The Battle Over Headwaters Forest

Revolutionary Worker #926, October 5, 1997 "I believe in the golden rule. He who has the gold rules."
--Maxxam CEO Charles Hurwitz after his corporate takeover of Pacific Lumber in 1985


"From the standpoint of a higher economic form of society, private ownership of the globe by single individuals will appear quite as absurd as private ownership of one man by another. Even a whole society, a nation, or even all simultaneously existing societies taken together, are not owners of the globe. They are only its possessors...they must hand it down to succeeding generations in an improved condition."
--Karl Marx, in Capital


Over the last several years a battle has been raging in the logging fields in California's Humboldt County, 300 miles north of the San Francisco Bay Area. On the one side stand thousands of people who care about the earth--youth, environmental activists, musicians and others. On the other side stands Charles Hurwitz and his Maxxam Corporation and its profits.

At the center of this battle is the 60,000 acre Headwaters Forest. Included in the forest are six ancient redwood groves, with trees up to 2,000 years old. The largest stand of trees is the Headwaters Grove itself--at 3,200 acres one of the largest continuous stands of ancient redwood forest anywhere and by far the largest on private lands. The six virgin groves (which have never been cut) are separated from one another by a patchwork of residual old-growth (forest that has been partially cut in the past but which still contains some large uncut trees, smaller virgin groves, second-growth forest, and cut over lands.) Biologists believe that the full 60,000 acres is the minimum acreage necessary to ensure the long term survival of the endangered plants and animals of Headwaters Forest.


Even beyond the folks who live near or are able to visit the Headwaters Forests, the remaining stands of redwood trees are a precious and irreplaceable resource for humanity. There is much to be learned from this complex ecological system that could be applied to improve the global environment. As the oldest living things on earth, these giant redwood trees are an irreplaceable source of knowledge about the development of the life on the planet. And the awe-inspiring beauty of these trees should be the collective property of the people of the world. There is no rational reason to destroy these forests so some capitalist can pay off junk bonds.

Giant redwood trees are the largest living things on the planet. Northern California is the only place in the world where they exist. The largest trees have a base the size of a typical living room and reach more than 20 stories into the sky. The tops of the trees filter out the sunlight, creating a cool, damp twilight. Carpeting the forest floor are a wide variety of ferns and other vegetation. Ancient redwood forests contain the largest mass of living matter of any ecosystem. In fact, these forests can contain eight times as much living material per acre as can be found in tropical rain forests.

Redwood forests have existed for millions of years. During the time of the dinosaurs they covered much of North America. Since the last ice age ended 10,000 years ago, coast redwoods have been limited to northern California coast where the climate is perfectly adapted to their needs. Until the 1850s about two million acres of California was covered with pristine redwood forests. The redwood forest stretched from the Oregon border to Big Sur (about 150 miles south of San Francisco) and 20 to 40 miles inland. In the 1850s, Americans poured into California seeking gold. When some of the settlers became disillusioned, unable to find their fortune in gold, they went to the north coast. The Native peoples who had lived on the land for centuries were massacred and forced onto reservations and their land was taken from them. Eventually much of the prime timberland ended up owned by big lumber companies like Pacific Lumber, Georgia Pacific, and Louisiana Pacific. Today less than 4 percent of the ancient redwood forest remains.

An ancient redwood forest is a unique and complex ecosystem that has developed over many thousands of years. Despite the propaganda of the timber industry, it is not a "tree farm" that can be cut down and grown back in a few years.

Trees of all different ages form a multilayered canopy over the forest. Even the dead trees play an important part--they provide habitat and protection for a number of species. Fallen trees become riddled with insect holes and soak up water like a sponge, becoming the rich soil that is needed by the growing trees.

The forest is home to hundreds of species of animals. There are many complex interactions among these species that have a tremendous effect on the life of the forest. One example is the relationship between red-backed voles (small rodents), redwoods, and truffles. The voles depend on the redwood trees for shelter and eat large quantities of a certain variety of truffle that lives just beneath the forest floor. The spores from the truffle can live up to three months in the vole's gut and are transported all over the forest by the small mammals. The truffles then attach themselves to the shallow roots of the redwood trees, acting as a extension of the trees' root system and greatly increasing the root's ability to absorb water.

Many species in the forest are highly adaptable and can exist in many different environments. Others animals, which are "old growth dependent" and require unlogged and undisturbed forest for part of their life cycle, have become endangered because of the destruction of the redwood forests.

One of the species dependent on the old growth forest is the marbled murrelet, a small seabird that only nests in the upper branches of trees that grow near the ocean. The murrelet will only nest in branches that are thickly covered with moss, and it is estimated that it takes 150 years for a tree branch to accumulate enough moss to be a candidate for a murrelet nest. Only three areas in California are known to contain murrelet nests. One of these is the Headwaters Forest. Over the last 100 years the murrelet population has declined from 60,000 birds to less than 2,000. This decline is caused by the logging of trees needed by the murrelet for nesting sites. If the ancient trees in the Headwaters are cut down it will be a major blow to the murrelet's chances for survival.

