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Forest's Fate

[whitespace] redwood trees
Christopher Gardner

Fallen timber: Thousands of redwood trees lie stacked near the Pacific Lumber Co. mill in Scotia. State legislators say too many trees will be harvested under a PL plan that was supposed to save the ancient Headwaters grove.

$380 million Headwaters deal comes to head

By Eric Johnson

ASSEMBLYWOMAN Virginia Strom-Martin says she knew what the call was about when she heard that Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., was on the phone a couple of weeks ago. Reports had gotten back to D.C. that the assemblywoman from the west county hamlet of Duncans Mills had joined a posse of renegade Sacramento lawmakers to scuttle the Headwaters deal.

News stories quoted California's senior senator as warning Strom-Martin and her colleagues that they were jeopardizing her plan to save Pacific Lumber's ancient grove, the largest stand of virgin redwoods under private ownership. Still, when the call came, Strom-Martin was unfazed. She says the conversation was amicable: "Dianne said she feels like this is it-- that this deal is as good as it gets, and I said, 'I'm not so sure about that.'

"I explained that I have to represent the folks in Humboldt County, people who've lived there for generations, and that they feel like they're getting left out in the cold. I think she understood what I was saying."

Last year, Feinstein had helped broker the controversial deal in which the state and federal governments would buy a big piece of the Headwaters Forest from Charles Hurwitz's Maxxam Corp., which acquired the Pacific Lumber Co. through a corporate takeover in 1985.

The Headwaters deal would give Maxxam $380 million-- including $130 million from the state--for 7,500 acres of old-growth land. California lawmakers are OK with that part of the agreement; but the deal also allows Maxxam to cut trees on 210,000 acres surrounding the old-growth groves.

To protect that land from being decimated by Maxxam's notoriously shoddy logging practices (the company has been fined for violating hundreds of state logging regulations on its land), California lawmakers are holding up the state's share of the money.

Strom-Martin signed on as a co-sponsor to a bill authored by state Sen. Byron Sher, D-Palo Alto, which would attach some stipulations to the Headwaters purchase agreement. To protect endangered coho salmon, Senate Bill 533 would keep chain saws and log-skidders up to 300 feet away from certain creeks. It also would set up some regulatory hoops to check Maxxam's well-documented sloppiness.

Maxxam has dismissed the proposal, saying the state can either take the deal on the table or leave it.

Monday afternoon, in a move heralded as a "breakthrough" in the Press Democrat and elsewhere, company officials, along with representatives from state and federal agencies, released a document that could move the process in either direction.

In order to qualify for the multimillion-dollar windfall and to get access to the rest of its trees, Maxxam had been required to come up with a plan disclosing its intentions on the 210,000 acres surrounding the groves and that it retains in the deal. The company's just- released Habitat Conservation Plan would allow logging to within 30 feet of streams in the area.

Until Monday, the plan was technically a missing piece of the puzzle. But it's likely that Feinstein knew what was in the document when she called Strom-Martin--it had been available on the Maxxam website for weeks.

AFTER VISITING with families who live near Maxxam property, Strom-Martin called a June 18 hearing to allow them to voice their concerns to a joint legislative task force set up to deal with the Headwaters issue. At that hearing, 14 Humboldt County residents told lawmakers why they felt Maxxam could not be trusted.

When presenting critics of the current Headwaters deal, the media have focused on tree-sitting Earth First!ers, but not on people who live in the area. At Strom-Martin's request, these long-ignored locals focused on economic issues.

Mike Evenson, whose family runs a ranch on the Mattole River downstream from a big Maxxam logging operation, showed the task force photos of a five-acre section of his land that was buried in silt following floods this winter. That silt, he said, came from hillsides that had been clear-cut in the previous season.

"What's at stake here is something more than redwood groves," Evenson said. "We're talking about my family's land, and a lot of families' land. We were told this deal would offer us some protection. Well, I'm taking it in the neck."

Christy Wrigley, a 50-year resident of the area whose family has raised apples there for 95 years, said the Elk River, from which her family draws its water, has been destroyed by Maxxam's slovenly logging practices.

Wrigley said the once crystal-clear swimming holes she's visited since she was a kid are now buried in eight feet of silt. I visited that river the following week and witnessed water the color of weak coffee running through thick-muddied banks.

"Water is a basic necessity," Wrigley said at the hearing. "We need it to live and I need it to farm. What kind of people are we that we can't stand up for what's right for everybody?"

Most of the task force's legislative members were busy down the hall wrangling over the budget surplus during the hearing. But as far as Maxxam's opponents were concerned, the most important man in Sacramento was there: Sen. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, who hails from Humboldt himself, sat through most of the four and a half hours of emotional testimony.

Thompson, a congressional candidate who until recently had declined to take a strong position on the Headwaters deal, was apparently moved. Three days later, he signed on to SB 533 as a co-sponsor. This is crucial because Thompson heads the powerful Senate Budget Committee.

As the final days of the Legislature's budget negotiations wind down, almost a month past the constitutionally mandated deadline, SB 533's supporters are hoping that Gov. Pete Wilson does not force the Headwaters money to be included in the overall budget--minus the forest protection clauses.

While pundits point to the announcement Monday and predict victory for the Wilson-Feinstein giveaway, other sources close to the negotiation insist that the momentum has in fact shifted toward the stricter proposal.

Wilson's interest in the mostly Democratic deal has mystified some Capitol-watchers, who speculate that it's a bargaining tool. Sacramento is so far from the Lost Coast that many Democrats aren't too worked up about the Headwaters deal and may be willing to abandon Sher and Strom-Martin. But the Democrats may start to care, now that pursestring-puller Thompson has joined the Green Team. If they do, Maxxam may have to bargain for its money.

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From the July 16-22, 1998 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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