Vow by new company to protect Humboldt's old-growth forests, use sustainable logging practices may spell end to generation of acrimony
Sandy Dean walked a hidden Humboldt County trail in a windbreaker and jeans as morning fog lifted to reveal a breathtaking stand of ancient redwood trees.
The 43-year-old chairman of the newly formed Humboldt Redwood Co. had arrived the night before from San Francisco and was making his first visit to the iconic Nanning Creek grove, which is on a hillside overlooking the historic mill town of Scotia, about 25 miles south of Eureka.
A timber executive's presence here used to raise alarm among activists who for two decades battled the forest's former owners -- Houston-based
Maxxam -- over the company's timber harvest plans, which included felling some of the grove's oldest redwoods.
But Dean, whose sneakers and hip glasses contrasted sharply with the boots and suits worn by executives of what was then Pacific Lumber Co., has promised not to cut old-growth trees anywhere on the 210,000 acres now under his control. The change in ownership occurred officially in July.
Dean made similar promises in Mendocino County, where he and his partners -- the Fisher family, heirs to The Gap retail fortune -- bought 222,000 acres a decade ago and established the Mendocino Redwood Co. Combined, the two companies form the dominant redwood producer from Ukiah to Eureka, a huge territory in which they hope to rewrite the rules of corporate timber harvesting and in the process end decades of mistrust.
Gone are the corporate barons that dominated logging for a generation, igniting the timber wars with environmental activists that drew national attention even as the resource economy virtually collapsed. Now, a single ownership with San Francisco roots is attempting to forge a new future for timber country, saying they're in it for the long haul.
The plan emphasizes sustainable logging, healthy forest ecosystems, progressive employee policies and greater transparency of company plans and operations.
Whether this brings lasting peace in a place where the roots of animosity run deep is a question of acute interest not just to eco-warriors, but to hundreds of millworkers and loggers whose futures depend on the outcome.
For now, Dean and his management team are being welcomed as heroes, which explains the reception that he and Mike Jani, chief forester and president of the new company, received at the Nanning Creek grove.
Led on the once-secret path by a woman in flowing dreadlocks, Dean and Jani were brought to the foot of "Spooner," a 300-foot mammoth redwood at least 1,500 years old where the last of the tree sitters was making preparations for coming down.
"This is clearly an example of being a good steward," Dean said of his decision to spare the giant. "Leave it better than you found it. This is irreplaceable."
20 years of clashes
Few envisioned such a moment at the site of one of the iconic environmental battles of the past 20 years.
In 1986, Houston financier Charles Hurwitz, helped by former junk bond king Michael Milken, purchased Pacific Lumber in a leveraged buyout that sent shock waves through the North Coast. Members of the Murphy family, which had owned or operated Pacific Lumber for generations, tried to block the takeover, but their minority stake failed to sway the company's board.
The ensuing anger was directed at Hurwitz's company, Maxxam, for greatly increasing Pacific Lumber's harvest of redwoods in order to meet annual interest-only payments on $850 million in junk bond debt, a figure that later grew to $950 million.