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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Headwaters Timber Controversy

Air Date: Week of

Tree-sitters and raucous protests have long dominated the controversy over one of California’s last unprotected stands of virgin redwoods. But as Living On Earth’s Sandy Tolan reports from the tiny town of Scotia, it's the growing concerns of long-time local residents who live amid the falling trees which could tip the balance against Pacific Lumber Company and its absentee owner, Charles Hurwitz.


CURWOOD: A long-sought effort to save a valuable region of old growth redwood trees is coming to a close. The US Government and the State of California want to buy the Northern California Headwaters Forest from Maxxam Corporation and its subsidiary, Pacific Lumber. Their goal is to set aside the giant trees to protect endangered species that can't live anywhere else. The Headwaters Forest has become the center stage for a bitter confrontation between the company and environmental activists. Last year one activist was killed by a falling tree in what Pacific Lumber officials called an unfortunate accident. Lately, though, the dispute has moved beyond the familiar confrontation between loggers and conservationists. Among long-time residents of Humboldt County, and even some Pacific Lumber workers, there's growing concern about the firm's timber practices, and uncertainty about the future of the company and the old company town of Scotia. Living on Earth's Sandy Tolan has our report.

TOLAN: For generations, this town has answered to a whistle.

(Work factory whistle)

TOLAN: The whistle sends people to work in 2 huge mills, one for Douglas fir, the other for the giant redwood trees that get turned into boards, millions per year. This is fertile country in the moist shadow of the Pacific Gulf Stream. Since the first settlers arrived 150 years ago, the redwoods have given people here their living. In Scotia, the company town, Pacific Lumber owns every stick, every building, every clapboard house that has long been home to the company's loyal workers.

FRANKLIN: My name's Alan Franklin. I'm a third-generation employee of Pacific Lumber Company. My family started it here in the 40s, early 40s. I've worked my way up to a supervisor's job, and so I've lived in this town all my life.

TOLAN: Alan and Sandy Franklin live with their 3 kids on a hill above the mill, where Alan's worked since he got out of high school 22 years ago.

FRANKLIN: I don't think you could find a better place to be raised, actually.

S. FRANKLIN: As a mom, it's a great town when you have kids. You can stand out front and whistle for them, and if they're pretty close they can hear you.

A. FRANKLIN: You know, as a kid growing up, it just seemed like people were a lot more relaxed. You know, they knew what their life was and what was going to happen in the future. And they weren't worried.

S. FRANKLIN: Years ago, when people worked at PL, it was always secure. You never worried about anything. But --

TOLAN: But now the Franklins say Scotia's a different place, and Pacific Lumber is a different company.

S. FRANKLIN: It's kind of more uncertain. Any time, anything could happen. The whole place could fold up. And that's real scary.

A. FRANKLIN: You know, every day the company's name is in the local newspaper. It's just like a constant turmoil; it's a constant fester that doesn't seem to be healing. The reputation that Pacific Lumber Company used to have and that they have lost, definitely they've lost that reputation in the community.

(Helicopter choppers)

TOLAN: Ten miles south a helicopter sweeps over a ridge, 5 giant redwood logs dangling from its belly, and drops them on a staging area to be loaded onto a truck and hauled off to be seasoned and prepared for the mill.

MAN: All right, Chuck! I'll see you later, eh?

CHUCK: I'll see you later.

MAN: I'm going to head out. I'll see you later.

TOLAN: For most of this century Pacific Lumber was owned and run by the Murphy family, old foresters who practiced selective logging, cutting most of the old growth in selected areas but leaving many trees standing. The process held down the soil, reduced siltation of area streams, and gave the Murphys handsome tax benefits. The family gave up control of the company in the 70s but their conservative policy remained largely in place, ensuring old growth timber until well into the next century. But all that timber and the relatively low value of Pacific Lumber stock made the company ripe for a buyout. And in 1986, Houston multi-millionaire Charles Hurwitz and his Maxxam Corporation completed a bitterly-contested takeover of the company, with financing from junk bond dealer Michael Milken. Soon the new company's forests began falling at double the rate of the old Pacific Lumber.

(Heavy machinery, saws)

TOLAN: At Mill B in Scotia the giant logs float in on a pond, load onto a conveyor, and into the saw where the round becomes square.