The Coho salmon have also been endangered by the destruction of the forests. The Coho live in the ocean and travel upstream to the forest to spawn. In the past the Coho was an important part of the salmon fishing industry, which employed over 10,000 people, second only to logging along California's northern coast. In recent years this industry has collapsed. Now there are only an estimated 5,000 Coho salmon left, less than 1 percent of their population in the past. One of the primary reasons behind the decline is intensive logging in and around the streams where the salmon return every year. Salmon require cool, clear streams. Cutting down the forests raises the temperature of the water and causes erosion. The salmon cannot survive in the warmer, silt-filled water.


For over a century Pacific Lumber owned Headwaters Forest and nearly 200,000 acres of redwood timberland in Humboldt County. In the early 1980s PL still owned healthy forests long after other timber companies had cut their holdings. All of this changed after the Maxxam Corporation, under CEO Charles Hurwitz, raided the Pacific Lumber Company in 1985.

Charles Hurwitz's office is decorated with a large picture of a big fish swallowing a smaller fish. Maxxam's takeover of PL was one of many in the 1980s. Under these deals a company buys another company and finances the deal using high-interest, high-risk loans called junk bonds. The assets of the company must then be sold or turned into profit very quickly in order to pay these high interest loans. Maxxam's takeover was financed by the notorious firm of Drexel Burnham Lambert headed by Michael Milken.

There were many shady dealings that went into this takeover including insider trading (using secret information that is not available to the public) and having people secretly purchase and hold stock so as to avoid reporting requirements. Several of the key players in the takeover ended up going to prison for their roles in the PL takeover or other financial dealings. However, their sentences are not like those given to regular people--for example, Boyd Jeffries, a financier who purchased 2.5 percent of PL stock for Hurwitz, pled guilty to several violations of federal regulations. His "penalty" was doing community service teaching young people to play golf in Aspen, Colorado.

Hurwitz also acquired United Savings Association of Texas (USAT) along with Milken and Co. Hurwitz was Chairman of the Board of the United Financial Group, whose main asset was USAT. USAT was heavily invested in highly risky junk bonds and speculative real estate--97 percent of USAT's securities portfolio was in junk bonds. When USAT collapsed in 1988, it would leave the federal government a $1.6 billion debt, the fifth largest bank failure in U.S. history.

Meanwhile, Hurwitz commenced liquidating PL's assets to pay his huge loans. One of the first things that Hurwitz did was raid the PL pension fund. By "renegotiating" the pension fund with a company called Executive Life Insurance, Hurwitz and Maxxam were able to walk away with $55 million of the $90 million-dollar pension fund. Outside consultants recommended against placing the pension fund with Executive Life, which was financially unstable and heavily invested in junk bonds. In 1991, the California Insurance Commissioner seized control of Executive Life in the largest insurance failure in U.S. history. According to the reorganization worked out by the insurance commissioner the PL retirement plan continued to pay benefits, but only at the rate of 70 cents on the dollar. Maxxam has promised to make up the difference. After the failure it was revealed that Executive Life held $350 million in Pacific Lumber junk bonds.

Of course the main "asset" that PL needed to turn into cash was its huge timber holdings, including the Headwaters Forest. Immediately after the takeover PL tripled its redwood logging, purchased a fourth lumber mill, and added an extra shift. The ancient trees began falling at an alarming rate.


As huge logging trucks loaded with ancient trees began to clog the highways of Humboldt County, environmental activists began to organize against the devastation. Earth First! organized direct action to slow down the pace of the cutting and to bring public awareness to the issue. They strung a huge banner over Highway 101, busted into corporate meetings, staged "tree-sits" where activists sat on three-foot by six-foot platforms high up in the redwoods. They blocked roads, and they chained themselves to machinery and to trees.

As the movement became more militant and confrontational, it began to attract youth from all over the country who wanted to save the environment. Judi Bari (who died in 1997) and others began organizing among timber workers, arguing that the movement also needed to forge alliances with these workers who are exploited and mistreated by the companies but who are confused about who are the real enemies.

In 1990 Earth First! leaders Judi Bari and Darryl Cherney called for people to come up to Humboldt for "Redwood Summer." Redwood Summer was inspired by and modeled after the "Mississippi Summer" mobilizations that drew thousands of youth from around the country to register Black people to vote in Mississippi in the 1960s.

As the movement to save the Redwood Forests became more effective it also became the target of vicious attack. False press releases began appearing in the mills and logging towns calling for violence. Judi Bari wrote that death threats against herself and others "became thick and heavy and law enforcement refused to investigate."

On May 24, 1990 a bomb exploded under Judi Bari's seat as she drove through Oakland with Darryl Cherney. Judi's injuries were severe and painful and left her permanently disabled. The FBI and Oakland police refused to investigate any possible suspects and instead charged Bari and Cherney with bombing themselves. Houses and offices were raided, leaks to the media falsely painted Earth First! as a terrorist group, and supporters of Earth First! around the country became targets of FBI harassment.

Judi Bari and Darryl Cherney fought back by filing a lawsuit against the FBI and the Oakland police and working to expose the role of the political police in the bombing and coverup. The FBI's story began to come unraveled and they were forced to drop charges against Bari and Cherney--although the actual bomber was never found.

