North Coast Journal


Riggs' Forest Bill:
A Headwaters solution, Forest Service shakeup

by Jim Hight
Photo by Doug Thron

THE CONTROVERSY OVER PACIFIC Lumber's Headwaters Grove hasdragged on for nearly 10 years, through protests and lawsuits, ballot measures and several rounds of state and federal legislation.

Now Congressman Frank Riggs proposes a land-swap in which the public would "buy" the grove of ancient redwoods northeast of Fortuna with U.S. government land. Riggs and his staff say HR 2712 will provide a fair resolution to the Headwaters standoff. But the environmental groups who have used lawsuits and injunctions to prevent the logging of Headwaters don't agree.

The bill actually deals with much more than Headwaters. It contains eight sections addressing forest issues large and small, from conveying a tiny parcel of Forest Service land to the Del Norte County Unified School District to turning most of the Six Rivers National Forest operations over to the private sector.

Riggs hopes the bill will soon be heard before the Subcommittee on National Forests, Parks and Public Lands, then move through the Natural Resources Committee, pass the House and Senate, be signed by President Clinton and become law. He and his staff have martialed wide support in the forest products industry, and they believe most of their constituents will back the bill as a vehicle to boost North Coast jobs while protecting the Headwaters Grove as a National Biological Diversity Reserve.

North Coast forest-protection activists promise an all-out, national campaign to defeat Riggs' bill if it moves forward as written.

To resolve the Headwaters issue, Riggs' legislation would set up a process in which the Interior Department would exchange federal lands with PL for the 3,000-acre Headwaters Grove and up to 1,700 acres of contiguous land that would be a "buffer" between the grove and PL's surrounding timberlands.

Bureau of Land Management lands in Humboldt County, or timber harvesting rights on those lands, would be the first priority for exchange. Along with these, any other federal lands that have been designated as available for disposal could be exchanged.

"We'll accept other federal dormant assets, RTC properties (taken over from failed S&Ls), military bases," says PL President John Campbell, who was consulted by Riggs' staff in the bill's drafting.

To compensate for the value of Headwaters, PL "could either turn around and sell these properties as private land or go ahead and develop them," says Campbell.

The lands identified by Riggs and the BLM for exchange include Lacks Creek, a couple miles southeast of the southern border of Redwood National Park; Iaqua Buttes and Big Bend, on either side of the Mad River, southeast of Kneeland; and Butte Creek, off Highway 36 east of Bridgeville.

Used by some backpackers and hunters, the lands contain about 8,000 acres, mostly Douglas fir, with a lot of old growth. Their total value, however, is far less than that of Headwaters' huge redwoods, so a great deal of other land would have to be exchanged for Headwaters, which was valued by a Forest Service appraiser in 1993 at $500 million.

"The secretary (of the Interior) can look all over California for land or marketable timber harvest rights," says Jason Conger, Riggs' point man on resource issues. "Any property that is already surplus can be offered."

But bartering the BLM lands in question is objectionable to the bill's opponents. "The reason that land has a large volume of timber on it is that it is some of the last of the little bit of old growth that remains on BLM property," says environmental attorney David Krueger, a board member of the Northcoast Environmental Center. "It's all critical habitat (for the spotted owl and other old growth-dependent species)."

The other major objections to the bill focus on the process outlined for negotiating an exchange. The legislation gives PL and the feds equal control over a new appraisal process, but it mandates that "no reduction shall be made in the appraised fair market value" to reflect critical habitat restrictions. This angers environmentalists who say that Headwaters' value for timber harvesting is diminished by the fact that under federal and state endangered species laws, it can't be harvested until PL comes up with a "habitat conservation plan" for the marbled murrelet, listed as "threatened" under the Endangered Species Act and "endangered" under California law.

But to do otherwise wouldn't be fair, says Conger. "It would be like passing a law that reduces something's value and then going in and buying it. A single landowner should not bear the cost of the public's benefit in protecting endangered species."

But most alarming to those who have opposed PL's efforts to log in Headwaters is a provision of Riggs' bill that sets a time limit of 18 months on negotiations between PL and Interior; after that PL can begin to harvest timber even if it "results in a taking otherwise prohibited by the Endangered Species Act."

"After 18 months of negotiation, if PL doesn't get the price they want, which could be a king's ransom, they're given an incidental take permit without any public review or any third-party review," says Cecilia Lanman of Environmental Protection Information Center in Garberville, the main Headwaters litigant against PL over the last eight years.

The species that would be "incidentally taken" is the marbled murrelet.

"They were once called 'fog larks' because people would hear them crying to their mates in the fog," says Lanman. They nest on the flat branches of old redwoods, depending on dense canopies to protect their eggs from ravens, jays and other predators. According to Lanman, Headwaters is one of three murrelet habitats in the state. And though other populations live in Washington, Oregon and British Columbia, preserving the local habitat is critical because geographically diverse populations are required for long-term viability.

