Speaking for the Trees

The Old-Growth Timber Battle Heats Up

"If you want to see what environmental terrorism looks like, just drive up Greenwood Heights Road," says Sparrow, a diminutive elderly woman who has been supporting tree-sitters in her neighborhood, called Freshwater, nearly 300 miles north of San Francisco on Highway 101. "You will see beautiful, 1,600-year-old trees that have been cut down to feed one man’s greed."

In 1999, a portion of Northern California’s Headwaters forest was purchased with $380 million in state and federal funds paid to junk bond financier Charles Hurwitz, whose company MAXXAM took over Pacific Lumber in 1986.

Activists like EPIC’s Cynthia Elkins are fighting MAXXAM/PL logging with lawsuits, while others use tree-sitting civil disobedience.
Traci "Bear" Thiele

Many local environmentalists were devastated by the deal, which saved 7,400 acres of ancient redwood forest but set up huge "sacrifice zones" in other areas, allowing logging on unstable slopes and in protected species" habitats. Immediately, the Environmental Protection Information Center (EPIC) in Garberville and the Sierra Club filed suit against the California Department of Forestry (CDF), the state Fish and Game department (DFG), and MAXXAM/PL over the deal’s 120-year Sustained Yield Plan, which governs some 210,000 acres of forest. The case has taken four years to get to court, and logging has continued pending the suit’s outcome.

Anyone who drives up Route 101 North can see clearcuts in the Jordan Creek area right from the freeway and from the tourist-attracting Avenue of the Giants. One third of the Mattole, home to the largest stand of old-growth Douglas fir on the planet, some 1,000 acres, has been logged in the last two years. The 200,000-acre Freshwater area has been almost completely cut in the last 12 years, with less than five percent of that forest remaining.

Last summer, Judge John Golden issued a "stay" on logging permits, but MAXXAM/PL continued to log at the rate of one million board feet a day. Dozens of Earth First! activists took to the trees, establishing more tree-sits than ever before. In November, Judge Golden exempted existing logging operations from the stay, citing financial hardship to the company. In December the activists charged that the Sustained Yield Plan didn’t even exist as a physical document; it was cobbled together after Golden repeatedly demanded to see it.

The case was finally heard last March, coincidentally the same week that the United Steelworkers were in the same courthouse with a parallel lawsuit against MAXXAM/ PL. The week before the trial, MAXXAM/PL took the unprecedented and dangerous step of physically removing tree-sitters when they ignored the judge’s orders to vacate the trees. It was a few days before the one-year anniversary of the most established tree-sit, that of a 27-year-old Michigan native calling herself Remedy, who lived 150 feet up in a 1,200-year-old redwood.

Humboldt County District Attorney Paul Gallegos has joined the fray, suing MAXXAM/PL for fraud, alleging the company misrepresented data in securing the Headwaters Sustained Yield Plan and asking for damages of up to $250 million. Robert E. Manne, president of MAXXAM/ PL, says the allegations "are simply without factual or legal merit." He says the company conducts its operations with "unprecedented environmental protections."

And Attorneys who were successful last year in winning a $4.4 million lawsuit against the FBI and Oakland Police Department following the 1990 car bombing of Earth First! activists Judi Bari and Darryl Cherney have taken on a lawsuit on behalf of forest activists pepper sprayed by Humboldt County Sheriffs in 1997. Videotapes of sheriffs" deputies directly daubing the eyes of locked-down activists with Q-tips were shown worldwide, and the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the defendants" right to sue in December.

In January, a North Coast Regional Water Board-commissioned study concluded that the rate of MAXXAM/ PL’s logging is preventing the recovery of degraded streams and fish habitat, and that an immediate reduction is necessary if this trend is to be reversed. Yet, the water board refused to take action, deferring to the Board of Forestry, a body so politicized that State Senator John Burton (D-San Francisco), chairman of the California Senate Rules Committee, delayed all its gubernatorial appointees last year in protest. Governor Gray Davis has received $450,000 from the timber industry toward his re-election, including $61,000 in donations from MAXXAM/ PL in the last two years.

Meanwhile, activist Susan Moloney of the Campaign for Old Growth staged a hunger strike on the steps of the state Capitol with the intent of meeting with Davis, who promised in 1998 that if elected he would ensure "all old-growth trees are spared from the lumberjack’s ax." After 52 days, she never got her meeting with Davis, although she did get a hearing in the state legislature.

In March, California Democratic lawmakers introduced an ambitious package of timber bills that would sharply restrict clear-cutting and protect water quality in timber-cutting areas. SB810 would give local water quality boards power to block logging proposals; SB217 would restrict logging along creeks; SB557 would impose a lumber tax of one percent per board foot to pay for the state’s costs of reviewing timber plans and restoring habitats damaged by logging; and AB47 would order the Board of Forestry to provide detailed information about past logging projects so the cumulative impact of new projects could be better assessed. State Senator Don Perata (D-Oakland) has introduced the Heritage Tree Preservation Act (SB754), which would protect all of California’s old-growth trees on non-federal forestland.

Local environmental activists and MAXXAM/PL have called for a cooling of tactics and rhetoric in the debate, even as a backlash recall campaign against District Attorney Gallegos filed official paperwork. A ruling on the Sierra Club suit is expected soon. Gallegos" suit could take years to litigate.