In the Shadows of Pacific Lumber: Legacy Forest Management and Recovery in Three North Coast Watersheds

April, 2015
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You may know the story: in the mid-1980’s, the old Pacific Lumber Company was taken over by corporate raider Charles Hurwitz and the Maxxam Corporation utilizing junk bonds to leverage the sale. Maxxam’s Pacific Lumber tripled the rate of harvest and aggressively targeted valuable old-growth forests, and even liquidated the pension fund set-aside for the hard-working people of the company. Before long, concerned local residents and forest activists began to notice profound changes in the landscape.

With the advent of the unprecedented winter storms of 1996–1997, combined with Pacific Lumber’s poor logging practices, it became clear—even to state regulatory agencies which had previously turned a blind-eye to the destruction—that significant adverse and cumulative impacts had occurred in many watersheds managed by the company and that timber harvest practices were a contributing factor.

Watersheds such as Bear Creek, Stitz Creek, Jordan Creek, Freshwater, and Elk River began to unravel, leading to significant changes to in-stream conditions, and to the elimination of critical spawning and rearing habitat for endangered fish species. In Elk River and Freshwater, local residents also found that the streams they once relied on for their domestic water supplies were tainted with excessive sedimentation; the water was no longer drinkable.

Soon, the state and federal governments sought a political solution to the problem. In March of 1999, state and federal agencies and Maxxam’s Pacific Lumber agreed to the historic Headwaters Forest Agreement. As part of this agreement, Headwaters Grove, the largest remaining contiguous stand of old growth redwood forest remaining on private lands, was transferred into public ownership, creating the Headwaters Forest Reserve. Hurwitz’s Corporation made out like bandits—receiving millions of dollars in this transaction, in addition to acquiring lands formerly owned and managed by Elk River Timber Company. Also part of this deal was the agreement between state and federal agencies and Pacific Lumber on a Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP).

Throughout the development and negotiations for the HCP, EPIC and other forest activists decried the deal as a political compromise that would leave large tracts of old growth redwood available for harvest. In addition, concerns arose that the HCP did not include protections or other set-asides in the Mattole Valley watersheds, where considerable stands of valuable old-growth Douglas fir forest would be slated for logging. The Mattole watershed was commonly referred to as a Headwaters Deal sacrifice zone.

EPIC closely monitored the implementation of the HCP on Pacific Lumber forests, and discovered numerous and egregious violations of the conditions of the HCP. In addition, predictions that the timber company would aggressively target the old-growth Douglas fir forests of the Mattole watershed in the wake of the Headwaters Deal came to pass. Forest activists and concerned citizens quickly mobilized to try and prevent or forestall Pacific Lumber’s charge to liquidate the old growth of the Mattole. Lawsuits and direct action in the forest slowed Pacific Lumber’s march in the Mattole.

Pacific Lumber continued its aggressive and damaging logging regime under the HCP until the company eventually filed for bankruptcy. In 2008, a group headed by the owners of Mendocino Redwood Company took control over the timber property and Humboldt Redwood Company (HRC) was born.

HRC immediately made sweeping and significant changes to the pre-existing management regime as administered by Pacific Lumber. HRC quickly phased out the use of traditional clearcutting, voluntarily agreed to end the logging of old growth on the property, and agreed to switch to a selection harvest management regime.

Although the days of Maxxam’s Pacific Lumber are thankfully behind us, the devastating legacy left from nearly two decades of intensive forest management can still be seen and felt. The lands acquired by HRC were degraded and depleted, littered with patchwork clearcuts and young, dense, overgrown even-aged forest stands. Although great strides have been made by HRC to address significant sources of sediment from landslides, roads, and related infrastructure in Elk River and Freshwater, nuisance watershed conditions still continue; and questions remain about the adequacy of existing management plans to address the legacy impacts.

EPIC has had a long-standing history of advocating for improved forest management practices and watershed recovery, specifically in watersheds like Elk River, Freshwater, and the Mattole. These are areas of biological and historic significance where recent-past forest management has left a trail of destruction that cannot be easily repaired. EPIC is committed to working with HRC to improve both watershed and forest resource conditions in these heavily impacted watersheds and also to improve forest management practices to promote both watershed and forest resource recovery.

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