An epic environmental conflict for control of the largest stand of privately owned ancient redwoods in the United States appears to be over.
The Clinton administration announced a tentative agreement Saturday to buy the Headwaters forest on California's North Coast from Texas tycoon Charles Hurwitz.
The deal would mark the end of a bitter dispute that has seen courtroom wrangles and deep- woods clashes. For 10 years, environmentalists have fought to stop Mr. Hurwitz, who owns Pacific Lumber Company, from felling the pristine woodlands.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) of California, who mediated weeks of tough negotiations, called it a "win-win" agreement that will both preserve the redwoods and maintain the economic well-being of residents in the timber industry-dependent region.
Under the announced agreement, the federal and state governments would jointly acquire a 7,500-acre forest preserve, including the 3,000-acre Headwaters grove, the smaller Elkhead Springs grove, and a buffer zone. Pacific Lumber and its corporate parent, the Houston-based Maxxam conglomerate, would get about $380 million in cash, land, or other assets. The deal is subject to legislative approval.
But environmental organizations that have led the struggle to preserve Headwaters forest emerged dissatisfied with the terms of the agreement.
"Despite the tremendous effort by the Clinton administration and Senator Feinstein ... the proposed deal is flawed at its heart," says Kathy Bailey of the Sierra Club and the Headwaters Forest Coordinating Committee, an alliance of environmental organizations.
In a conference call on Saturday morning, 18 environmental leaders urged Deputy Interior Secretary John Garamendi, the chief federal negotiator, to go back to the bargaining table. "Garamendi told us 'this is the best we can do,'" says Ms. Bailey, who participated in the talk.
Hurwitz had previously insisted the property was worth $700 million. Environmental organizations had proposed the federal government swap the land for claims against the Houston financier that result from the collapse of a Texas savings and loan institution he owned.
Environmental activists have long advocated preserving 60,000 acres of forest, which includes the Headwaters grove. They argue that is necessary to protect the habitat for several endangered species that make their home in these woods. "The announced 'deal' will not provide a biological solution to the Headwaters issue," stated Cecelia Lanman, leader of the Environmental Protection Information Center, which has led the legal battle against Pacific Lumber.
The activists are particularly concerned that the land purchase is contingent upon the completion, within 10 months, of a habitat conservation plan (HCP) and a sustainable yield plan for the remaining 200,000 acres of Pacific Lumber land in southern Humboldt County. Such plans would in principle provide protection for wildlife and habitat, but would also allow logging for at least 25 years without any possibility of altering the plan.
During the 10 months of work on the plans, all logging on the lands to be purchased will be halted. But if there is no agreement on the plans, the whole package, including the purchase of the reserve, will be void.
"There will be tremendous pressure to approve a plan Hurwitz likes," says Bailey. "Experience leads us to expect that we and the property are going to get hammered."
Environmentalist concerns rest on their past experience with the process of preparing habitat plans, carried out by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. The result has been a net loss of habitat for endangered species while allowing logging companies to work for decades without threat of intervention, they say.
Environmentalists argue that the 10 months allocated is far too short to carry out a serious scientific study of such a huge land area. They are also concerned that the deal will severely limit, if not eliminate, their ability to go to court, the key to their past success in halting attempts to log the ancient groves.
For Maxxam, agreement on the habitat protection and long-term logging plan means an end to the legal and political disputes that have blocked it from fully exploiting its rich timber reserves. "It's very important to us that the HCP be approved in a timely fashion," says Maxxam spokesman Brian Oakley. "It is critical for us being allowed to log on the remainder of our property."
Interior Department officials argue that the process amply allows for the participation of outside groups in preparing the assessment. "Once they gain confidence that the HCP can work, [environmentalists] will also see it as a huge win," says Jana Prewitt of the Interior Department.