Eco-activists eat bagels from vegan bakeries. Locals drink beer in bars decorated with antique logging saws and animal heads. Bumper stickers profess support for various environmental causes, and yard signs urge solidarity with the local timber industry. Christians carve sculptures with chain saws, and hippies harvest acres of high-octane marijuana.
For more than a decade, this region of Northern California has been the scene of one of the state's most protracted and passionate environmental disputes. The Headwaters Forest fight, as it's known, pits the powerful Pacific Lumber Co., owned by one of the world's richest men, against a movement of hard-core activists determined to stop the logging of old-growth redwood groves.
The fight has been raging for so long that it's become a way of life, part of a daily routine that manifests itself most directly in the actual forests, where loggers and activists meet. Environmentalists have committed so much of themselves over time, the fight is almost a jihad. Periodically, the issue rises to the level of national news, most recently when sheriff's deputies swabbed the eyes of protesters with tear gas to break up a sit-in at a local congressman's office.
Undoubtedly, the most recognized symbol of the environmentalists' commitment is perched atop a 180-foot redwood tree on a ridge just west of the town of Stafford.
Her name is Butterfly.
It's been almost a year now since Butterfly -- a preacher's daughter from Arkansas whose real name is Julia Hill -- climbed the tree in an attempt to save it. She decided to stay, to draw attention to the larger cause and make her own personal statement about the relationship between humans and nature. Activists named the tree Luna, after the moon, and Butterfly began living in its branches. Since then, most of the trees around her have been cut down. She's been taunted, assaulted by a helicopter's wash, and almost blown away by storms. Most important, she has become a legend among environmentalists around the world.
Now, a solution may finally be at hand for the seemingly endless struggle. The state and federal governments are poised to spend a half-billion dollars to buy 7,500 acres of virgin redwood stands from the lumber company and save the forests from logging.
Although environmentalists are still poring over the plan, and details have yet to be worked out, in large measure they won. Portions of the forest will now be declared off-limits by law.
But winning is not easy for people who have built their entire lives around battling Pacific Lumber. The most determined -- the Earth First!ers and others who have spent the past several years staging rallies, beating drums, and disrupting the lumber company -- simply refuse to acknowledge their victory.
And Butterfly says she still will not come down from her tree.
Pacific Lumber Co. (PALCO) is the nation's largest provider of old-growth redwood and Humboldt County's largest employer. The company dates back to 1863 and until the 1980s was considered environmentally conscientious. It was careful to log its forests selectively, leaving behind enough old-growth redwoods to sustain the ecosystem. But that began to change in 1986, when the company was taken over in a hostile junk-bond deal by Maxxam, a Houston firm owned by leverage artist Charles Hurwitz.
After Hurwitz's arrival, PALCO began to change. The company liquidated its pension plan, hired more employees, and started cutting down more old-growth trees. Environmentalists contend that PALCO's aggressive clear-cutting of entire hillsides has led to mudslides, polluted streams, and the destruction of species habitats and residential homes. One mudslide in Stafford, on New Year's Day 1997, clogged the Eel River and wiped out seven houses, prompting homeowners to sue PALCO.
Even the local paper, the Times-Standard, has editorialized against PALCO, noting that the California Department of Forestry has issued 103 citations against the company in three years for violating state forest laws, including committing 14 infractions in the first six months of this year.
Local environmental activists have responded fiercely to PALCO's new ways. The North Coast office of the Earth First! organization, based in the nearby town of Arcata, began providing front-line reconnaissance, which grew into a bitter fight. As Earth First! spied on PALCO's activities, its members undertook "direct actions" -- chaining themselves to equipment and sitting in trees designated to be cut.
The Environmental Protection Information Center (EPIC), a grass-roots legal group in Garberville in place since the 1970s, assumed the laborious task of filing lawsuits against PALCO, alleging numerous violations of state and federal laws. EPIC has won many of its lawsuits, carrying some all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
A third group, the Trees Foundation, came together to provide administrative and promotional support for all the activist groups.
Since the Maxxam takeover, the fate of the old-growth redwoods has dominated life and politics in Humboldt County. At the epicenter of the dispute is the Headwaters grove, an area of ancient redwoods within PALCO's forest holdings.
Contrary to public perception, the conflict is not black and white. Few, if any, activists want to see redwood logging stopped completely in the area, because people need to work and feed their families. Conversely, nobody within the PALCO organization is interested in cutting down every single redwood tree in Humboldt County and killing every single species of bird, fish, and plant. The main concern for activists has always been the vigor with which PALCO is clear-cutting old-growth trees.
And they have a point. Forbes magazine may call Hurwitz one of the most powerful people in corporate America, but he also runs a sloppy lumber company. The state suspended PALCO's license last winter for repeated violations of forest practices laws and renewed the license on a conditional basis for 1998. Hurwitz and Maxxam have paid millions of dollars to settle lawsuits brought against them by former PALCO shareholders and retirees. Other lawsuits are still pending, including one by the victims of the Stafford mudslide on New Year's Day 1997.