Timber activists file lawsuits, plan not-so-silent spring
San Francisco Bay Guardian
Headwaters heats up
Timber activists file lawsuits, plan not-so-silent spring
By A. Clay Thompsons
After more than a year of relative quiet, the north coast's timber wars are heating up again on several fronts. Environmentalists last month filed two lawsuits charging the California Department of Forestry with dooming the endangered coho salmon and violating the Headwaters Forest pact it agreed to in 1998. Now they're launching another wave of backwoods civil disobedience.
Much of the current activity centers around a loophole in the Headwaters deal. In October 1998, bowing to public pressure to save the ancient redwood groves, government officials and Maxxam Corporation settled on a cash-for-trees swap. The federal government and the state government ponied up nearly $500 billion; Maxxam, the parent company of timber firm Pacific Lumber, put some 7,500 wooded acres into public hands and agreed to follow heightened environmental regulations on the rest of its 210,000-acre Humboldt County holdings.
The pact also gave Maxxam/Pacific Lumber ownership of a 705-acre tract of redwoods situated in the middle of the new protectorate. Greens have labeled it the "hole" in Headwaters.
The logging company this month plans to begin cutting the area's second-growth trees, which line steep slopes directly above a two-and-a-half-mile stretch of the Elk River. Enviros, aghast at the idea of more clear-cutting within the boundaries of the Headwaters preserve, fear the logging will harm the threatened salmon and further damage the already fragmented forest ecosystem. The Elk River is one of only a handful of remaining spawning grounds for the endangered coho.
If the area is clear-cut, Earth First! spokesperson Josh Brown said, "We're going to lose the coho, [and] our downstream residents are going to lose their drinking waters. We may lose the south fork of the Elk River."
The eco-radicals have set up base camp in Humboldt County and are ready to block the access road to the tract, Brown said. "There hasn't been anything that's catalyzed activists strongly for a couple of years. They are going to come out of the woodwork for this."
Pacific Lumber spokesperson Mary Bullwinkel confirmed the company's intention to log the acreage but said that no definite date had been set.
The 1998 Headwaters agreement transferred the "hole" lands already approved for cutting from Elk River Timber to Pacific Lumber, which promptly made plans to log the region.
In exchange for the half billion in taxpayer dollars, Pacific Lumber agreed to adhere to environmental guidelines set out in a lengthy habitat conservation plan. The company initially claimed the HCP regulations didn't apply to the hole. Last fall enviros charged Pacific Lumber with violating the spirit, if not the letter, of the deal. (Most greens feel the HCP is seriously flawed but still better than standard state forestry rules.)
In February 1999, tied up in legal red tape, the company filed a 24-page amendment to its plan for logging the tract in a bid to come into compliance with the HCP regulations. Two days later the Department of Forestry approved the revisions. Now, with legal hurdles out of the way, the company is poised to cut the area and haul out the trees using helicopters and trucks.
"The changes we have made to the habitat conservation plan increase the environmental protections," Bullwinkel told the Bay Guardian. "We've increased the buffer zones around streams." She added that the company is now using helicopters to airlift trees out of the forest rather than dragging them out and that it is fixing roads "even though we don't have to."
The Sierra Club and Garberville's Environmental Protection and Information Center (EPIC) last month sued in state court to stop the logging. The eco-litigators say the revamped timber harvest plan still doesn't meet the salmon protection standards binding Pacific Lumber. Further, enviros claim, the Department of Forestry approved the logging proposal against the wishes of the state's board of forestry, which theoretically oversees the department.
Pacific Lumber will do no lasting damage and won't harm the fish, Bullwinkel said.
Department deputy director Louis Blumberg said he couldn't comment on pending litigation, but he told us the logging scheme is ecologically sound. "We reviewed the changes made to the logging plan and found the changes to be significantly better environmentally," Blumberg said, citing the use of helicopters and restrictions on wet-weather cutting.
On March 10 EPIC and a coalition of 18 other groups representing greens, fishers, and Native Americans lodged a far-reaching federal suit blaming forestry department chief Andrea Tuttle and two other state officials for speeding the decline of the fish.
"There's been frustration since the coho was listed [as endangered] in 1996," said Brendan Cummings, a Berkeley-based attorney for the coalition. "Unless the state of California seriously changes the way we manage logging on private lands, the coho are headed for extinction."
The legal action charges the forestry department with regularly violating the federal Endangered Species Act as it applies to the threatened coho. If successful, the suit could force vast changes in state logging laws. "Defendants approve logging on an average of 285,000 acres of land each year in California," reads the complaint, which will be heard by federal judge Samuel Conti. "Approximately thirty percent of this land is within north coastal watersheds that support or once supported coho salmon. Since the coho salmon was listed as a threatened species. Defendants have permitted logging operation on approximately 180,000 acres of land within these watersheds. Defendants' activities have harmed and killed, and will continue to harm and kill, coho salmon."
Blumberg said the department is stepping up efforts to protect the fish: "We have taken many actions and will be taking many actions to address the salmon issue." Gov. Gray Davis is adding 71 new field staff to study the matter, he said.
The federal government "has in no instance found the department's timber plans violated the Endangered Species Act in regards to coho," Blumberg told us.
The suits and demonstrations reflect greens' growing frustration with Davis's administration. "To say Davis's campaign trail promises haven't been kept is an understatement," Karen Pickett of the Bay Area Coalition for Headwaters said. "He's not even dealing with the problems."