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Headwaters: 10 Years After World’s Largest Unprotected Ancient Redwood Forest was Saved

photo: redwoods

Ten years ago, on March 1, 1999, the federal government and the state of California agreed to pay Charles Hurwitz of Maxxam Corp. $380 million for an imperfect and yet miraculous 7,472 acres of Pacific Lumber Co. land east of Humboldt Bay between Fortuna and Eureka. The acquisition of that nearly 7,500 acres — 3,000 acres of unlogged old growth forest in a cushion of 4,400 acres of heavily logged and roaded land — plus two less-intact smaller groves elsewhere was the relatively simple part of the deal, he said.

“You bought that, and you also bought agreements from the company that they would log the land that remained in private ownership in a way that would complement the purchase of the reserve to make it a habitat for the endangered species,” Sher said. “And those covenants run with the land.” That means the new owner, Humboldt Redwood Company, which took over after the bankruptcy, must follow the agreements.

Phil Detrich, a U.S.Fish and Wildlife Service biologist who was his agency’s lead negotiator in the Headwaters Deal, said the deal also bought — or so it was hoped — something else that was critical. People were climbing into the trees and not coming down. And, two years before the deal was finalized, Sheriff’s deputies had begun swabbing activists’ eyes with pepper-spray-dipped Q-tips.

Less than a year before the deal, a young man was crushed to death by a tree felled by an angry logger. “It was increasingly getting violent, the conflict was escalating, and that was of concern especially to the politicians,” said Detrich. “So, we bought some peace in the woods.” “You know, 96 percent of the two million-acre redwood biome had been chopped down already … and here we had the last of the last,” King said.

“And so when Maxxam took over Pacific Lumber, a whole bunch of bells went off throughout the country because people who watched old growth redwood and the protected status or lack thereof had been looking at these lands for a long time. And now they were basically watching it be cut down.” Mitch Farro, projects manager of the nonprofit Pacific Coast Fish, Wildlife and Wetlands Restoration Association, has been working with another group, Pacific Watershed Associates, on decommissioning roads and restoring the landscape both inside the preserve and on adjacent private timberlands owned by Green Diamond ever since the reserve was created.

He said in a phone interview last week that they tackled roads in the Salmon Creek watershed first. “We took out the Worm Road first,” said Farro. “The environmentalists call it the Road of Death. It was punched right into the middle of the main grove in about 1996 — it started at the top of the Salmon Creek watershed and went up the ridge and over the ridge into the Little South Fork watershed.” Heppe said the BLM has also been thinning out some of the Douglas firs on the reserve, where they’ve come in thickly on logged lands that once held old-growth redwood. “We’re trying to remove some of those to allow the redwoods to come back,” he said.

In addition, the BLM also is studying and preserving the reserve’s cultural resources — from the site of the mining town of Falk, to older sites possibly once used by Native Americans, to the history of fire — natural and human-caused. Many activists, and some biologists, say the reserve, though managed well, only goes so far to help protected species. “Unfortunately, the Headwaters Deal took the charismatic Headwaters Forest, but it did not protect the whole watershed for salmon,” said fisheries biologist Patrick Higgins, who serves on the board of the Humboldt Bay Harbor, Recreation and Conservation District.

“And I counseled those decision makers at the time that this strategy of preserving this postage stamp and its geography would not obtain that objective, and it hasn’t.” Higgins said most of the land in the Headwaters Forest, especially along the Little South Fork Elk River and the Salmon Creek watershed, is too steep for coho salmon, although steelhead and cutthroat trout fair somewhat better. “It’s really good amphibian habitat,” he said. “There’s probably a ton of tailed frogs and Torrent salamanders. The tailed frog is a species that breathes through its skin and can only live in water and air temperatures colder than 60 degrees, and it thrives in the microclimates of the Headwaters Forest.” “The rest of the area around the Headwaters has been highly fragmented — there’s extremely high road densities, there’s very bad geology and the rate of timber harvest has been in the 80 percentile in Elk River since 1980,” Higgins said.

“Salmon are not thriving in Humboldt Bay nor in the lower Eel nor in the Van Duzen. We haven’t done that well on private land, or even on protected park lands like Humboldt State Parks and the lower end of those tributaries that go across parks. So we don’t have any coho salmon refugia.” Detrich remembers one moment in particular that brought that home to him. “In one of the public hearings on the draft habitat conservation plan, where people were limited to three minutes each, we had a long series of young and old environmentalists read The Lorax by Dr. Seuss — you know, ‘I speak for the trees,’” he said. “They read the entire book into the record as public comment. And that we, the biologists and scientists, had to consider these comments in the context of our dry reports — it was a ludicrous concept. At the same time, it was one of the most moving moments of my life. “And at the end, a crowd chanted “I speak for the trees. I speak for the trees. I speak for the trees.’ It was just remarkable, to contrast that spiritual approach to nature with the laws and regulations and science — to see the different paradigms of how we approach nature.”

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