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Seeing the Forest for the Trees

For 150 years, California redwoods were plundered, martyred, horse-traded, and legislated to the point of near destruction. But now, implausibly, an epic convergence of whistle-blowers, tree huggers, loggers, and a family of billionaire merchants is rewriting the story of some of the world’s oldest living beings.

Up highway 101 north, past the winding Russian River and Ukiah, past the Avenue of the Giants and their rocket-size trunks, about 15 miles from the Pacific Ocean, there’s a tiny redwood-mill town called Scotia (population 800). You often hear that there are two types of people in this part of California—hippies and loggers—and that never the twain do meet on friendly terms. That’s why my visit today with Amy Arcuri defies so many preconceptions that it makes my head spin.

The dreadlocked environmental activist picks me up by the Eel River in her dusty white Oldsmobile Bravada, with her children, River and Irie, giggling in the backseat. Arcuri is all smiles and chatter as we bump along a dirt road and into the hills, where she unlocks a chain-link fence to the redwood forest surrounding Scotia. Arcuri knows this private logging land like her own backyard. She has walked tens of thousands of its acres; only a few years ago, she spent days at a time as a tree sitter, camping more than 300 feet up a 2,000-year-old redwood called Spooner, trying to save it and the rest of the grove from the company saw. “We had to sneak in after midnight and climb the fences,” Arcuri recalls during our hike in the shade of the canopy to find Spooner. “Security was always after us.”

These aren’t just any woods. Arcuri is letting me into the largest private redwood holdings in the world, the same forest where the famous Julia Butterfly Hill perched in an old-growth redwood for 738 days, where David “Gypsy” Chain was killed by a falling redwood while he was trying to stop the cutting, and which Judi Bari and Darryl Cherney were fighting to preserve when a bomb mysteriously exploded under their car. Some have compared the 23-year battle for this land to the conflict in the Middle East. Here, though, the battle involved thousands of activists and longtime timber workers, Bay Area power brokers and infamous Wall Street tycoons, backroom deals hammered out at the top levels of state and federal government, and charges of fraud that led to multimillion-dollar lawsuits.

So if it seems strange that a woman who used to break into these woods now has her own keys to the kingdom, it is. These days, Arcuri spends the time she used to dedicate to tree sits walking the land with company foresters, whom she now considers friends, to identify old growth, the awe-inspiring trees that are the tallest and some of the oldest living things on Earth. “To let you know just how cool these people are,” she says, “when they did mess up a couple of times and accidentally cut some old growth, they called to tell me so I could come see with my own eyes.” Perhaps even stranger than this latter-day rapprochement is what made it possible: In 2008, the San Francisco–based Fisher family, the billionaire founders of Gap and owners of Banana Republic, acquired these 209,000 acres in the bankruptcy proceeding of the Pacific Lumber Company, which was owned by Texan and Wall Street mogul Charles Hurwitz. At the time, Hurwitz was coming off of 20 years of overlogging this land, which had nearly decimated the redwoods and the local habitat.

Over the past two years, the Fishers have been quietly shaking up the redwood world in Humboldt with an audacious pair of goals: to let the forest recover and to make money. Indeed, the Fishers and the team they’ve assembled to run their operation, now called the Humboldt Redwood Company (HRC), have become symbols of a California sustainable-forestry movement that could go as viral as any West Coast game changer, from stem cells to silicon chips. Mike Fay, a botanist with the National Geographic Society and a leading redwood expert, puts it like this: “The technology that foresters are using here is a complete reversal of the past 150 years. And what if Cal­ifornia could say, ‘Hey, world, look at what we’re doing. We’re actually going to rebuild our forests. We’re going to get the creeks back in good shape, we’re going to get the erosion down to zero, we’re going to get the fish back, and we’re going be harvesting more and higher-quality lumber.’ That would be amazing.”

How the rest of the California timber industry will proceed remains uncertain. But the largely untold story of the fate of Pacific Lumber is a compelling parable about a century-old quest to find a way to live by, and with, the land. It’s also the unlikely tale of how government-driven solutions to environmental problems aren’t always as good as those devised by private parties who have their heads screwed on right. And, with luck, it will become the story of how the California redwoods were finally saved for real. >>

To tell this tale, you have to start with Richard A. Wilson, the man who headed the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection from 1991 through 1999, the decade during which the Humboldt timber wars burned the hottest. A Republican appointed by then gov­ernor Pete Wilson, Richard Wilson was known as both a rogue environmental leader (he helped craft the forest practice rules of 1973, still the backbone of California forest law) and a timber- and cattleman who could speak to activists and industry heads alike. He’s a legendary battler—in the late ’60s, he succeeded in blocking the construction of a dam that would have flooded Round Valley, where his own ranch was located—and he ultimately became a whistle-blower who helped bring Hurwitz’s Pacific Lumber down. He is still considered one of the department’s best leaders ever.

