Saving Saved Redwoods

The last-minute agreement to save a rare stand of old-growth redwoods in northern California is cause for rejoicing coast to coast. These towering, millennia-old trees are an irreplaceable treasure.

But last week's agreement is also cause for caution. It will have to be diligently monitored.

The 10,000-acre Headwaters Forest itself is now safely in public hands. But the $480 million deal, combining federal and state funds, includes more than the transfer of that pristine tract of ancient forest. It also embraces logging practices on the much larger expanse of company-owned land that surrounds the Headwaters and will help determine its ecological health.

Environmentally sound harvesting will be crucial to protecting some endangered species - two kinds of birds and the coho salmon - that rely on the health of the redwood forests. Restrictions on logging in sensitive areas, such as those abutting salmon streams, nearly caused the company, Pacific Lumber, to back out as a deadline for federal participation neared.

The projected pace of cutting remains at issue. The company says it will be allowed one figure. State and federal regulators demur, saying they did not ease up on endangered species protections. These differing interpretations underscore the importance of how the agreement is implemented. Adequate buffer zones along rivers and land contours must not be slighted in favor of allowing the company better returns.

Compromise is inherent in any agreement like this. Pacific Lumber Co. is the largest employer locally. It must continue to operate. Unfortunately, since its hostile takeover by the Houston-based Maxxam Corp. in 1985, the company has doubled its pace of harvest. The parent firm wants immediate, maximum profits. That economic motive will constantly work at the edges of the agreement.

Environmentalists will be quick to sound alarms. Their concerns will get a more sympathetic hearing from California's newly elected Gov. Grey Davis. Federal officials, too, must follow through.

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