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California and the West

License to Log Ancient Forests Is Suspended

Environment: Order against Pacific Lumber stems from violations, state says, and comes amid talks to purchase Headwaters. Company promises not to repeat its mistakes.

November 11, 1998|DAN MORAIN and MAX VANZI | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

SACRAMENTO — California forestry officials suspended Pacific Lumber Co.'s license to log in ancient Northern California forests Tuesday, turning up the pressure as authorities negotiate with the company to purchase the largest stand of redwoods still in private hands.

In an order delivered to Pacific Lumber President John A. Campbell Tuesday morning, the California Department of Forestry cited "willful" violations of state forestry regulations and "gross negligence" and demanded that logging cease as of today.

Campbell responded quickly by issuing an apology and vowing to take steps to ensure that such violations won't occur again.

"Frankly," said Campbell, "the company and I are embarrassed by the suspension and we have reached the conclusion that no valid purpose would be served by appealing your decision."

The order comes as the weather turns stormy--a time when logging operations slow down--limiting the immediate impact of the decision. Nonetheless, the company announced that it would lay off 180 loggers indefinitely.

More important for Pacific Lumber, the action comes as state and federal authorities attempt to complete negotiations with the company over the $495-million purchase of the Headwaters Forest and other stands of redwoods in Humboldt County.

The order probably will increase the leverage that state and federal authorities have as they negotiate over the final purchase of the 7,500-acre Headwaters and several smaller stands nearby, and over details of the so-called habitat conservation plan that is designed to protect endangered and threatened species on 200,000 acres of Pacific Lumber's land.

State forestry officials said that in recent months the company had violated regulations by allowing a fire to burn in a protected zone, by clear-cutting trees along a stream used by salmon for spawning, and by using heavy equipment in a nesting area of the northern spotted owl--an endangered species.

"It's a systemic problem," Douglas Wheeler, the state Resources Agency secretary, said Tuesday.

Wheeler added that Pacific Lumber must act quickly to remedy the situation because "they are two steps away from a final suspension."

Tuesday's order was issued one day after state lawmakers led by Sen. Byron Sher (D-Stanford) called on state and federal authorities to take stronger steps to protect Headwaters and the adjacent forest, which is habitat for endangered and threatened species such as the spotted owl, marbled murrelet and coho salmon.

Sher, who chaired the oversight hearing, said the latest violations make him "lose all confidence" that Pacific Lumber will protect Headwaters and the sensitive land nearby. The final Headwaters purchase agreement, he said, must include strict mechanisms for tough enforcement.

"It's very disturbing that they continue to violate the law and don't clean up their act," said Sher, who had pushed for legislative approval to spend $245 million for the state's share of the Headwaters purchase.

"This is not a situation where the company says, 'Trust us,' and we can believe them. We've got to have very clear requirements on them."

Some environmental groups have remained opposed to the Headwaters deal because it would allow Pacific Lumber to cut trees in many other parts of the 200,000-acre forest where the Endangered Species Act would normally restrict or prohibit logging.

The license suspension prompted opponents of the deal to argue that Pacific Lumber can't be trusted to abide by the habitat conservation plan's restrictions.

"The habitat conservation plan allows too much latitude as it is," said Paul Mason, president of the north coast Environmental Protection Information Center. "For such a plan to offer even a semblance of protection, you have to be able to trust the company to look out for birds or not cut trees along streams where no one is ever going to check on them."

State forestry officials suspended Pacific Lumber's license in 1997 for violations of environmental laws. The company had been operating under a provisional license.

Times staff writer Frank Clifford in Los Angeles contributed to this story.

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