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Rulings Could Stymie Logging

Failure to file plan with state may undercut Pacific Lumber's permits to cut redwoods.

May 20, 2003|Miguel Bustillo | Times Staff Writer

The future of Pacific Lumber Co.'s highly controversial redwood timber operations in Northern California fell into jeopardy Monday when a judge ruled that the state Department of Forestry had never properly given the company approval for its logging plans.

In a prepared statement attributed to Robert E. Manne, the company's president and CEO, Pacific Lumber said the rulings "could clearly have a significant impact on our company." Company officials declined to comment further, saying lawyers were reviewing the rulings and weighing "all legal actions" the company could take.

Four years ago, after a bitter and highly publicized fight, the company received $490 million from the state and federal governments to set aside a 7,500-acre grove of ancient redwoods in an area known as the Headwaters Forest. In return, it was supposed to submit a blueprint for responsibly logging its remaining 211,000 acres, home to the largest stands of the majestic trees not in parks or preserves. The plan was supposed to govern logging for 120 years.

California officials said they had approved the so-called sustained yield plan in 1999, but no such document was ever formally filed, at least not in a comprehensive fashion that a member of the public could read and review, Superior Court Judge John J. Golden concluded in two rulings issued Monday in Humboldt County.

The state permits that Pacific Lumber received for logging portions of its land, altering wild streams and harming endangered seabirds such as the marbled murrelet were supposed to be based on the larger plan. Because the plan was never properly submitted, the judge indicated, those permits could now be invalidated.

Although lawyers for the state filed an 80,000-page record with the court, "we could never find the sustained yield plan in all those pages, and we learned during the first day of trial that they never filed that plan," said Berkeley attorney Sharon Duggan, who argued one of the cases on behalf of the Sierra Club and the Environmental Protection Information Center.

"Here we are, four years later, and they have been cutting an incredible amount of old-growth redwoods, far more than was ever envisioned."

The other case was filed by the United Steelworkers of America, which represents timber workers. The union argued that the company's logging plans would not preserve the long-term health of the forest, hurting the future economic livelihoods of the workers.

"The state did a poor job of protecting our natural resources," said David Foster, the union's director for the 13-state region that includes California.

The rulings, which are expected to become final next month, could throw Pacific Lumber's operations into limbo.

"Nobody paid attention to these lawsuits, but what they basically said was that these guys were cutting illegally," said plaintiffs' attorney Joseph W. Cotchett, who has been working pro bono on cases against Pacific Lumber. "Everyone laughed at them," he said. "But no one is laughing today."

California officials declined to comment Monday, saying they needed time to determine the ramifications of the rulings.

"We want to take a very close look at this tentative decision," said Stanley Young, spokesman for the California Resources Agency, which oversees the Department of Forestry. "We will await the final decision in June."

Environmentalists, however, argued that, in addition to invalidating permits, the judge's decision could bolster a hotly disputed fraud case brought against Pacific Lumber by Humboldt County Dist. Atty. Paul V. Gallegos. He alleges that the company concealed information from the Department of Forestry on the potential for its logging plans to cause landslides.

Environmentalists also asserted that the ruling shows the state has been far too cozy with Pacific Lumber and has failed to ensure that its logging plans protect the forest. The company has been a major political donor to Gov. Gray Davis and Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer in recent years.

The ruling "raises very serious questions about the objectivity of the state," said Paul Mason of the Sierra Club. "They have approved an astronomical amount of logging of old-growth redwoods."

The 1999 deal on Headwaters did not come close to ending the controversy over Pacific Lumber's redwood logging. The debate over the company's operations has pitted older north-coast residents, who depend on the timber industry, against environmentalists and newer arrivals.

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