(Sawing continues)

TOLAN: The prize is the virgin redwood whose heartwood can land nearly 3 times the price of younger trees. A single old growth tree up to 2,000 years old and 350 feet high can bring in $30,000, provides many a gorgeous redwood deck for demanding consumers.

(Sawing continues)

TOLAN: But the trees, the tallest in the world, which grow nowhere else, have their defenders. Over the last 10 years environmental activists have taken to the forest on Pacific Lumber's land, camping out in treetops, calling Charles Hurwitz a corporate raider, accusing the company of rape-and-run tactics. The new reputation is not welcome at the Scotia offices of Pacific Lumber.

CAMPBELL: It's very, very disturbing. I'm not comfortable with it because, you know, this company had a wonderful reputation for 130 years.

TOLAN: John Campbell is the president of Pacific Lumber.

CAMPBELL: The company's been demonized, and it was an icon of the environmental movement prior to the merger. Now it's become an icon for the wrong reasons.

TOLAN: Mr. Campbell, a 29-year veteran of the company, says there's been no major change in the company's harvesting policies. Others familiar with the company's history strongly dispute that statement. Mr. Hurwitz, by the way, would not agree to talk to us. He almost never gives interviews. But Mr. Campbell says his boss, and the new Pacific Lumber, are victims of a national environmental agenda.

CAMPBELL: I think the environmental community has raised an enormous amount of money off this company. Yeah, you don't have an Exxon Valdez take place every other week, so there has to be an environmental crisis somewhere. And I think we've been the crisis of choice in the woods for some time.

TOLAN: One media analysis agrees, concluding that the media portrayal of good old company versus bad corporate raider is misleading. Yet it's apparent the new company manages its lands far differently than the old company did. Pacific Lumber and its contractors have been cited with more than 300 forestry violations in the last 3 years. Most have been minor, but others include dragging heavy equipment through fragile stream beds, and cutting trees that provide crucial shade for threatened coho salmon. Late last year, in an unprecedented move, the California Department of Forestry suspended Pacific Lumber's timber operating license. The company is allowed to continue operations through the independent contractors. The company's care for the forest has become a major political issue in the area. One prominent Republican official recently called Pacific Lumber a renegade company, and more long-time local citizens are getting upset.

O'NEAL: We're a rock solid part of the county. We're not outsiders.

TOLAN: Mike O'Neal used to haul logs for Pacific Lumber.

O'NEAL: Hard-liners, people been here all their life, are standing up and going, "My God, who's in control of Pacific Lumber? What are they doing? We're shocked."

TOLAN: A cold drizzle falls outside Mike O'Neal's small redwood home in Stafford, the next exit down from Scotia. His house sits 1,200 feet below a steep hill where Pacific Lumber began clear-cutting in 1991. Back then, Mr. O'Neal says he and his neighbors warned the company that something bad could happen, and on New Year's Eve 1996 it did. Mike O'Neal was lying in his bed at 7 in the morning, and he heard something like an explosion.

O'NEAL: It sounded like bombs detonating, just BOOM! and I went, "What in the heck is that?" And I looked up out the window, and I could see huge trees, redwoods, snapping off and just slamming the ground.

TOLAN: Mr. O'Neal ran outside and noticed his creek was dry. He figured the water was backed up above him, behind the accumulating debris. He raced up the hill.

O'NEAL: And just in time to see a gigantic reservoir, like a dam on a lake, of logs, stump, trees, the lowest point was probably 20 to 25 feet high. It was the width of a football field. And finally it burst, and it come right at me. And there was a stump on top of this flow, as big as a Mack truck and just come whirling right at me. I knew this stuff was just going to take out the town.

TOLAN: He ran around warning his neighbors. They got out before the slide hit. Seven homes were buried. It just missed Mr. O'Neal's house.

O'NEAL: So now, my home is worth nothing. Nobody would want to live here. And every time it rains for us, it's just like, it's like a horror flick. It's like not knowing when the mountain's going to come down again. It's like being in a war zone; when's the next mortar coming through your window?

TOLAN: Mr. O'Neal and his neighbors are among several groups of citizens suing Pacific Lumber over flooding and landslides. Mr. O'Neal says the Stafford slide is the direct result of the clear-cut above his hamlet.

