TWELVE YEARS AGO SOME HIKERS EMERGED FROM THE woods near Humboldt Bay with an amazing story: In the headwaters of Salmon Creek there was an ancient redwood forest, with some trees older than Jesus, untouched by the industrial age.
This treasure, alas, was in the hands of a junk bond financier named Charles Hurwitz who was up to his eyeballs in debt. Conservation activists cranked up a campaign to save the forest and a decade later... Well, let's just say you could make a daytime soap opera out of it, with season after season of passion, conflict and drama. Or at least an Indiana Jones movie with young, bearded forest defenders grappling with the evil corporate raider while a beautiful maiden takes refuge in an ancient tree to save it from ax-wielding loggers.
But finally finally the government has agreed to purchase a significant amount of land and trees to spare them from the chainsaw, and the timber company has agreed to sell for $480 million. A willing buyer and a willing seller. All that's left is something called a Habitat Conservation Plan, the final puzzle piece.
The public hearing road show on the plan will come to Eureka's Redwood Acres Tuesday, Nov. 10.
Pacific Lumber Co. (PALCO), owned by Hurwitz' Maxxam Corp., is seeking federal and state approval of its plan a modern-day Ark rigged to navigate the Endangered Species Act and deliver coho salmon, marbled murrelets, tailed frogs and other species from extinction.
In exchange, the timber company will get a 50-year Incidental Take Permit authorizing it to "harm, kill, and harass" individual members of those species in the course of logging activities.
Congress created Habitat Conservations Plans (HCPs) for developers and big landowners in 1982, and more than 200 such plans have been approved by federal scientists. Simpson Timber has had an HCP for the northern spotted owl since 1992.
PALCO is seeking a broader "multi-species" HCP. The company published a draft plan in July, calling it "the most comprehensive protection program ever proposed" for private lands, but critics immediately slammed it.
"HCP stands for Hurwitz Clearcutting Plan," said a member of the Bay Area Coalition for Headwaters at a Sacramento public hearing last month. Scientists from University of California/Davis used bigger words to say the plan put timber harvest ahead of coho recovery.
At the Nov. 10 meeting PALCO critics will probably outnumber supporters, but after Nov. 16 the public comment period ends and the company will have the government to itself for "formal consultations."
PALCO must complete its plan to the satisfaction of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service by March 1, 1999. If this "deadline of all deadlines" isn't met, "the congressional appropriation of $250 million... is up for grabs," said Phil Carroll, USFWS public information officer. "A lot of other representatives and senators would like to have $250 million for their own pet project."
Conservation activists fear that political pressure from Democratic and Republican officials in Sacramento and Washington will lead the federal agencies to approve an inadequate conservation plan. "Only tremendous public scrutiny can prevent government agencies from yielding to the political momentum behind the Headwaters deal and approving this disastrous plan," said Kevin Bundy of Environmental Protection Information Center in Garberville.
"I'm proud of this plan," countered Jeff Barrett, director of fish and wildlife programs for PALCO, who has a doctorate in ecology. "The company is really committed to trying to do the right thing."
Compared with the usual standards for industrial timberlands, PALCO is certainly making a huge stretch for conservation. The draft HCP would impose far more serious and expensive conservation measures than those in California Forest Practice Rules. In fact, PALCO's HCP appears to make some in the timber industry nervous lest such high standards become expected from other timber companies.
"The buffers that they're talking about along the streams, if you were to put all of those together, they would be as wide as a football field that would stretch from Scotia to the southern tip of Baja," said Chris Nance, public affairs director for the California Forestry Association.
Nance is referring to PALCO's proposal to establish 170-foot-wide "riparian management zones" along streams. This is the key element in PALCO's strategy to restore 265 miles of Class 1 streams (those that flow all year) to conditions "that are a lot more similar to what they were before Europeans began managing the forest," said Barrett.
Critics of the HCP endorse that goal but say that what PALCO proposes is too little, too late.
"The streams are so far out of whack because of this huge corporate raid on the riparian zones," said Pat Higgins, a fisheries biologist who has been researching the condition of PALCO's watersheds for many years.
