hurwitz gets nearly half a billion dollars
in federal and state money,who cares? The stock market creates or vaporizes
that much wealth in the time it takes Alan Greenspan to clear his throat.

At closer inspection, however, the Deal is a textbook example ofthe
wreckage that occurs when political imbalance--weakness on the part of
federal and state environmental agencies, blustering strength among enemies
of land-use regulation--allows owners of private property to hold the
environment at ransom.

This ransom is a big one--and likely to be the benchmark for
future environmental payoffs involving private timberland. In return
for 3,500 acres of ancient redwoods in Humboldt County's Headwaters Grove,
the largest old-growth tract still in private hands, and 4,000 acres of
additional land, most of it heavily logged, Maxxam Corp. of Houston, Pacific
Lumber's owner, will get $250million from the Federal Government and $ 210
million from California. At week's end there seemed little doubt that
Governor Pete Wilson would sign the payment bill. Maxxam, controlled by
Hurwitz, was a major contributor to his most recent election campaign.

To anyone who has spent a night in Headwaters Grove, awakening at dawn
to hear the cries of marbled murrelets, the endangered seabirds that nestin
the huge trees, and to watch the great trunks take form in the
lightening mist, the idea of owning such a place is daft. But, yes, if the
Deal goes through, Maxxam won't own Headwaters. Won't cut it. And California
will have a beautiful new tree museum.

Conservationists hoped for more: not just Headwaters, but 60,000acres
of mostly scarred and bulldozed land that could be rehabilitated. Thereis a
dim hope, still, that they will get it. The Federal Deposit
Insurance Corporation is slowly pursuing an old case against Hurwitz, having
to do with a savings and loan collapse. A settlement of $ 250 million from
Hurwitz was spoken of. So was a swap: debt for nature, maybe involving
Pacific Lumber land.

Maybe. In any case, for environmentalists, "tree museum" is a phrase
uttered with a shrug. The 3,500 acres of Headwaters don't really amount to
a forest. Large redwood forests create their own microclimates. They
are rainmakers. And the other 4,000 acres paid for by the Deal, though they
have some big trees, are too fragmented to be an effective wildlife habitat
for murrelets,Pacific giant salamanders and the spotted owls that loggers
love to hate. Inparticular, they offer little protection for coho salmon,
listed as threatened in the state. Salmon need cool, shaded, clear streams
for spawning. Aggressive, steep-slope logging cuts shade and pours down
sediment. This is no secret, but the state has not enforced regulations to
protect salmon streams, and the new Headwaters legislation, say critics,
stipulates buffer zones too narrow to be effective.

The U.S. Department of the Interior is also lax, and the enforcement
record of the state and federal departments, charges activist Elyssa Rosen
of the Sierra Club, ranges from "incompetent to complicit." But it is
federal nonfeasance that has allowed a part of the Deal that may be worse
than the gush of dollars. This is the "incidental takings" provision of the
misnamed "Habitat Conservation Plan." HCPS were invented in the Reagan
Administration, but they have flourished like mushrooms in the timid Clinton
years. They are intended to mollify the rage of landowners against the
Endangered Species Act. Well, they might, because they immunize loggers,
miners and the like against ESA violations. It is illegal to kill a marbled
murrelet or wreck its habitat, but if you should do so while conducting your
rightful business, that is an incidental taking. The "Oops!" factor takes
over, and you are in the clear. The HCP filed by Pacific Lumber will immunize
the company for 50 years.

The plan might work if the landowner respected the land. Thisappears to
have been the case with Pacific Lumber before Hurwitz bought it in ahostile
take over in 1985. But since then, on the evidence of a passionate new book
by activist Doug Thron, a photographer and lecturer, and reporter Joan
Dunning, accelerated logging has devastated the land and the streams that
flow through it. From the Redwood Forest (Chelsea Green; $ 24.95) relates a
brutal progression. Pacific Lumber, under Maxxam and Hurwitz, started
widespread clear-cutting, a practice that leaves no tree standing and works
against natural regrowth. Then Pacific Lumber began cutting through the
winter months, and on dangerously steep slopes, giving the impacted ground
and the silted streams no respite.

Activists reported repeated violations of court orders,
federal environmental rules and state forestry regulations. They filed
lawsuits, won judgments and saw little change. Pacific Lumber stone walled and
talked of jobs. The mood in Humboldt County, where the only good jobs had
always been in the woods or the mills, turned rancid. When protesters
conducted peaceful sit-ins at the company's headquarters and the office of
U.S. Congressman Frank Riggs,the sheriff's department daubed pepper spray
near their eyes and taped the process for a training film. A lawsuit by the
protesters resulted in a hung jury, with are trial scheduled for November.
The training film is available to law officers.

David Chain, the Earth Firster who died, was not the first activistto
put his life on the line. In November 1997 Julia Hill, a young Earth Firster
who calls herself Butterfly, climbed a 200-ft. redwood near the Eel
River. She intended to save at least one tree, staying in the
branches indefinitely with help from friends who supplied food. Later,
reporter Dunning climbed up,fearfully, to interview her. Thron followed to
photograph the interview. They came down. But as of last week, Butterfly,
despite the clear-cutting of surrounding trees and occasional storm winds
that approached 90m.p.h., was still there.

David M. Walsh
P.O. Box 903
Redway, CA 95560
Office and Fax(707) 923-3015
Home (707) 986-1644

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