O'NEAL: They've cut so much wood since Maxxam's taken over. Yes, it's their land, and we understand that and we respect that. That's not a problem. If they want to remove trees, that's fine. We're talking about human safety here. There's human beings living on the border of Maxxam's property, and we're being trampled. And they're looking at profits in Texas. For them it works. For the people that live around Maxxam, it doesn't work.

TOLAN: Geologists say logging operations can and do contribute to landslides. No one has proved that this landslide was caused by Pacific Lumber's clear- cut. A state investigation was inconclusive. And Pacific Lumber president John Campbell says other factors led to the slide.

CAMPBELL: I think the combination of the earthquakes and the excessive precipitation probably...and our geologists tell us that's what caused the slide at Stafford, was not the act of harvesting of the trees. They said it was a deeply-seated slide that came out off a rock shelf, and was probably dislodged by the earthquakes back in 1992. We're in a more litigious society. I mean, people have grievances, and if they don't get their emotions solved they go to court.

NASH Clear prop.

(An engine turns over)

TOLAN: But looking at Pacific Lumber's holdings from above, it's clear it's not just about emotions.

(Plane engine)

NASH: Here's an overview from where we are right now. The Eel River drainage, the ridges in front of us, over beyond that is Eureka.

TOLAN: Is that the Pacific out there?

NASH: There's the Pacific Ocean off to our left.

TOLAN: Pilot Lou Nash banks low over snow-covered redwoods, drifting just above the treeline of Pacific Lumber's 200,000 acres.

NASH: One time, when I was lying here 10, 15, 20 years ago, all this was virgin forest that you can see in front of us now, except for the highland meadows.

TOLAN: Now the land is patchwork. A young stand of timber here, a clear-cut there. Brown lines of silt run into streams, clogging the spawning habitat for coho salmon. Redwood logs that look like toothpicks are piled alongside roads crisscrossing Pacific Lumber's vast holdings. Spotted across the lands are deep cuts into steep hillsides.

NASH: It kinda looks like a dog with mange. Where in the old days it looked like a nice full furry coat.

TOLAN: And then, just below us, a large grove of old growth redwood, frosted white.

NASH: Right along that ridge to the left is Headwaters Forest.

TOLAN: One of the last virgin stands of redwood in private hands, the Headwaters Forest has been at the center of more than 10 years of legal wrangling, environmental confrontations, and political negotiations. We gaze down into it, a dark thicket of thousand-year-old trees 300 feet high, amidst a spongy turf covered with ferns and 9-foot huckleberry bushes. Headwaters, a rare island of old growth on Pacific Lumber's property, is a refuge for endangered spotted owls and marbled murrelets. The Federal and State governments proposed to buy the grove from Pacific Lumber and Charles Hurwitz, nearly half a billion dollars for about 12 square miles, and set it aside to protect the rare ecosystem, as called for by the Endangered Species Act. Environmentalists say the deal would allow for destruction of thousands of other acres of habitat for the endangered owls and murrelets and salmon. They want a bigger portion of land declared off-limits to logging, to protect additional old growth stands and a larger portion of the Headwaters ecosystem. Pacific Lumber says that would amount to an unconstitutional seizure of private property. But the passion of many in Humboldt County has nothing to do with the Headwaters old growth forest. It's about how the takeover of an old company has affected the local quality of life.

BERTAIN: This corporado, this jerk, has succeeded in extracting all kinds of money from the area, and disrupting so many lives.

TOLAN: Bill Bertain never considered himself a tree hugger. Reagan Republican, devout pro-life Catholic, he's a local boy who grew up in Scotia during the time of the old Pacific Lumber. Critics say he romanticizes that past. But ever since Charles Hurwitz took over the company, Mr. Bertain's been on a mission, poring over tens of thousands of pages on the takeover by Mr. Hurwitz, the company's financial filings, and environmental impact statements.

BERTAIN: And so the result now is a real wonderful company is on its last legs. I mean it can't even hold onto its timber operator's license. I don't think people would call me a raging environmentalist; in fact, I used to be the vice president of California Citizens for Property Rights. But it doesn't take much to notice that the watersheds around here are collapsing and that our streams and rivers are getting destroyed. The fish populations on PL's lands have just declined significantly. There's a lot of people that are really upset around here.