Higgins' Exhibit A is KRIS-coho, a research database he created that contains more than you ever wanted to know about North Coast salmon habitat. On a recent visit to his Arcata office, he gave me a tour of fish surveys in the Van Duzen River basin from 1972. "Cummings Creek had coho, Grizzly Creek had coho, Cooper Mill Gulch had coho, Fish Creek had coho," he said as graphs flashed by on the computer screen.
Today, coho salmon do not run up these creeks. This is because, in Higgins' view, PALCO has literally turned up the heat on coho, a species strictly adapted to cold water.
Extensive logging, he says, has loaded streams with sediment, causing channels to spread and become shallower and warmer. Tree stands are no longer dense enough to create a cool riparian microclimate. "There are some steelhead left but mostly these streams are dominated by roach. Now squawfish are invading. It's a hostile takeover by warm-water fish."
Higgins talks fast, often showing his gift for metaphor. "If PALCO logs in steep sections of the Bear and Mattole river basins," he predicts, "the hillsides will come down and sediment will move through the river like a snake eating lunch.
"The Bear River had chinook and coho until 1955, and it could have them again. Chinook and coho in the Mattole are at extremely low ebbs. There's a short-run fall chinook strain (in the Mattole basin) that could be used to restore chinook to Mendocino coastal drainages and to Bear River. But if the North Fork Mattole is cut and the debris torrents come down through the estuary... you'll lose chinook on the Mattole and lose one of the last gene resources for fish of this type."
Landslides on steep slopes in PALCO watersheds will continue under PALCO's HCP, he says. He'd like to see conservation easements purchased from PALCO so the company will agree not to log on the steepest slopes. "PALCO has a whole bunch of ground that just should not be cut."
If the HCP is approved, Higgins says that a state geologist "will go out and look at the slope and say `Dominus benedictus' and bless their harvest plan. The landslides will come down the hill up to 30 years later and the sediment will be working through the streams for a century.
"The whole reason Pacific Lumber has to deal with the federal Endangered Species Act and federal agencies now is because of the failure of the California Departments of Forestry, Fish and Game and Mines and Geology to adequately regulate logging on these steep slopes."
Higgins and others say that PALCO should expands its "riparian management zones" to standards adopted by the Forest Ecosystem Management and Assessment Team, the scientists behind Option 9, Northwest Forest Plan. FEMAT said that to recover, remnant salmonid populations needed riparian reserves as wide as the height of a mature tree on the site up to 300 feet in redwood country. (FEMAT's and PALCO's HCP both allow some logging in riparian zones to accelerate habitat restoration.)
But PALCO is about as eager to become a national park as it is to adopt FEMAT standards. "The FEMAT buffers alone would render unharvestable over 50 percent of PALCO's ownership," states the draft HCP.
Equally distasteful is another of Higgins' ideas: watershed rest. "Studies from Oregon suggest that no more than 25 percent of a watershed should be disturbed in a decade... there is no substitute for watershed rest if salmon restoration is to succeed," said Higgins.
FEMAT recommended similar timber harvest reductions for watersheds in Six Rivers National Forests and others in the Pacific Northwest. Combined with the expansive riparian reserves, federal forests now provide refuge for salmon and other riparian species, but the forests are "locked up" from a timber production perspective.
PALCO's Sustained Yield Plan (the production counterpart to the HCP) shows the company expects to log 230 million board feet per year for the next decade. Compare that with the timber sales volume under the Northwest Forest Plan for Six Rivers, a forest nearly five times as large as PALCO timberlands: 15 to 20 million board feet per year.
But Higgins' notion of applying FEMAT-type constraints on PALCO land is embraced by many conservation activists. "The FEMAT strategy is to create viable, well-distributed populations of salmon throughout the landscape," said Bundy of EPIC. "Pacific Lumber's HCP, on the other hand, tries to achieve `properly function habitat' conditions that are very poorly defined."
