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|March 19-25, 2009
Truce in the redwoods
Trees stand as a testament to a hard-fought environmental victory
Chris Heppe climbed the trail at Headwaters Forest as sunlight streamed through the towering redwood trees.
Moisture glistened off a carpet of ferns. The only sound was the bubbling of a nearby stream.
“See that?” he said, pointing to blue paint on an immense redwood 20 feet around and 1,000 years old. “That means it was going to be harvested. Cut down. But they never got to it.”
Ten years ago this month, the state and federal government spent $480 million to buy 7,472 acres from Pacific Lumber and other landowners to create the Headwaters Forest Reserve six miles south of Eureka. The deal ended one of the most bitter environmental conflicts in California history, pitting blue-collar loggers against tree-sitters in dreadlocks, and establishing Pacific Lumber owner Charles Hurwitz as the greatest eco-villain for U.S. environmental groups since the Exxon Valdez’s Capt. Joseph Hazelwood.
Today, the misty forest is a national preserve. Some of its trees are more than 320 feet tall — higher than the Statue of Liberty — and were growing during the Roman empire. But because of concerns over endangered species, the federal government has sharply limited public access, with only one year-round public trail into the forest. There is no visitor center, and last year just 10,300 pilgrims came to this wooden cathedral, a fraction of the amount who visit Bay Area beaches on a single sunny weekend.
Still, many believe all the battles and the costs went to a worthy cause.
“It was an intense fight; such a divisive era,” said Heppe, manager of Headwaters Forest Reserve for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. “The deal was a key point. It allowed us to move on.”
Now the immense forest, 250 miles north of the Bay Area, is beginning a rebirth of sorts. The BLM has been dutifully restoring Headwaters, roughly half of which is composed of untouched virgin timber. The other half was logged at one point or another as far back as the 1880s. BLM crews have eliminated 10 miles of old logging roads. They’ve conducted regular wildlife surveys for endangered spotted owls, salmon and other species (although it’s too soon to see much change in animal numbers, they report). And they have thinned more than 1,000 acres of small Douglas fir trees to speed the return of massive redwoods.
“The people of the United States and the people have California have 7,500 acres of the most glorious, pristine, ancient redwoods protected for all time,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who brokered the deal with Hurwitz. “I would dare anybody to go up the
trail and say it wasn’t worth it.”
Pacific Lumber, shouldered with more than $700 million in debt, declared bankruptcy in 2007. Parent company Maxxam’s stock, $57 a decade ago, is now $5 a share.
During the bankruptcy trial last year, a new company formed by Donald and Doris Fisher, the billionaire San Francisco founders of The Gap, acquired all 211,000 acres of Pacific Lumber’s land and its historic sawmill in the town of Scotia.
Their new Humboldt Redwood Company won’t cut redwoods larger than 48 inches in diameter, said chairman Sandy Dean. They have banned clear cuts. And their logging level will be about one-fifth of Hurwitz’s. It’s an operation with about 220 employees, compared with the 1,600 Pacific Lumber had at its peak. Maxxam did not return calls for this story.
“Our mission is to be good stewards of the land and to run a successful business. We think we have found a good balance,” said Dean, a former Goldman Sachs investment banker.
The battle for the last giant redwoods in the 1990s deeply divided Humboldt County, California’s leading timber county. Contentious images made national headlines for years. Angry protest marches started not long after 1986, when Houston-based Maxxam, chaired by Hurwitz, took over the family-owned Pacific Lumber with junk bonds from Michael Milken and tripled logging rates to pay off the debt.
Two leaders of the radical environmental group Earth First!, Judi Bari and Darryl Cherney, were the targets of numerous death threats. Then, in 1990, while the pair drove from Oakland to Santa Cruz looking for recruits to their cause, a pipe bomb explosion ripped apart the car, badly injuring Bari.
Humboldt County sheriff’s deputies pepper sprayed the eyes of screaming young activists who chained themselves together in 1997. And most famous of all was Julia Butterfly Hill, who climbed a 180-foot redwood, named it “Luna” and sat there for two years in driving rain and windstorms to stop it from being cut down.
“I dealt with her,” said Dan Collings, a former Pacific Lumber logger whose job was to climb up and haul environmental protesters out.
“Julia believed the trees had souls, and maybe personalities. I said, ‘Get real. It’s a beautiful tree, but you probably have an interesting conversation with your broccoli at dinner too.’”
Such was the cultural chasm of the time.
“I said to this one Earth First! girl in the woods: ‘You know, you’re an attractive girl. Why don’t you take a bath?’ “ Collings, now 51, recently recalled with a chuckle.
“And she said, ‘You’ll get used to it. People wash off too much of their natural body oils.’ And I was like, that’s why God gave us soap!”
Longtime residents remember the redwood battles well.
“We had all these cars with New York license plates, that looked like they were about to break down, with dreadlocks and hippies,” said Katherine Harvey, a retired school cafeteria supervisor who has lived in Humboldt County since 1950.
“They would camp here and there. It was a little terrifying for some of the older people. They wanted the mill to stop cutting trees. But my husband built our three-bedroom house with lumber from that mill.”
While Birkenstock vegans and cork-booted loggers aren’t exactly car-pooling together yet, a decade later, a truce has settled over redwood country.
“I think people are glad that the protests are over and everything is more peaceful,” Harvey said. “It split the community. But now
people are more concerned with the economy and keeping their jobs.”
Motorists driving along Highway 101 here now could easily miss the small brown sign that notes the exit for Headwaters Forest Reserve. There hasn’t been much built at Headwaters. The BLM has opened only two public trails. None go to the backcountry where the biggest trees are. One, from the south, is available only by guided tour from May to September. The other entrance, in the north, has a parking lot, a bathroom and a few signs. Visitors must walk five miles to see a small grove of old-growth redwoods.
BLM officials and environmental groups say endangered wildlife, such as coho salmon, the northern spotted owl and the marbled murrelet, a diminutive seabird that nests in old-growth redwoods, would be disturbed if new trails were cut and hikers, horse riders or mountain bikers poured in.
“If you were looking for a place that’s a reference point for what a stream in an undisturbed redwood forest should be, that’s it,” said Paul Mason, deputy director of the California Sierra Club.
“If you start mucking around, carving trails into unstable hillsides that get lots of rain, it is going to have an impact. You have to ask how high a priority is it? I haven’t heard people arguing for more access.”
A few have. During the process to draw up a management plan in 2003, numerous groups advocated for more access, including the International Mountain Bicycling Association, Back Country Horsemen of California, and the California Equestrian Trail & Lands Coalition.
Don Amador, a spokesman for the Blue Ribbon Coalition, a group that advocates for increased motorized access to public lands, said the restrictions were unfair and “a misuse of over half a billion dollars of taxpayer funds.” Those debates linger today, but pale in comparison to the massive shift in the community now under way. Without much left to fight over, the loggers and environmentalists
are starting a new era.
In addition to preserving Headwaters Forest, the 1999 deal also gave 50-year protections to 11 “lesser cathedrals” of old-growth redwood nearby and set limits on how Pacific Lumber’s remaining lands could be logged.
Last fall, a few months after Humboldt Redwoods took the keys to the mill, Dean, the company’s chairman and its president, Mike Jani, went into the woods and told the last few tree-sitters they wouldn’t cut old-growth trees or order clear cuts.
In September, the last two, both 22, came down.
“All the environmentalists I know really want to see this company succeed,” Mason said. “This is tree-growing country. Humboldt Redwood Company is making a good-faith effort to do it well. We all use wood products. Let’s figure out how we can produce them in a sustainable manner.”
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