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June 3, 2004


The problem is Palco


The wonder is why it came as such a surprise.

Last week, the Garberville-based Environmental Protection Information Center informed Humboldt residents that the Pacific Lumber Co. is, in effect, cheating. Instead of adhering to the restrictions it agreed to in the 1999 Headwaters deal, restrictions laid out in painstaking detail in a document known as the habitat conservation plan, the company, it seems, has been breaking the rules -- repeatedly.

In an eight-page report, the group found evidence of 227 separate violations of the plan, along with 98 violations of state forest practice rules. The most common infractions -- about 75 percent of the total -- were for logging in protected streamside areas. This is of obvious concern in terms of water quality impacts and of the many ongoing salmon restoration efforts taking place around the region.

In a response issued Tuesday, Pacific Lumber's chief scientist Jeff Barrett accused EPIC of exaggerating the importance of the violations. He made a distinction between breaches of state forestry regulations, which he said could have signficant environmental impacts, and "matters of noncompliance" with the provisions of the conservation plan, which he said are less serious. Maybe there's something to what Barrett is saying, or maybe he's guilty of his own distortions. But the fact is that the company, in entering into the Headwaters deal, signed a contract with the state to not do certain things. If it has nevertheless been doing those things all along, it is in violation of the contract. We think that's a problem.

As for the regulators' view of the EPIC report, the picture is mixed. The California Department of Forestry, charged with enforcing state forest practice rules, also says that most of the violations cited by EPIC were minor in nature and had to do with paperwork mistakes. But the state Fish and Game Department, which monitors compliance with the conservation plan, said many of the violations were serious -- and that in at least two instances the company was fined $100,000.

That's big money. But we're wondering why federal and state regulators haven't done more to prevent violations from happening in the first place -- although having said that, we're skeptical, given the company's history of violating the law (see story on page 6), that anything will really work. If there isn't a commitment at the top to play by the rules, then the rules will get broken. It's as simple as that.

Pacific Lumber has asked state and federal regulators to loosen some of the key restrictions in the conservation plan, those having to do with logging along streamsides, among other things. This effort has caused concern for a couple of reasons. One had to do with the secretive nature in which the initial request was made. (See "Secrecy flap," NCJ, April 22.) State Sen. Byron Sher, D- Stanford, along with State Sen. John Burton, D-San Francisco, President Pro Tem of the Senate, raised another concern with Michael Chrisman, head of the Resources Agency, in a letter in April: the fact, in their view at any rate, that the alterations the company is seeking are "inconsistent" with the Headwaters agreement itself and with the state legislation that authorized the deal. Now, thanks to the EPIC report, we know that the company has been violating the very logging restrictions it is seeking to loosen.

We have made reference before in this space to "PL fatigue," the sheer mental exhaustion generated by the never-ending controversies that have dogged PL, and plagued this county, ever since Texas financier Charles Hurwitz seized the company in a hostile takeover in the mid-1980s. Environmentalists, in particular those with EPIC, have been scapegoated for challenging the company, as have other critics -- attacked not just by Palco representatives, but by Palco apologists, of whom there are far too many around here. And need we remind you of the storm District Attorney Paul Gallegos had to weather for daring to sue Hurwitz for fraudulent logging practices?

Make no mistake. Hurwitz and his Maxxam Corp. put us through that ordeal, not Gallegos and Assistant DA Tim Stoen. And, if the EPIC report is an indication, Gallegos and Stoen are on to something. This is a company that, by all appearances, cannot be trusted.



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