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Hole in the Headwaters

[whitespace] Headwaters Forest Buzz: Timber will fall within the Headwaters soon and, through a loophole, Pacific Lumber's logging operation will be exempt from the environmental protections agreed upon for the rest of the area.

The citizens of California spent $450 million to protect the Headwaters forest from the chain saws. So why is Charles Hurwitz's Pacific Lumber about to log in the middle of it?

By Jim Rendon

ALONG THE South Fork of the Elk River in Humboldt County, bounded on all sides by the newly purchased Headwaters Forest Reserve, dense stands of 80-year-old redwood trees darken the hillside. Ferns grow tall in the spongy ground and clear water splashes down steep ravines into the river. Occasionally, the silvery flash of a steelhead breaks the water's brown surface.

By June, this will change. In the midst of the $480 million Headwaters reserve, logging will begin.

"It's within sight of the main preserve," says Jesse Noell, program coordinator for Salmon Forever. "Visitors will be able to hear chain saws roaring and trees falling."

This thriving forest is a 705-acre donut hole left in Pacific Lumber's hands following the frenzied negotiations for the Headwaters forest--a hole that has already been approved for logging.

The tract, known as Timber Harvest Plan 520, begins on a ridge above the main Headwaters grove and descends northward toward the river away from the grove and right up to the edge of the 150-foot buffer zone the government purchased along the South Fork of the Elk River. Though only a narrow strip of government property runs along the South Fork, it connects to the main grove at both ends.

At the base of the proposed logging site, the South Fork still runs clean enough to host coho salmon--one of only a handful of such rivers left in the state. And activists want it to stay that way, without the destruction of logging.

"Purchasing that property is a no-brainer," says Paul Mason, director of the Environmental Protection Information Center. "It makes more sense to round out that part of the watershed so we don't have logging in the middle of a park that the public just spent $480 million to buy."

But that, according to Mary Nichols, California's new secretary of resources, is not realistic. "The state has no intention to purchase that property," she says. "The state can't purchase all the timberland in Northern California."

LOGGING WILL GO FORWARD once monitoring for spotted owls is completed in May or early June, Nichols says. But the situation could have been worse.

Until last week, the area was going to be logged according to a timber harvest plan that predated the Headwaters deal. It was a plan that did not conform to the new environmental regulations that state and federal negotiators had worked so hard to secure as a part of the deal to purchase Headwaters in 1997.

The logging plan was approved in 1997 for the Elk River Timber Company, whose land and logging permit were transferred to Pacific Lumber as a part of the Headwaters deal. Because the plan was approved in 1997--a year before the Headwaters deal--the California Department of Forestry refused to apply either state standards or what is known as the Habitat Conservation Plan.

On April 7, with urging from state Sen. Byron Sher (D-Palo Alto), Nichols determined that logging plans for Headwaters Gap would have to be brought up to the state standards, but not to the more restrictive Habitat Conservation Plan standards.

"We're bringing the plan up to the new standards because we think law requires it," Nichols says.

But environmentalists are frustrated by this approach.

While readily advocating that the state apply the Habitat Conservation Plan, environmentalists are unhappy, saying the plan still gives Pacific Lumber a lot of latitude in logging sensitive habitat. All habitat conservation plans are little more than an end run around the Endangered Species Act and threaten the health of the forest, critics say.

"The Habitat Conservation Plan is a license to kill endangered species," says Kathy Bailey, conservation chair with Sierra Club California.

In the past, timber companies had to adhere to the California Forest Practices Act, which set standards for logging, as well as environmental legislation like the Endangered Species Act, which forbids the killing of endangered species or destruction of the habitat on which they rely. But in 1982, an amendment to the Endangered Species Act allowed a loophole.

Under the amendment, a timber company would be allowed to kill endangered animals and/or destroy habitat as long as the company set aside some habitat elsewhere--a practice known as mitigation.

THOUGH NICHOLS HELPED by bringing the logging plans for the Headwaters Gap up to higher standards, critics say that those standards--and even the standards in the more restrictive HCP--may still result in further degradation of the stream and possible harm to the endangered salmon that for now can still survive in the South Fork.

The root of the problem, environmentalists say, is that there is little buffer between Pacific Lumber's ongoing logging operations and public land.

"The design of the Headwaters preserve was not driven by environmental factors," Bailey says. "The government did not wield the sort of power against Hurwitz [Charles Hurwitz is the CEO of Maxxam, which owns Pacific Lumber] that one would think it could have."

Timber Harvest Plan 520 will allow logging right up to the banks of the South Fork of the Elk River. The North Fork, just a few miles from the edge of the reserve, has already been devastated by Pacific Lumber's accelerated logging in its watershed.

Kristy Wrigley, a 52-year-old apple farmer who lives just outside the Headwaters Forest Reserve, worries that the South Fork is next. Wrigley, whose farm is near the confluence of the North and South forks of the Elk, watched the North Fork wither and die right before her eyes. For nearly a century, her family drank water from the river and irrigated their orchards from the North Fork. Ten years ago, Wrigley's kids swam in deep gravel-bottom pools when the river ran clear in the summer.

Today the water is unusable, brown like coffee, thick with silt runoff from a decade of Pacific Lumber's high-paced logging on the steep hills surrounding the river. The once-deep pools now have 5 feet of thick brown silt coating the bottom. The river is so devastated that the local water board has ordered the lumber company to supply Wrigley with drinking water and water to irrigate her orchard.

Wrigley has become bitter watching the North Fork deteriorate. She doesn't think the prospects are much better for the nearby South Fork once Pacific Lumber starts tearing up the forest it runs through. "We already created a disaster on the North Fork--don't we learn anything?" Wrigley says, frustrated and angry. "No one pays attention to simple common sense and decency."

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From the April 22-28, 1999 issue of Metro.

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