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A truce amid the redwoods

A new owner's vow to save old giants and log sustainably draws tree sitters out of perches in Humboldt County.

August 24, 2008|Eric Bailey | Times Staff Writer

SCOTIA, CALIF. — Beneath the gnarled green-needled boughs of the North Coast redwoods, a remarkable encounter one recent day shook the roots of the forest's fiercest struggle.

A top timber company executive hiked into the woods with a message for the latest generation of tree sitters perched on platforms high in the massive limbs of the ancient trees they've campaigned to protect.

Come down out of the sky, he told them. The war is over.

With that, a cautious transformation has begun: For the first time in the memory of even the grayest of locals, the vast lands of Humboldt County's most storied timber firm could soon be devoid of protest.

Ever since Texas millionaire Charles Hurwitz and his Maxxam Inc. used junk bonds to finance the hostile takeover of Pacific Lumber Co. in 1986, the logging concern has been the focus of a stubborn series of demonstrations -- from the "Redwood Summer" civil-disobedience arrests in 1990 and Julia "Butterfly" Hill's celebrated two-year tree-sit in Luna to the latest encampments aloft in the Nanning Creek and Fern Gully groves.

Now a bankruptcy and new ownership group have uprooted the status quo. A timber firm owned largely by the Fisher family, of Gap stores fame, acquired Pacific Lumber through bankruptcy court, renamed it Humboldt Redwood Co. and set upon a new path away from the more aggressive logging practices of the Hurwitz days.

Mike Jani, Humboldt Redwood president and chief forester, vowed to the tree sitters during his recent meetings beneath the conifers to hew hard to the tenets of sustainable logging: essentially cutting no more wood per year than the forest can grow. Jani told them he would spare the oldest of the old-growth redwoods, the world's tallest living organisms.

In the days since Jani's unheralded Aug. 12 walk into the woods, word has spread among the activists behind the redwood curtain of the North Coast.

"This is excellent news, to say the least," said Jeanette Jungers, who has fought to spare these forests for more than a quarter-century. "We've gone from being characterized as environmental terrorists to being embraced. This is like falling down a rabbit hole. I feel like Alice in Wonderland."

More than just deliver news, Jani offered a humane embrace. He applauded the activists' perseverance and dedication to a worthy cause. He voiced heartfelt assurances. In one case, he talked a balky sitter out of a tree and then offered a hug.

His visit, Jani said later, was "an issue of human respect."

The last of the tree sitters, now toiling 150 feet above the fern-decked forest floor to pack up their high-altitude encampments, took time off one recent afternoon to share their glee.

"This is a huge, huge milestone," said a 22-year-old woman who identified herself only as Cedar and has been perched aloft since she arrived from Edmonton, Canada, nearly a year ago. "It's been unbelievable to me that this has happened. But this isn't my victory -- I just sat on guard."

Signs of change can be spotted in the gloaming of the forest floor. Tape reading "no cut" adorns the old growth in Nanning Creek grove, which sits on a hillside overlooking the old Pacific Lumber mill in Scotia, 15 miles south of Eureka. Marks targeting trees to be cut have been stripped clean.

The authenticity of Jani's gesture was burnished by a stark absence of forest industry PR: no press releases from the company, no invitation for news reporters to watch.

Officials at Humboldt Redwood Co. say Jani's message to the young activists of the trees was old news.

The new firm is an offshoot of Mendocino Redwood Co., which also is owned by the Fisher clan. Over the course of a decade's ownership, Mendocino Redwood has won over many forest activists with a brand of logging that's lighter on the land.

The firm's directives to avoid axing old growth trees or clear-cutting vast groves were among the selling points it used to win the right to acquire Pacific Lumber.

"We hope to duplicate the things we do well one county away," said Sandy Dean, chairman of the timber firms. "The intent is to operate with a high standard of environmental stewardship."

Pacific Lumber under Hurwitz mowed down trees in vast clear cuts to maximize profits and hungered to cut mammoth thousand-year-old trees; the new company intends to wield the chain saw far more selectively on its sprawling 328 square miles of coastal forest and won't cut any redwood born prior to 1800 with a diameter of 4 feet or more.

Such practices have earned the company certification by the Forest Stewardship Council, a stamp of approval required by retailers of "green" products such as Home Depot, Lowe's and Kinko's. Dean said it's a more expensive way to manage a forest, but the family-owned firm believes "having a healthy, well-stocked forest will be a good investment over the long term."

Scott Greacen, executive director of the Environmental Protection Information Center in nearby Garberville, called the meeting in the woods "a really important moment."

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