In California's ancient forests, the clash between industry and idealism culminates in tragedy
(John Skow, Time Magazine, September 28,1998)

The Redwoods Weep
(Photo by Doug Thron)

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 dust and 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 Pacific Lumber 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 to handle 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 states 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 of the 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 $250 million 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 nest in 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 60,000 acres of mostly scarred and bulldozed land that could be rehabilitated. There is 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. In particular, they offer little protection for coho salmon, listed as threatened in the state. Salmon need cool, shaded, clear streams for spawning. Aggressive, steepslope 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. This appears to have been the case with Pacific Lumber before Hurwitz bought it in a hostile takeover 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 Maxxarn 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 stonewalled 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 sheriffs 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 a retrial scheduled for November. The training film is available to law officers.

David Chain, the Earth Firster who died, was not the first activist to 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 90 m.p.h., was still there.

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