California, U.S. Buy Redwoods

$480 Million Saves 10,000 Ancient Acres

By William Booth

Washington Post Staff Writer

Wednesday, March 3, 1999; Page A01

LOS ANGELES, March 2-After years of negotiation and rancor, the largest stand of ancient redwoods still in private hands was sold today to the government so that the towering forest, and the endangered species it harbors, can be preserved for generations to come.

The federal government and the state of the California agreed to pay Pacific Lumber Co. $480 million for 10,000 acres of redwood forest along the Northern California coast, including the rarest of the rare: thousands of acres of a primordial habitat known as the Headwaters Forest.

The Headwaters is a grove of moss-draped trees that are as old as the millennium and as tall as 20-story buildings. It is a place of hushed and soul-stirring beauty, often compared to a cathedral, given the quality of its golden light and the play of green shadows.

The Headwaters Forest, and the surrounding lands, will now be set aside as a nature preserve, with public access, and continue to be home to endangered species such as the coho salmon, the spotted owl and a rare bird called the marbled murrelet.

The ancient forest was declared of such scenic and environmental value that Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt compared it today to Yosemite National Park. President Clinton described the deal as "historic" and "a priceless gift for generations to come."

In addition to the forest purchase, the government and Pacific Lumber Co. also agreed on a 50-year plan to protect the endangered species that live on the timber company's other lands.

Pacific Lumber still owns some 211,000 acres surrounding the Headwaters Forest that it will continue to log, but now with greater restrictions. The plan limits, for example, logging on steep slopes and along stream courses, to protect the water from runoff that could choke the salmon's reproductive runs.

This so-called "Habitat Conservation Plan" is at the heart of the Clinton administration's controversial and untested new approach to protecting threatened wildlife and habitats, particularly on private property. Indeed, Babbitt said the real importance of the deal was the habitat plan, which may now be used as a model in dozens of other battles to protect endangered species.

The fight over the Headwaters Forest, and the logging done by Pacific Lumber, combined to produce in the woodlands of Northern California more than a decade of acrimonious legal challenges and clashes between lumberjacks and environmental activists. There were massive protests each year, with thousands of young activists arrested in the woods. Then in another clash that was becoming increasingly common, a young Earth First! activist was crushed to death last year when he tried to stop Pacific Lumber from cutting down trees.

The agreement was finally reached late Monday night after negotiations had collapsed Friday night. Talks broke off, and the deal appeared dead, when Pacific Lumber President John Campbell said that the government was demanding too many restrictions on its logging lands, which would have limited its annual tree harvest below a point that Campbell said was fiscally viable.

The collapse was a major blow not only to the Clinton administration, California Gov. Gray Davis (D) and Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who had spent a decade trying to save the redwood forests, but to debt-burdened Pacific Lumber too. A failure would have virtually guaranteed another costly and brutal round of lawsuits. It could also have had serious repercussions for the Endangered Species Act if the timber company eventually prevailed before the Supreme Court in its contention that the government was unfairly denying its right to harvest timber.

Indeed, after the deal seemed dead on Friday, both the timber company and government beganto threaten each other -- the timber company suggesting it might start cutting down old trees and the government vowing to smother the lumber company with regulators.

But over the weekend, federal and state officials approached Campbell and his team at PacificLumber again. Officials offered to "clarify" the Habitat Conservation Plan in a series of side letters that Campbell said today eventually convinced him that his timber company could cut enough lumber to make the deal worthwhile.

"This is now a sound and sensible solution after a decade of controversy," Campbell said. The company now feels it can harvest as much as 200 million board feet of lumber out of its forests, where last week it was convinced it could only cut about 140 million board feet. "We have a viable deal, good for the environment and good for us."

Federal and state officials said they changed nothing in the Habitat Conservation Plan but instead explained how Pacific Lumber could, for example, make "selective" cuts along certain stream beds instead of the usual practice of clear-cutting, thereby increasing its annual yield.

Terry D. Garcia, an assistant secretary of commerce who oversees the National Marine Fisheries Service, the federal agency charged with protecting coho salmon, promised that nothing was diluted in the conservation plans. His scientific advisers guaranteed that everything was "100 percent" in place to save the dwindling species, Garcia said.

"If you were a fish on Pacific Lumber property, you would feel good about this," Garcia said. "The fish will sleep better tonight."

Among many environmental activists, Pacific Lumber represents the enemy. The company wasacquired in a leveraged buyout financed with junk bonds in the mid-1980s by Houston financier and Maxxam Corp. President Charles Hurwitz. The company has some $860 million in "timber-collateralized" debt. Campbell said today the company will use its $480 million from the taxpayers to pay off some of its debt and to buy more timber land.

Still, some environmentalists remained wary of the deal. They charge the company was paid too much for too little protection.

Kathy Bailey, forest conservation chair for the Sierra Club California, praised the purchase but said that "giving Pacific Lumber what is essentially a 50-year permit to harvest logs is very problematical. It's going to take a lot of enforcement if fish and wildlife are to be protected, and I'm not convinced that the federal agencies have the stomach for it."

Part of the Habitat Conservation Plan that is most controversial is the so-called "no surprises" clause, which means that Pacific Lumber will not be burdened by ever-changing regulations -- or new discoveries about the best way to save wildlife -- for the next 50 years.