|THE FOREST FOR THE TREES|
March 3, 1999
Paul Rogers, an environment writer for The San Jose Mercury News,
discusses the latest deal to save the California Redwoods.
JIM LEHRER: We begin our Redwoods story with some background by Spencer Michels.
SPENCER MICHELS: A deal was hammered out just before midnight Monday to protect 10,000 acres of Redwoods on California's Pacific Coast. Some of the giant trees are 1,000 years old or more.
Nearly 15 years ago, the once family-held Pacific Lumber Company was sold for nearly a billion dollars to Texas-based Maxxam, Incorporated. In order to pay down the debt on the junk bonds used to finance the hostile takeover, the company began cutting timber at nearly double the previous rate. Among Pacific Lumber's holdings: The Headwaters Forest, 3,000 acres of old-growth Redwoods reputed to be the largest stand of old Redwoods still in private hands. The Headwaters Forest is located near Eureka, 200 miles North of San Francisco. In addition, the company owns several nearby areas containing ancient trees that are home to the endangered Spotted Owls and Marbled Murlettes. Only 5 percent of the coast Redwoods that once covered much of the Pacific Coast still exist.
The company's plans to harvest trees in and near the forest provoked environmentalists into action. For years, they staged demonstrations at Pacific Lumber and in the forests; they supported bills in Congress to forbid the logging and to buy or swap the land. But the logging industry, and loggers themselves, also demonstrated, arguing that to stop the harvest would throw thousands out of work. In 1997, Congress approved $250 million toward the purchase of the forest, and the next year, California agreed to put up $230 million. But that still wasn't a deal.
Last month, long negotiations over the fate of forest land, involving the State of California, the Federal Government, and Pacific Lumber, came to a head as the federal money offer was about to expire. Pacific Lumber was unhappy with proposed restrictions on cutting, which it said could force it out of business. Some environmentalists said too many trees would be cut down.
Finally, with just a few minutes to spare on Monday night, and after officials clarified their offer, Pacific Lumber said okay. Under the agreement, Pacific Lumber will get $480 million, and it promises that for the next 50 years, it will protect endangered species and their habitat on land it owns, even outside the Headwaters Forest. In return, the Federal Government will acquire a total of 10,000 acres of spectacular Redwood Forest where timber harvesting will no longer be a threat. Public officials were very happy with the deal.
SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN, (D) California: The largest remaining stands of ancient Redwood trees in private ownership in the United States of America will be protected for all time.
BRUCE BABBITT, Secretary of Interior: My judgment that this acquisition will go down in history right alongside Yosemite, Sequoia and King's Canyon.
SPENCER MICHELS: The newly purchased land becomes a state and federal public preserve with limited public access, at least for now.
JIM LEHRER: Elizabeth Farnsworth in San Francisco takes it from there.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And for more on the Redwoods story, I'm joined by Paul Rogers, environment writer for the "San Jose Mercury News."
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Paul, first of all, why did this particular battle with all the demonstrations we just saw, with people sitting in trees, one woman's been in this tree for more than a year, with somebody killed, with a thousand arrests, why did this become such a big deal?
PAUL ROGERS, San Jose Mercury News: Well, I think it has to do with the unique nature of the land that we're talking about. These trees exist only in California, only 4 percent of the old growth Redwood that the United States originally had is still left. Almost all of that is in parks. Some of these trees date back to the time of Christ. They're 300 feet tall. Some of these trees you can have 10 people holding hands at the base around the tree and still not reach around it. So these are as unique a part of America's heritage, some argue, as Yosemite or the Grand Canyon.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: So that uniqueness explains why so many people at such high levels got involved -- Republican governor here made available or helped make available the state funds. Apparently even President Clinton got involved last week.
PAUL ROGERS: That's right. President Clinton was on the phone with Charles Hurwitz, the chairman of Maxxam, the Houston company which owns Pacific Lumber. All of these politicians on both sides of the aisle have had enormous pressures on them that have been building for 15 years. This started as a very small, local fight and became a national fight with coverage at the highest levels and a lot of political debates from Congress all the way down to the city councils.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What do you find most important about the deal itself?
