To some along the north coast of California, the battle to save the last of the untouched redwoods seems to have existed just about as long as an old-growth giant: 1,000 years or more. There have been lawsuits and countersuits, angry confrontations in the woods, and arrests of hundreds of protesters over the years.
But now it looks as if there may be a resolution to the decade-long controversy.
Federal and California state officials are huddling with representatives of the timber company that owns the largest privately held area of ancient redwoods left in the world. And if things work out, a key part of what's called the Headwaters Forest could get permanent protection in exchange for other government property.
"It's going to take some time, and it's not going to be easy," says Jana Prewitt, spokeswoman for the United States Interior Department. "But we're very serious, and we'd like to see it concluded."
So would Pacific Lumber Company and its parent corporation Houston-based Maxxam, which have faced years of bad publicity and court fights over the issue.
"We certainly hope that this will lead to an accord that both preserves Headwaters and justly compensates us," says Maxxam vice president Robert Irelan.
Sources on both sides say the 3,000-acre Headwaters grove (plus 1,500 to 1,700 acres of additional redwood forest as a buffer) could be exchanged for logging rights on other federal land, ownership of other timber land, urban housing developments, or decommissioned military property. Prominently mentioned in the latter category is Treasure Island, a former US Navy site in San Francisco Bay.
Swapping something other than forest land for Headwaters might be the easiest route. Maxxam has extensive real estate holdings already, and allowing it to log elsewhere in the national forests might present a new set of legal difficulties involving endangered species protection.
"We don't want to swap one environmental problem for another," Ms. Prewitt says.
Headwaters (the grove under negotiation and the forest around it) is valuable - some say priceless - not only for aesthetic and emotional reasons, but because it's habitat to several threatened species. These include the notorious northern spotted owl, Pacific salmon, and the marbled murrelet, a robin-sized shore bird that nests in old-growth redwoods.
Environmentalists are worried that government negotiators may give up Headwaters too easily.
"The Clinton administration needs to resist Maxxam's attempt to dictate the terms of an agreement," says Cecelia Lanman of the Environmental Protection Information Center, an organization in northern California that has successfully sued Maxxam to stop logging Headwaters.
Activists claim the entire 60,000-acre Headwaters Forest, not just 4,500 acres or so, needs to be protected.
"We need a biological, not a political, solution," a coalition of environmental groups wrote to President Clinton in a letter published in The New York Times last week. "You can not allow only one ancient grove to stand as a tree museum surrounded by barren hills and dying creeks."
Then there's the matter of Maxxam's controversial chairman and CEO, Charles Hurwitz. In an unfriendly takeover involving high-risk junk bonds, Maxxam acquired Pacific Lumber and its 195,000 acres of timber land in 1986. The family-operated California timber company had conservatively managed its forests for more than 100 years. When Maxxam took over, the rate of cut in the redwoods was doubled - in part to pay off the debt incurred in buying the company.
Meanwhile, Mr. Hurwitz also had been involved in the collapse of a Texas savings and loan institution that had to be bailed out with nearly $1.6 billion in taxpayer money. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation last year filed a $250 million claim against Hurwitz citing "a pattern of deceptive financial reporting and balance sheet manipulation."
Hurwitz's lawyers deny the charges, but environmentalists have been pushing a "debt-for-nature swap" in which the Texas financier would give up the Headwaters Forest in exchange for taxpayer costs associated with his dealings.