It is January 2010, and I’m hiking through the Headwaters Forest Preserve with Wilson, a tall 76-year-old with a grandfatherly air, a stubborn streak, and an old bluetick coonhound named Sophie. It’s a Sunday morning, and residents and tourists are already out picnicking, hiking, and admiring the trees.“Look at these fellows,” Wilson says, pointing to a cluster of redwood stumps so thick, they might have sprouted not long after the fall of Rome. He has been telling me about why these stumps are so extraordinary, which is basically his way of reminding me that we now have our lowest redwood inventory in 150 years: The old-growth redwoods, generally thought of as anything that’s more than 150 years old and has never been cut, are 95 percent gone and have been replaced by lesser-quality second- and third-growth trees (and a fair amount of Northern California 20th-century development). The reason, Wilson explains, goes back to the very founding of the state.

From the Gold Rush through the early 1920s, Western settlers hacked half of the original redwood population, with a big chunk of that wood going to rebuild San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake. Even then, groups such as the Save the Redwoods League began springing up, and eventually Congress was spurred to create the Redwood National Park, about 50 miles north of Eureka. But throughout the ’60s and ’70s, liquidation forestry was the method of choice—and still is, at some companies, for second- and third-growth redwoods. There are several versions, including clear-cutting, which means leveling all the trees in a stand, like a barber giving a buzz cut, and high-grading, which means removing the oldest wood and leaving the junk. But the principle is the same in both scenarios: You cut faster than the forest can naturally rejuvenate. These methods allow big timber companies to get their money out of the forest as quickly as possible—but they lead to the gradual degradation of the forest and less revenue down the line.

Mike Fay recently spent nearly a year with his hiking partner, naturalist Lindsey Holm, walking and studying the world’s only coast-redwood range, from Big Sur to just past the Oregon border—the first known journey of its kind. After talking with sawmillers, timber CEOs, and everyone in between, Fay may know more about the current state of redwoods than even Wilson does. He breaks down the liquidation model into four steps.

“First, you cut the old-growth stands,” Fay says. That’s where you get those gorgeous, rot-resistant slabs that made those decks in Sunset magazine glimmer. Step two is to start hacking at the second-growth stands, generally after 50 years, which is too soon to get the highest-grade wood (that takes at least 100 years) but still yields a decent product. Now you’re flush with cash and have clients who trust your timber, Fay explains, but you’ve been cutting faster than the forest can grow. Plus you’ve had to build massive logging roads to accommodate timber-hauling tractors, which causes sediment runoff that sullies local waterways and slams the population of coho salmon.

On to step three: Liquidate the brand. After a clear-cut, faster-growing trees such as tan oaks will pop up like weeds. To keep them from overtaking the new redwoods that are trying to sprout, you’ll likely have to use herbicides on them, which gradually weakens the soil. Also, because you’ve depleted the forest, this third round of trees is growing in direct sunshine instead of in more natural partial shade, so the wood is a lower grade that has little of the redwood’s famed resistance to decay. Liquidating the brand means selling this inferior wood at the same high price until your clients finally get wise—which, if you’ve timed it right and you’re that kind of company, is when you get to step four: You walk away from the business, leaving acres of crappy forests to sell to whomever.

In the late ’60s, Wilson watched this downward spiral on his own acreage on Buck Mountain, in Men­docino County, where he’d signed a contract to sell timber to the midsize Crawford family sawmill. “I knew they would harvest my timber in a way that respected my land,” he says. However, timber behemoth Georgia Pacific acquired the Crawford Lumber Company mill, and with it, the rights to log on Wilson’s land. Under the direction of CEO Harry Merlo—famous for the motto “We log to infinity”—the company took a turn for the worse, says Wilson. “Merlo would fly over my land in a helicopter and make sure they got every last merchantable tree,” he describes, recalling a key event that sparked his interest in sustainable forestry. It was a miniature version of what would soon happen with Pacific Lumber and Hurwitz. >>