In a Feb. 15 meeting with forest-protection activists in Arcata, Riggs conceded that their concerns about the 18-month time limit were valid. "It's clear from the feedback today that (the time line) should be modified," Riggs said after the meeting. Conger says that's likely to happen as the bill moves through committee, but he insists some deadline is needed "or this could go on for another 10 years."

Behind the disagreements over this bill are deeper divisions over property rights and environmental protection.

"Like everybody else we'd like to see Headwaters saved, but in a way that will give Pacific Lumber value for what is rightfully their property," says Patricia Murphy, president of Alta California Alliance. "This bill is a step in the right direction."

Environmentalists are hoping that the FDIC is successful in levying fines against Maxxam Chairman Charles Hurwitz for his role in the failure of United Savings of Texas in 1988. Then they'd like that debt forgiven in exchange for Headwaters, the "debt-for-nature" swap.

PL's Campbell maintains that even if Hurwitz is found culpable in the Texas case and is fined, "suing Mr. Hurwitz is not the same as suing Maxxam or PL you can't take corporate assets to pay off a personal debt. That would make the shareholders very unhappy."

Six Rivers National Forest is the target of two major sections of Riggs' bill. The legislation would mandate that a large chunk of the forest budget be diverted to hiring private contractors; and on two of the SRNF ranger districts -- Mad River and Lower Trinity -- it would accelerate timber harvest in a massive "experiment" to gauge the effects of old-growth logging on the northern spotted owl. That's the critter whose potential extinction shut down the public forests of the Pacific Northwest in 1990 and set in motion the massive reordering of forest priorities known as Option 9, or the Northwest Forest Plan. HR 2712 would take apart much Option 9 as it applies to SRNF.

After the Northwest Forest Plan (NWFP) was finalized in April 1994, the SRNF developed its own forest plan to cover the next 10 to 15 years. It set massively reduced timber outputs -- 15.5 million board feet per year down from a typical cut of 140 million per year in the 1980s.

Huge areas of the 960,000-acre forest have been set aside as "late successional reserves"; containing a mixture of old growth and mature second growth, they are off limits to large-scale timber sales. Only selective harvesting that improves old-growth characteristics will be allowed. Virtually all land along streams and rivers are likewise protected as "riparian reserves" to revive the dwindling salmon runs. And even the "matrix" lands where timber sales will go forward must be managed to provide habitat for a range of species from the lowliest fungus to the grandest salamander.

To put it in the dry language of the SRNF forest plan, "The forest will be managed to maintain ecosystem components, structure and processes."

Few environmentalists celebrated Option 9; in fact, it's been challenged in court for not providing enough habitat protection for the owl, particularly in Oregon and Washington where old-growth sales that were contracted before the spotted owl injunction are now being harvested under the 1995 "salvage" law. But with a few complaints here and there, most North Coast forest activists support the NWFP and the Six Rivers Forest Plan.

By contrast, it's hard to find anyone in the forest products industry with a positive thing to say about either the regional or local plan.

"Any forester looking at a million acres would see that there is no problem to harvest over 200 million board feet a year on a sustainable basis and retain environmental values," says Bruce Taylor, president of Blue Lake Forest Products. "The Six Rivers' recent level was about 145 million. That was less than industry wanted, and more than the environmentalists wanted. What's being projected now is not even in the same zip code. It's ludicrous."

Like other local mills that bought Forest Service timber, Blue Lake cut back its production and work force after 1990. Others didn't even survive, and many timber-dependent workers and their families have suffered as a result.

And while the NWFP promised money for job retraining and economic development in timber-dependent communities, many feel these promises weren't kept. "I don't know one unemployed logger who's been retrained and put into a job that lasted more than three months," says Mary Fattig of Salyer, a vice president of California Women in Timber.

She says she sees the economic fallout every time she drives through Willow Creek. "People who've been in business for 30 to 50 years have had to close Willow Creek Meat Market, which had been there since the '20s, had to close. So did Hodgson's Department store."

Fattig supported some of the goals of the NWFP, however, and she joined a unique committee formed under the plan which was charged with developing new approaches to using the forest in a certain part of the SRNF and Shasta-Trinity National Forest called the Hayfork Adaptive Management Area. Her proposal was to selectively log all the old growth trees in a small area and track the effects on the spotted owl.

Her idea was endorsed by the Forest Service's Pacific Southwest Research Station, which started to develop a research program. Then she learned it was in Rep. Riggs' bill, but on a much larger scale: covering two entire ranger districts, nearly 50 percent of the forest.

At first she was shocked at how large Riggs' "experiment" was. Then she realized that in the process of legislation, "sometimes you have to ask for 20 percent if you're going to end up with 3 percent."