Despite the government's attacks, Redwood Summer drew over 3,000 demonstrators to Humboldt County in 1990. Over 250 people were arrested when they put their bodies on the line to stop the destruction of the forests and confronted timber industry executives.

The Environmental Protection Information Center (EPIC) in Garberville have filed lawsuits challenging the rubber stamp that the California Department of Forestry previously gave Timber Harvest Plans (THPs) filed by the timber companies. And most logging in the ancient groves has been blocked by court actions. But PL logging is still chugging ahead at full steam, including in other parts of Headwaters Forest. In 1996, Maxxam filed seven THPs targeting 954 acres in the Headwaters Forest. So far in 1997 the company has filed an additional nine THPs totaling 947 acres. Thirteen of the 16 areas covered by these plans contain old growth trees. Many of these plans have been approved and logging has already begun.

And starting on September 15, 1997 Maxxam has announced that it will start salvage logging in the ancient groves of Headwaters. Salvage logging takes advantage of a loophole in the federal laws and allows a company to remove downed trees and up to 10 percent of standing trees that it claims are dead or diseased without getting any agency approval. This salvage logging is very destructive to the forest eco-system. Downed trees are important--as they decay they provide the soil for future generations of giant trees. The downed logs provide a home for all sorts of animal and insect life. Also, healthy trees are damaged in the salvaging process.


Where are we gonna work when the trees are gone
Will the big boss man have us wash his car or maybe mow his lawn?
I'm a man, I'm a man, I'm a lumberjack man
But I fear it ain't for long
Where are we gonna work when the trees are gone...

--From a song by Darryl Cherney


The lumber companies have tried to pit workers against environmentalists by using the lie that if the ancient forests are protected then many workers will lose their livelihood. Some loggers have been fooled by this propaganda and wear foolish T-shirts with slogans like, "Spotted owl tastes like chicken." Some workers have even done the bosses dirty work and physically attacked demonstrators.

Many environmentalists have stressed that the same forces of private property and capitalism that are destroying the forests are also responsible for screwing over the timber workers and have attempted to form alliances with the workers. Judi Bari wrote in her book, Timber Wars, "We have to recognize that their working conditions are not separate from or subordinate to the rape of the forest. They are part and parcel of the same thing."

Logging is one of the most dangerous occupations according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Fortunado Reyes was killed at the Louisiana-Pacific Mill a few years ago. Fortunado had been the target of insults by a foreman, a well-known racist, who taunted him, calling him a sissy for refusing to work in an unsafe manner. A few days later Fortunado was crushed between a pile of lumber and a huge piece of machinery.

According to Timber Wars, loggers and mill workers make $9.00 an hour to start and the top wages reach $14 to $15 an hour. There are reports of immigrants being hired to do this dangerous work and being paid only $5.00 an hour.

Environmentalists point out that when the forests are cut down loggers and mill workers will be out of a job. Already many timber companies that have over-logged their land for years are shutting down mills and laying off workers. In 1989 Louisiana Pacific shut down its sawmill in Potter's Valley which employed 136 people. Subsequently they opened up a chip plant that only employs 15 people. In 1990 LP closed its mill in Covelo and laid off 195 people.


Protests to defend Headwaters Forest have continued throughout the 1990s. By the summer of 1996, 7,000 people demonstrated outside PL's gates and over 1,000 were arrested as they blocked the roads. This year nearly 10,000 people rallied in the town of Stafford.

In 1996 California Senator Dianne Feinstein brokered a deal with Maxxam to trade $380 million in state and federal money for 7,500 acres of Headwaters containing two of the six ancient groves. Environmental activists denounced this deal, saying that it was primarily set up to end the protests. It only protects a small part of Headwaters Forest. They point out that a small isolated island of ancient trees cannot exist surrounded by clear-cuts.

Activists also point out that in exchange for only a portion of the forest, Hurwitz and Maxxam will most likely be able to log the remaining land without regard for endangered species or old growth redwoods. This is because as part of the deal the company must submit a Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP) for the old growth areas outside of the 7,500 transferred acres. A HCP is a document that allows landowners to destroy habitat and kill endangered species on part of their property in exchange for protecting habitat elsewhere. Maxxam is pushing and will probably get free reign on its remaining land in exchange for the habitat that is protected in the land that is sold to the government.

"Like all other species, human beings always have and always will--they cannot help but--approach everything from the vantage point of their species; but precisely from this vantage point, the infliction of suffering on animals, or the destruction of plant life, which is not motivated by and does not serve the overcoming of suffering among human beings and the advance of human society overall, but instead is simply the expression of the desire to demonstrate cruelty or exercise power or is dedicated to no higher purpose than such things as luxury consumption for the parasitic and self-indulgent privileged strata--all this is degrading of humanity and should therefore be opposed."
--Bob Avakian, Chairman of the RCP

Over the last 100 years, the system of private property and capitalism have ruthlessly devoured what nature has taken thousands of years to produce. And today the last of this magnificent forest is threatened, just so a huge corporation can pay off the interest on its bank loans. This is a system whose time is up.

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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