Salmon fishermen who have been deprived of work and income because of salmon habitat problems have echoed this sentiment. Pacific Coast Federation of Fisherman's Association sued the federal government to list coho as threatened. And its late habitat restoration manager, Nat Bingham, called for FEMAT-scale logging boundaries around streams after the timber industry abandoned the cooperative Cal-Salmon talks about two years ago.
High above these disputed stream channels, another species' survival is also at stake. The marbled murrelet sea birds nest exclusively in the dense canopy of old-growth redwoods and douglas firs. The species was listed as threatened several years ago, and recent at-sea survey data show the bird's numbers may be declining two to three times faster than previously estimated.
The Headwaters Forest Preserve will provide a lot of habitat, and PALCO proposes to set aside others reserves of old-growth. But at least one federal scientist considers the reserves on PALCO's remaining inadequate.
"The amount of (marbled murrelet) habitat that's proposed for elimination here is very, very extensive," said biologist Ken Hoffman of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "The plan also does not propose any seasonal restriction, even around the harvest of known occupied habitat. This means there is very likely to be direct killing of murrelets, crushing of chicks and smashing of eggs. That's certainly not appropriate."
Hoffman said the addition of Owl and Grizzly creeks (to be acquired through state legislation) would contribute badly needed habitat. But he thinks two proposed Marbled Murrelet Conservation Areas on PALCO property should be expanded.
In preparation for the Nov. 10 hearing, activists were at the Arcata Co-op recently, handing out "Stop the HCP" literature and urging shoppers to show up at Redwood Acres. From a nearby parking lot, one could gaze east and south and see on the horizon some of this disputed territory.
PALCO timberlands stretch from the emerald hills of Freshwater to the rock-capped ridges above the Mattole and Bear rivers. The canyon walls above Van Duzen River, the hills along Elk River and the thick forests that cradle the Eel River from Weott to Fortuna are all part of PALCO's 210,000 acres.
This mostly contiguous landscape, with its old-growth and mature second-growth forests, is a rare treasury of biological diversity. Its position between Humboldt Redwoods State Park and Redwood National and State Parks makes it a crucial habitat link for the old-growth-dependent marbled murrelet. PALCO's many miles of stream channels offer the most significant opportunity for coho salmon recovery in California.
PALCO's land also supports many two-legged creatures. It yields enough redwood and douglas fir to keep 1,400 people employed in mills and manufacturing plants and to generate business for hundreds of suppliers, contractors, truckers and the Northwestern Pacific Railroad (if it ever runs again). The company is the largest private employer in the county and quite literally the economic engine of Fortuna and the Eel River Valley.
According to PALCO officials, the financial sacrifices it has proposed to make in its Habitat Conservation Plan draft will go no higher. "With this HCP, the company is committing almost a billion dollars to fish and wildlife protection," said Jeff Barrett. "That's the value of the timber that we will no longer be able to harvest as well as the cost of doing the other commitments."
But after Nov. 16, the ball is back in PALCO's court. Environmentalists widely suspect that top officials in the Clinton Administration will grant the company its Incidental Take Permit without insisting that PALCO make its HCP more favorable to endangered species.
Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman Carroll said "it would be a very foolish thing" for the service to approve a flawed HCP. "Everybody I've talked to from the Department of Interior headquarters in Washington to the field biologists acknowledge that the first thing that's going to happen after we finish is we're going to be defending this in court.
"To put something together that's not adequate would be unbelievably stupid. I've seen public agencies do that kind of thing before, but it's usually when they think nobody's going to notice. Everybody's going to notice this."
EPIC, Northcoast Environmental Center, the Sierra Club and other environmental groups will indeed sue the feds if they approve what activists and independent scientists consider a weak HCP. They'll make the case, as they have in many other instances, that a federal judge's intervention is needed to enforce the Endangered Species Act.
On the other hand, if PALCO is denied an HCP and Incidental Take Permit, it will probably reinstate its $500 million lawsuit against the federal government, alleging that the Endangered Species Act constituted a "taking" of the company's private land-use rights.
This epic confrontation between private property rights and conservation seems destined to be renewed for many more seasons.
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