"Right now we're shutting down the national forest because of the spotted owl," says Conger, in defense of a larger experimentation area. "Is it necessary? If, as we think, the owls are not negatively impacted by management activity, then we can restore much of the Forest Service land base and reduce our growing imports of logs from as far away as New Zealand. We wouldn't have any need for Option 9."

The "Adaptive Management of Timber Resources for Old Growth Dependent Species" section of the bill would hand over management of the two ranger districts to the research branch, and mandate that half of the SRNF budget be turned over, 75 percent of which must be used "for payment to private contractors for planning, implementation and monitoring of the research plan."

Combined with another section of the bill which orders the SRNF to "contract out" field work related to preparing timber harvests for a five-year "demonstration period," the arithmetic of the bill seems to cut the SRNF down from a $15 million agency to one with a budget near zero.

Here's where Conger acknowledges that his boss may be "asking for 20 and hoping for 3," in Fattig's words.

"If both parts passed as they are written now, a substantial amount of the Six Rivers' budget authorization would be transferred into the contracting program or the research project. That's one of the issues that the Forest Service would have to analyze and report to Congress on during the legislative process During the hearings we would be able to find out exactly how much it would transfer and (make revisions accordingly)."

But Conger makes no excuses for putting the Six Rivers feet to the fire. "If you endorse having a formerly active land-management agency becoming a planning and documentation agency, they're on the right track. But if you think they should be active stewards of the land, as we do, this idea is to take some steps to get them back on track."

Disagreement over exactly what track the Forest Service should get back on is why environmental activists are upset about these elements of Riggs' bill.

"We've already had an acceleration (of timber harvesting) and there's a tremendous amount of damage that needs to be repaired from the era of acceleration that existed from the mid-1940s to 1990," says Tim McKay, director of the Northcoast Environmental Center in Arcata. "The road building associated with clearcutting accompanied so much watershed damage that we're going to be dealing with effects of acceleration well into the next century."

McKay and others believe strongly that the SRNF's projected 15.5 million board feet of annual production is reasonable, given what they say was overharvesting during earlier years. They say that the regional NWFP and the Six Rivers Forest Plan are designed to meet environmental laws -- the same kinds of environmental laws that resulted in the forest being hammered by legal challenges to timber sales and ultimately shut down when the spotted owl was "listed" as endangered. A major rollback in environmental protections to increase timber harvest, as they envision under Riggs' bill, would put the forest back into gridlock, they say.

"All of the Forest Service planning resources have been directed toward designing a new generation of timber sales for the last couple years," says Krueger, the attorney who has followed Forest Service activities for years, sometimes challenging its timber sales. "We've been in a position where the old timber sales that have been in the pipeline are exhausted and the new timber sales are just getting going.

"Unlike private timber companies, the Forest Service has to take into account other uses of the land, and they're required to do their work publicly. As a consequence, the procedures in terms of inventorying, getting public input and complying with the laws simply require a couple of years for a typical timber sale to be put together. They can go faster in an emergency but that means some other project gets slowed down.

"Here we are at the point where new timber sales are just starting and Riggs is coming up with a proposal that says 'Start over.' The result will be that you now postpone timber sales."

SRNF personnel confirm that for several years virtually no timber was offered for sale. It's this "drought" of trees that has caused mounting frustration among people in the industry who once relied on forest service timber work.

They say they'll be offering their targeted 15.5 million board feet by 1997, and without directly criticizing Riggs' legislation (something federal employees are discouraged from doing) they back up Krueger's point.

"If we get into a situation where we're back in court, litigation will grind us to a halt," says Six Rivers public information officer Bill Padonick. "This has been demonstrated in the past. We don't want to be there again, we want to be productive and moving forward."

"Probably what we'll see is that by managing and using the land and resource strategy that we have in place, we will be able to do more (timber harvest) than the current forest plan says because will find down the road that we will be able to manage for viable habitat without having to depend on the large reserves."

Less dramatic components of HR 2712 include adding some land to the Hoopa Valley Indian Reservation and increasing slightly the annual limits on timber cutting in the Smith River National Recreation Area.

More controversial is a section that would adopt the BLM's recommendation for designating "wilderness" in the King Range National Conservation Area. After a long study period, the BLM recommended that 24,660 acres be designated as wilderness. The area is primarily on the ocean-facing slopes of the range, running from Sea Lion Gulch in the north to the Sinkyone Wilderness in the south, with a large break around the Shelter Cove area.

The BLM says it made the recommendation after considering how much work it would take to manage popular wilderness areas and analyzing to what extent lands were already used for ranching and other uses. They acknowledge that the acreage designated was below what the majority of people commenting on the issue wanted. "Most did favor the all-wilderness alternative," says BLM spokeswoman Jan Bedrosian.

Environmentalists say public opinion ought to carry the day in this case. "At hearings for the wilderness study, it was 500 to 3 speaking in favor of a larger wilderness designation," says Lanman of EPIC. She adds that her group favors a wilderness bill that looks at all the BLM lands in the state.

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