Federal and state officials said Friday that they have reached agreement with a major corporate landowner on a plan that will allow logging in a nearly 200,000-acre swath of Northern California while preserving some of the most environmentally sensitive acres in the Headwaters Forest.
The forest, home to the nation’s largest unprotected stand of ancient redwood trees, as well as threatened coastal birds and coho salmon, has long been the focus of intense debate over jobs and environmental protection.
Under a tentative plan reached Thursday night after months of negotiations, Pacific Lumber Co. would be permitted to cut the trees--including some old-growth stands--on about 192,000 acres in Humboldt County. But it could not operate in the 7,480-acre Headwaters Forest, where some trees may be 2,000 years old, nor in 12 of 13 other nearby parcels, all containing extremely old trees. These add up to about 8,000 acres.
While government and company officials praised the agreement, representatives of environmental groups decried its potential impact on wildlife and suggested that they might take action to block implementation of the deal.
The distant treetops on the reserved land offer nesting space for marbled murrelets, robin-sized shorebirds that are found in only limited numbers from Monterey Bay to Puget Sound. The forest’s 1,000 miles of streams provide spawning beds for the salmon.
The agreement overcomes one of the greatest hurdles to extensive logging on Pacific Lumber’s lands. The federal and state governments agreed last autumn to purchase the Headwaters tract, with the United States paying $250 million and California $130 million.
But completion of the sale awaited the drawing up of a plan to protect the salmon streams and the forest habitat of the murrelets, bald eagles, northern spotted owls and snowy plovers.
And even with the agreement finally reached, several steps remain before the plan can be implemented. Government agencies and the company must still agree on details governing precisely where logging can take place, public hearings must be conducted and a formal environmental impact statement issued on the plan.
The agreement drew pointed criticism from a spokesman for the Environmental Protection Information Center, a community conservation organization in Garberville, Calif.
“It could seriously undermine protection for endangered species, especially salmon and a lot of other rare wildlife,” said the spokesman, Kevin Bundy. “There are 22 species, five listed as threatened or endangered, that they can legally kill as part of the plan.”
Mike Spear, the regional director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, using a euphemism for potentially fatal destruction of wildlife habitat, conceded that “there will be some taking of marbled murrelets.”
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), whose office was at the center of the negotiations, said that 84% of the old-growth redwoods within Pacific Lumber’s property would be protected.
John Campbell, president of Pacific Lumber, said: “It’s a very workable plan.”
Gov. Pete Wilson also expressed support.
The plan would take effect on March 1, 1999, and would extend for 50 years.
Pacific Lumber was a family-run company when it was purchased in a junk-bond takeover in 1985 by Houston financier Charles Hurwitz’s Maxxam Inc. For several generations, the company had carried out selective logging, picking out individual trees for harvest, rather than conducting the clear-cut logging that strips an entire forest.
The tracts that the new owners set out to log include some of the last stands of virgin old-growth redwoods, trees that were growing when Spanish explorers first set foot on the coast. Such trees, with tighter grain than younger redwoods, can bring as much as $150,000 each, an Interior Department official said.
The redwoods are prized for their majestic beauty as well as their contribution to decks, furniture and hot tubs.
Among the crucial environmental issues raised within hours of the announcement of the agreement are questions about the width of a buffer zone intended to keep logging operations away from salmon streams. The streams must be shaded so they do not become too warm for salmon eggs and they must be free of the silt that can wash in when logging operations prompt erosion.
A federal plan drawn up at the start of the Clinton administration to protect the forests of the Pacific Northwest imposed a 300-foot protective swath on the banks of sensitive streams. The agreement announced Friday would cut that buffer to as little as 30 feet wide in some areas.
“This departs phenomenally from previous federal science. It’s an enormous problem,” Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club, said in an interview. He raised the prospect of seeking court action to halt the plan and pressuring the California Legislature not to approve the $130-million state share of the purchase.
Terry Garcia, assistant secretary of Commerce for oceans and atmosphere, said that “this deal . . . is absolutely legally and biologically defensible and credible. We have one goal: to ensure [the salmon’s] long-term survival and that’s precisely what it does.”
Pacific Lumber’s Campbell said in a telephone press conference that the plan “brings a tremendous degree of certainty to our future. We know where we can operate and how we can operate. There will be very reasonable levels of employment.”
John Garamendi, the former California insurance commissioner who now is deputy secretary of the Interior, called the plan “a major milestone” toward protecting the Headwaters Forest.