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State Expected to Allow Pacific Lumber to Transfer Habitat Restrictions

Times Staff Writer

The Schwarzenegger administration is poised to allow financially troubled Pacific Lumber Co. to remove special habitat protections on more than 2,000 acres covered by a historic agreement creating the Headwaters Preserve of ancient redwoods in Humboldt County.

In exchange, Pacific Lumber has proposed placing the environmental restrictions on an equivalent amount of its land that company and wildlife officials say has superior conservation value.

None of the land is within the 7,500-acre Headwaters forest acquired seven years ago by the federal and state governments. But the $480-million deal attached environmental restrictions to the company’s remaining holdings of about 200,000 acres.

Pacific Lumber has offered up to 60,000 acres for sale to help raise money for a $26-million interest payment due soon on its long-term debt of more than $700 million.

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In March, the company approached the state and proposed removing two parcels totaling about 2,200 acres from the Headwaters habitat conservation plan and substituting two others not subject to the agreement.

State officials said such a swap is automatically allowed under the Headwaters accords if there is an environmental benefit and the parcels are less than 2,000 acres each. “We do not see it as even a marginal call,” Greg Hurner, deputy director of the California Department of Fish and Game, said in a telephone interview. “There is a clear benefit to the state.”

The department concluded that the trade would add protection for hundreds of acres of timber that is at least several decades old and would provide better wildlife habitat for such federally listed endangered species as the spotted owl, marbled murrelet and Coho salmon. Hurner said the decision to allow the swap would probably be made within the next week.

After his staff was briefed Wednesday, State Senate President Don Perata (D-Oakland) called for more consultation with lawmakers and the public. “It is surprising the administration has been keeping this under the radar,” he said in a statement.

Former State Sen. Byron Sher (D-Stanford), who chaired a committee on the Headwaters acquisition, cautioned the administration to go slowly because the habitat protections are crucial for safeguarding the state’s environmental stakes and financial investment in the Headwaters forest.

“At a minimum, there should be an opportunity for the public and the Legislature to review what is being proposed,” he said.

Pacific Lumber spokesman Chris Manson said the company proposed the trade as part of its plan to sell off properties that are not part of its core business of redwood timber production. “We are making sure that if we take lands out [of habitat protection] that the lands we are putting in would have a higher conservation value,” he said.

For example, Manson said, if range land were removed from protection, the company would propose adding land that has a more diverse ecosystem or adjoins other environmentally sensitive property.

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Pacific Lumber has contended that environmental requirements under the Headwaters agreement, along with restrictions imposed by state water agencies, have seriously harmed the company’s finances and pushed it to the brink of bankruptcy.

The habitat conservation plan accompanying the Headwaters agreement contained guidelines for timber cutting on the company’s remaining 211,000 acres, and the rules remain in effect when the property changes hands.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials have signed off on the proposal, saying it meets the requirements of the agreement with Pacific Lumber. “It has to be equivalent or greater habitat value,” said spokeswoman Alex Pitts.

Mike Long, field supervisor in Humboldt County, said anyone who buys parcels removed from special habitat protections still would be subject to the federal laws against harming endangered species but could log closer to streams and would not need to conduct detailed watershed analysis.

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Paul Mason, a lobbyist for Sierra Club California, said the organization had no immediate comment. “The state has made absolutely no attempts to discuss it with the interested public most engaged on this topic,” he said.


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