TOLAN: Desk piled high with briefs and depositions, Mr. Bertain says Mr. Hurwitz has transformed a reputable company into a cut-and-run operation. He predicts that when the big trees are gone, Mr. Hurwitz will move on.

BERTAIN: For 13 years we've been experiencing an occupation of this county, so that all the political, the economic, the social, the cultural, the environmental aspects of our lives here are, have been distorted by the control that he's exerted as an occupying power. You wonder, "Boy, how much more can he pull out of this company?"

TOLAN: Mr. Bertain says he's analyzed the company's public filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission. He says since Mr. Hurwitz and Maxxam took over Pacific Lumber 13 years ago and doubled the rate of logging, the company's extracted $2 billion worth of timber and made hundreds of millions in profits. Pacific Lumber president John Campbell.

CAMPBELL: I don't know how they come up with these numbers. I don't know where they develop them, how they come with them.

TOLAN: The company's accounting practices make it difficult to pin down how much wealth it's taking out of the forest, but Mr. Campbell says Charles Hurwitz and Maxxam want the company to remain profitable for the long term.

CAMPBELL: We've invested enormous amounts of capital here at Scotia. I mean we built a new power plant, and we've got new computers. We purchased Britt Lumber Company. We purchased a saw mill in Carlotta, and we just finished a $10 million expansion out there. Here we are 13 years since the merger, and how they keep coming up and saying it's cut-and-run...it runs headlong into the facts.

TOLAN: John Campbell hopes that once the Headwaters deal is finally resolved, the focus on old growth will dissipate, and the company will be just like any other timber operation. He sees the company harvesting big stands of second growth timber, maintaining its high level of employment for generations to come. But that's not what the workers see.

BLAND: If you're a young man, and, you know, you want to get a job and you're looking for a career, the timber industry is really, really unstable right now. I would not suggest it as a career to retire from.

TOLAN: Tomas Bland sits watch in a 10 by 10-foot guard shack in front of the redwood mill. It's a raw day, and a little space heater warms his feet. Tomas says environmental groups and the regulations and restrictions on the land have eroded his job security.

BLAND: A lot of us workers were frustrated, because on the one hand we can understand where they're coming from. But on the other hand, you know, it's our livelihood. This is what helps us exist. This industry's what will send our kids to college, and what has kept us alive, and what has raised us through our parents, you know. And a lot of people just don't understand that. They figure well, you can just pick up and move, go to where there's other jobs. Well (laughs) that's kind of hard to do.

TOLAN: Tomas was an overhead crane operator until a few months ago, when he fell out of the crane and shattered his feet. Now the company has him in the guard shack until he gets better. But he wonders if he'll ever get back into the mill. And he admits that's not just because of the environmentalists. He knows how fast the company's been felling timber.

BLAND: We wonder, where, you know, where our wood's going to come from. I can remember days when I was a kid, about everybody telling me how they used to cut. They didn't do clear-cutting, they went out and selectively cut. And it was enough to sustain. And it seemed the way things happened over time, people's idea of how to run the timber industry kind of changed, figured they can cut it all and maybe replant it and stuff like that.

TOLAN: As we talk in the shack, a few workers walk out of the mill and through the chain-link fence. It's too early for lunch break, and the shift isn't over yet. Then a fellow guard comes in with the news.

GUARD: B mill just went down. The whole entire saw mill for B ream mill is down right now. They just shipped them all out. I was wondering why they were leaving all early times, because they've been leaving like after lunch and I'm like, wow. They just said they just shut them all down, they laid off about 6 of them.

BLAND: It's coming. It's coming. I've enjoyed my time working here. But I don't know when my time is going to be up.

TOLAN: The next day the company made it official: 60 people were laid off, and the operations at the old-growth mill were cut back. The company blamed bad weather, environmental pressures, increased regulations, and the ongoing lawsuits. The hope in Scotia is that somehow the Headwaters deal will settle everything. The woods will be safe again for endangered species, the protests will fade away, the lawsuits will be settled, the workers can get back on the job, and everyone can return to their normal lives. But there's no such sense of closure here. And environmental groups are already pledging more legal action, and activists are promising more actions in the forest. And beyond those high-profile confrontations, it is the pressure form local citizens concerned with how the timber-harvesting practices of Pacific Lumber affect them that may soon take center stage in the battle over the redwood forest. For Living on Earth, this is Sandy Tolan reporting.



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