BOSTON — To most visitors, northern California's ancient redwoods have been the New World equivalent of European cathedrals. But growing swiftly and sturdily to massive heights along the misty Pacific coast, they've also been highly prized as a source of valuable lumber.
For more than a decade, the fight over northern California's last remaining ancient redwoods raged as environmentalists and government agencies wrestled with the corporate owners who claimed their right to turn 2,000-year-old trees into decks and hot tubs.
This week, that long-running battle apparently closed in a way that will protect the trees while allowing some continued - although more strictly controlled - timber harvesting.
The $480-million deal involving the federal government, the State of California, and corporate owners is seen as the boldest effort to craft "habitat conservation plans" allowing resource-extraction and other development while protecting endangered species.
Such plans have been the keystone of efforts by the Clinton administration to reconcile private-property rights with the growing realization among scientists that saving species from extinction must involve protections for land and water.
This week's deal involves the controversial Headwaters Forest, the largest remaining privately owned redwoods grove. It is owned by the Pacific Lumber Co.
Under the agreement, which transfers 10,000 acres to state ownership, the US will pay the company $250 million and California will contribute $230 million. In return for giving up rights to log the Headwaters Forest, which will become a public preserve, Pacific Lumber gets assurance that it can log the rest of the more than 200,000 acres it owns. But the company, accused of over-cutting, must also follow strict guidelines about things such as logging on steep slopes and along streams.
Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt likens the deal to the acquisition of such national "crown jewels" as Yosemite National Park, and many large environmental groups applauded the last-minute resolution as well.
Other activists vowed to fight the deal. They note that Pacific Lumber was acquired in a hostile takeover involving junk bonds by Houston-based Maxxam Corp. Since then, the company has tripled its rate of logging.
But it seems now that after years of political debate, a series of lawsuits, arrests of hundreds of activists, and the death of one protester killed by a falling tree, the Headwaters grove has been spared the chain saw.