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Second Thoughts About Pact to Save Old-Growth

Environmentalists take whacks at public-private deal to preserve a famous stand of California redwoods.

A meandering path overgrown with black huckleberry leads into the Headwaters Forest, the largest concentration of ancient redwoods on private land anywhere in the world.

Yet finding the remote Headwaters is the easy part. A deal to preserve it attempts to blaze a much tougher trail: discerning the proper line of demarcation between environmental preservation and private land rights. This is an area of growing conflict in the application of US environmental law and one in which the Headwaters deal will likely become a role model for subsequent settlements elsewhere.

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Over the past decade, numerous attempts to determine the fate of the Headwaters Forest failed (in Congress, the California legislature and the courts). But in fall 1996, a three-way deal was struck between the federal and state governments and the Pacific Lumber Co. which owns the forest.

The deal would transfer 7,500 acres of ancient redwood forest from Pacific Lumber to public ownership. All to the good, say environmentalists.

But in exchange, Pacific Lumber gets $380 million in compensation in federal and state tax dollars as well as some tailormade rules for logging its remaining 200,000 acres of forest. The price tag, the terms for logging, and the interlocking nature of the whole deal make it a dangerous precedent, say opponents.

Congress has already approved its $250 million portion, which will be paid once the state agrees to its $130 million share. That could come in the next couple of weeks if the California legislature includes it in the 1999 budget, now being finalized. Critics want it kept separate, realizing their concerns could get buried as part of an omnibus budget compromise.

Many environmental groups believe the government should have strictly applied the rules of the Endangered Species Act (ESA), which spells out conditions under which Pacific Lumber can log the Headwaters and surrounding lands that provide habitat to two threatened species, the coho salmon and the marble murrelet.

They acknowledge that would have ended up in a lengthy court battle, but believe circumventing a fight by agreeing to a deal that weakens the law is no victory.

"Will private property rights trump our well-being as a society?" says Tara Mueller of the Environmental Law Foundation in Oakland, Calif. "This deal is just prolonging and avoiding the real issue."

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She says the Headwaters deal is an example of a growing tendency by the government to cut deals rather than enforce the law.

Application of the ESA had already triggered a lawsuit by Pacific Lumber, charging that it constituted an unfair "taking" of private property rights. But that lawsuit has been frozen for the moment and will be dropped if the current deal is finalized.

Pacific Lumber president John Campbell says advocates of strict application of the ESA are in fact, attempting to "migrate to private land the procedures used on public lands. If that's the requirement, there's going to be a huge social upheaval," he says.

The details of the habitat conservation plan, which will guide how Pacific Lumber manages the forests not being transferred to a public preserve, will be released within the next week for public comment, says Mr. Campbell. But the broad outlines have already been announced and Campbell insists the company will not agree to substantial changes outside of the 1996 deal.

One of the most troubling aspects of the habitat plan to environmentalists is the buffer zone along creeks and streams. The deal requires no logging within 30 feet of streams used by the salmon. This is smaller than the protected zone on federal lands and less than what environmentalists say is adequate.

Critics say that putting the habitat conservation plan before the public is a sham, given it's part of an already agreed to deal between the governments and Pacific Lumber.

Josh Kaufman, the Sierra Club representative here, also objects to the price tag. Pacific Lumber estimates that the true value of the land it is turning over to the government is much higher than $380 million, because of its timber. A single redwood can be worth tens of thousands of dollars in lumber. But Mr. Kaufman says if the government's position is that the ESA would severely limit acceptable logging, then paying $380 million is way too high. "This deal is just based on the financial needs of the company," he says.

Pacific Lumber was bought in 1985 by Houston businessman Charles Hurwitz, who used high-interest junk bonds to finance the purchase. He quickly accelerated the logging rate and moved to clear-cut the Headwaters Forest, which had remained virgin forest because of its inaccessibility. That takeover has provided ammunition to critics of the deal, who depict Hurwitz as interested only in wringing cash from Pacific Lumber, whether by increased logging or by the current deal.

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