PAUL ROGERS: I think what's most important here is the amount of money that was spent. This is the largest acquisition by the government for private property for -- of private property for park land in California since Redwood National Park was created in 1968 and then enlarged in 1978. So these deals of this scope, half a billion dollars, don't come along very often.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And what's more important here from the point of view of the people that have been involved in this, the trees or the animals? I mean, it's about both, isn't it?
PAUL ROGERS: That's right.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And by the way, what's a Marbled Murlette?
PAUL ROGERS: A Marbled Murlette is a diminutive sea bird, and it lives only in old growth Redwoods - or primarily in old growth Redwoods. It is also in the Endangered Species Act, which is something the timber companies don't like because environmentalists can use lawsuits to stop the logging of those trees.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: But both are important, the animals and the trees?
PAUL ROGERS: Absolutely. This preserve is going to be less valuable as a recreational area. It's very remote. There aren't going to be a lot of people who visit it. There are no trails there. When you go down into these forests, as I have, you have ferns over your head. You're in very steep spongy turf; it's almost prehistoric, these forests. But the value to wildlife, to some of these birds, to endangered salmon, is very important.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What's the reaction of workers?
PAUL ROGERS: Workers seem a little split at this point. They're very weary, as are the environmentalists. These fights have gone on, as I say, for 15 years. A lot of people are, frankly, just very burned out on both sides. I think the workers are worried that maybe too much timber has been taken off the table and it could lead to layoffs. Remember, that this company is the single largest private employer in Humboldt County. That's 1400 jobs; that's 1400 families that depend on this timber. So, there are human considerations, as well as the wildlife.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And you said environmental groups are also split?
PAUL ROGERS: They are. Indeed, we may call some of the more mainstream, or more well-known environmental groups, the Sierra Club, the Wilderness Society have come out and supported this deal, while other groups, the more local groups are still opposing it, saying it doesn't go far enough.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What kind of a precedent does this set if this is something that's gotten so much of national attention? Does it set a precedent for other deals like it around the nation?
PAUL ROGERS: I think it does. I think what you had here was an interesting synergy of environmentalists, of Republicans, of Democrats, of national folks and the Federal Government, of state folks and there are a lot of deals like this that we're going to see in the coming years. The reason I say that is the open space preservation, forest preservation, farmland preservation is becoming a very hot political issue. There are proposals all over Congress to ramp up spending -- from President Clinton to Don Young on the Republican side -- to spend more than $1 billion a year doing deals like this all across the country.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: So what is analogous to this? For example, this is saved here, there have been discussions in Northern Vermont, there have been discussions in Maine. Are these all sort of similar deals for preserving old forests?
PAUL ROGERS: Well, they are and they aren't. The deals that we're seeing right now in the New England area are a different type of forest. These are forests, which quite often have been logged over. They're much larger areas and the timber isn't as valuable per tree. Some of these Redwood trees are worth $100,000 each if you can cut them. The trees in the forests that we're seeing in Maine and Vermont, those types of deals, you're getting a lot more land, a lot more acreage for your money but it's a different type of tree. In terms of what is analogous, I think it's, again, this working together aspect where the private groups and the federal and the state people -- all coming together. We're going to see these in Florida, we're going to see them in Arizona, we're going to see them in Alaska, because this is an issue that the public is telling its elected representatives is very resonant. It's a good soccer mom issue. I would expect Al Gore to be talking about stopping urban sprawl, saving more forests, saving more wild lands. And we're going to see a lot of people look to this deal and say "If they could do it in Northern California, which is almost like the Arabs and the Israelis in terms of the long-standing anger, then we can do this anywhere in the country."
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And, Paul, if we were to drive up there tomorrow and we were to go to this place that has been preserved, what would we find? I mean, not that -- you describe the trees beautifully but is it going to be a park? Where there be, you know, park services? What's going to be there?
PAUL ROGERS: It's unclear right now what form this is going to take. It is a federal preserve at the moment. It's going to be overseen by the Bureau of Land Management. There will be public hearings in Northern California. I was told yesterday that come June people will first be able to go up there and visit it. Now you have to drive 10 miles off the highway up a dirt road, but they say they're going to have some gravel parking lots and pay toilets and kiosks and things, so if you wanted to see what the half a billion dollars bought, you'll be able to do that in a few months.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, Paul Rogers, thanks for being with us.
PAUL ROGERS: Thank you.