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Opinion: Easements Needed by Patrick Higgins, Humboldt Bay Harbor, Recreation and Conservation District commissioner

By Patrick Higgins
The Eureka Reporter
May 25, 2008

I had been in Humboldt County for only about a dozen years when Charles Hurwitz and his MAXXAM Corp. carried out the hostile takeover of Pacific Lumber Co. Although I had not yet been formally trained as a fisheries scientist, I knew that my fishing opportunities on the Eel River were about to diminish.

In fact, the increased logging and road-building on steep, unstable slopes caused catastrophic sediment yield, burying salmon spawning grounds in tributaries. This new sediment, combined with an elevated bedload from past land use and floods, now make the Van Duzen and Eel rivers go dry in August and September, when fall chinook salmon and steelhead historically would be entering the river.

Luckily, sediment pollution is reversible. Our rivers can recover as the landscape heals and sediment yield and hydrology return closer to their normal range; however, the rate of timber harvest and management techniques on PL’s lands will determine whether Pacific salmon will be restored or whether we will lose species, such as the coho salmon, over the next 20 years.

The MAXXAM-driven PL not only liquidated high-rises in San Francisco, it liquidated its forest assets, quadrupling the rate of cut the company applied when it was owned by the Murphy family. The new paradigm caused nearly 75 percent to 100 percent cutting in a 25-year cycle, when about 25 percent is recognized as a prudent limit for maintaining watershed health and salmon. As environmental damage and impacts to downstream landowners reached intolerable levels, community members began protests and lawsuits. Our community was split and rancor prevailed for more than a decade.

Now we have the prospect of enlightened and benevolent management by the Mendocino Redwood Co. Their plan for reorganization of PL is clearly the superior option of the four being considered in the bankruptcy proceedings. If the judge, however, decides to auction PL’s timberlands, I would prefer the community ownership plan proposed in cooperation with The Nature Conservancy because it would provide permanent working-forest easements.

There are striking similarities between the MRC plan and the TNC option, including 1) logging less than PL has since 1985 in order to enhance forest productivity and future employment, 2) ending clear-cutting, 3) saving old-growth trees that function as critical habitat for wildlife species and 4) operating with sustainable practices that merit the certification of the Forest Stewardship Council.

The difference comes in guarantees for the future. The easement within the community forest proposal would commit the 210,000 acres to timber production in perpetuity, make permanent the temporary PL Habitat Conservation Plan riparian protections that are critical to salmon recovery, and agree to spread harvest over the property to avoid concentrating disturbance and cumulative effects damage. Under community ownership, profits would be dedicated back to the community and responsible public access may be granted, a privilege that has been lost on most North Coast timberlands.

Although MRC is stating it is not factoring easements into the financing of the PL acquisition, the option is open to it. If the Nature Conservancy does not participate in a successful bid for PL, it still stands ready to help acquire easements that insure this important piece of working redwood forest remains intact and that fish and wildlife are protected in the long run. TNC has helped protect more than 1 million acres of working forests across the U.S. in this way. Such an agreement would net MRC or any party that assumed ownership up to 20 percent of the purchase price, which could amount to as much as $100 million.

Without easements, MRC will take the company and the land in the right direction, but that could change at any time at the discretion of the Fischer family. This means that their enlightened forest management could end whenever they decide to sell their real estate, in which case our community could once again suffer the boom-and-bust liquidation of more rapacious new owners.

Either the MRC proposal with easements or the TNC proposal would ensure long-term positive forest health trends, salmon recovery, and a stable and vital economy for our community.

Patrick Higgins is a Humboldt Bay Harbor, Recreation and Conservation District commissioner.

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