REDCREST, Calif. — Whenever Pacific Lumber Co. planned to dispatch helicopters to log its nearby redwood groves, the company would phone Christine Rising at her vine-draped bungalow above the Eel River.
After finding someone to care for her horses, dogs, cats and pot-bellied pig, Rising, 51, would pack her clothes and head down the dirt road toward a Eureka hotel about an hour's drive away. Then for days or weeks, she could escape the beat of helicopter blades that she says wreak havoc with her surgically repaired left ear, causing nausea, dizziness and even blackouts.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday February 23, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 45 words Type of Material: Correction
Pacific Lumber -- An article in Monday's Section A about Pacific Lumber Co. wrongly suggested that Woody Murphy was an opponent of the company. Murphy, whose family ran the firm for decades, opposed its takeover by Maxxam Corp. but later did business with the company.
For Pacific Lumber, paying Rising's hotel bills for a few years was a cost of doing business -- a relatively inexpensive goodwill gesture by a company that could ill afford more enemies or more obstacles to harvesting its valuable Humboldt County timberlands.
But early last year, Rising says, she had to start fending for herself. Although Pacific Lumber says it will help her out with her medical expenses, it has stopped paying to relocate her.
For Rising, who lives on an $850-a-month government disability payment, the development was a heartless move by one of California's most powerful natural resource companies. But it also was one more sign that a company that has been a pillar of California's north coast economy for nearly a century and a half is in trouble.
A series of layoffs and mill closures culminated earlier this year with Pacific Lumber warning that it was on the brink of bankruptcy.
Company executives began negotiating with a state agency last week over 11 logging permits that they say are crucial to the firm's survival.
Catherine Kuhlman, executive director of the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board, said the final decision on the permits wouldn't be issued until later this week, after the public has had a chance to comment.
The demise of Pacific Lumber -- with its own town and the world's largest privately owned groves of ancient redwoods -- would strike Humboldt County like a 300-foot redwood toppling to the forest floor.
Pacific Lumber remains the biggest taxpayer and private employer, with friends and former employees in key places in county government and the state Capitol. The company supports charities and community affairs -- and offers college scholarships to employees' children.
Since the early 1990s, Pacific Lumber has been at the center of one of the country's longest and most volatile environmental battles over the fate of some of the world's tallest trees and the wildlife they support.
To end the strife, six years ago, the state and federal governments made a $480-million deal for 7,500 acres of Pacific Lumber's oldest, grandest trees, creating the new Headwaters Preserve. The deal also required the firm to limit logging on its remaining 200,000 acres. But now the company contends that the terms are a huge financial burden and that it can't get enough logging permits to turn a profit.
"We're 140 years old ... and we're about to go bankrupt because of overlapping and duplicative regulation," company President Robert Manne said in a recent interview.
Company officials warn that if they have to declare bankruptcy, monitoring and remedial work on its lands would be dramatically scaled back, to the detriment of wildlife and water quality. But state officials say that terms of the agreement would have to be followed no matter what.
Environmentalists and other critics argue that the company has only itself to blame for its difficulties. They point out that financier Charles Hurwitz, whose Texas-based Maxxam Corp. acquired Pacific Lumber in a contentious takeover in 1985, soon liquidated hundreds of millions of dollars in assets, including a welding division and a farming corporation.
"They have taken so much money out of the company and their debt is so high that without the logs ... they are hurting," said Richard Wilson, who was former Gov. Pete Wilson's forestry chief when negotiations for the Headwaters deal were underway.
Under Hurwitz, Pacific doubled logging volumes, spawning years of costly protests by activists who blocked logging roads and perched in trees to prevent them from being cut. There have been hundreds of arrests, numerous injuries and one death.
Since the mid-1990s, a number of Pacific Lumber's neighbors have contended that excessive logging along steep slopes has triggered landslides, filled streams with sediment and flooded their property.
Before the 1999 Headwaters deal, the California Department of Forestry suspended the company's license for repeated forest rules violations.
"When Maxxam took over, they waved a red flag at the bull, and said we would do it our way," said opponent Woody Murphy, whose family had owned Pacific Lumber for decades before the takeover.