by Jim Hight
The Pacific Lumber Co. in Scotia has been in the news almost daily for the last two months:
The $10 million would go directly to the county upon transfer of the land to offset lost timber yield taxes as estimated by the California Forestry Association. County supervisors had requested in excess of $100 million based on lost taxes and jobs.
"Congressman Riggs has been insistent all along that Humboldt County get something," said Mark Davis, Riggs' legislative director, in a telephone interview from Washington, D.C.
"This is the first payment of this kind authorized that goes directly to a county," Davis said. Only twice before -- on a land transfer in Alaska and following the expansion of Redwood National Park in 1978 -- did the federal government agree to compensate an entity other than a private landowner for economic losses.
If approved by Congress, the deal will also make future payments in lieu of taxes to the county. That amount is undetermined but will be based on prior tax records, Davis said.
Of the state's 58 counties, Humboldt already receives the second largest check from the federal government each year for payments in lieu of taxes. This year's check, which arrived last month, was $864,284.
The federal government "recognized that taking such a large amount of land and timber off the assessment rolls was going to affect the county, schools and other agencies that would have gotten the property taxes," said Auditor Neil Prince. He expects those annual payments to end in 2002, "when the total paid will equal 5 percent of the value of the property purchased," he said.
California Department of Forestry Resource Manager John Marshall acknowledged to the group that PALCO's logging had led to "significant adverse cumulative effects," in the basin, according to a report in The Humboldt Beacon. But Marshall gave the residents little hope for immediate relief: "The (timber harvest plans) have been decided. We can't go back and change things."
He and others are particularly worried about atrazine, a chemical they say has contaminated water supplies in farming areas of the East and Midwest.
A PALCO spokesman maintained that the herbicide use was essential for its timber operations and that state officials monitored water quality in the area and would alert residents to any problems.
"We'll stabilize as much of the dirt as we can (and) get an excavator out there and pick up the dirt, put in trucks and haul it to a place where it's stable," said PALCO Timberlands Manager Henry Alden.
The Scotia company is also in a drama about to unfold in Humboldt County Superior Court. The decade-old lawsuit by PALCO retirees against Maxxam chief Charles Hurwitz (who took over PALCO in 1985) is slowly moving to trial. Last month the U.S. Department of Labor weighed in on the plaintiffs' side, opposing Maxxam's claim that only federal labor law should apply to the case.
"The secretary of labor agrees with us that in this case the federal (labor) statute does not prevent plaintiffs from pursuing in state court their right to the $60 million in excess funds," said Eureka attorney Bill Bertain. The hearing is scheduled for 1:30 p.m. Nov. 7 before Judge Bruce Watson.
"We've offered to upgrade 50 miles of road a year to higher standards," said Alden. "That means installing rolling dips, removing old (log and dirt) Humboldt crossings and replacing them with culverts." Alden estimates that 1,500 miles of roads traverse the company's 200,000 acres.
"Another big change that's going on is shifting from tractor logging to cable yarding," he said. "The simple difference is that tractor logging has roads at the bottom (of a watershed), cable logging has roads at the top. With a road higher up, even if it fails it's less likely to cause damage (to a watercourse). We're also going in and decommissioning our old road systems which are usually at the bottom of the creeks."
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