Now Playing

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.


What happens if a tree falls in the forest...and everyone with money, power, or ego hears it?

A now-to-then guide to the moguls, pols, barristers, and believers who have been drawn like butterflies to the nation’s most fiery forest controversy.

The son in charge
”Other natural resources are depleted when they’re exploited—but timber doesn’t have to be.... In theory, it can last forever.’’—JOHN FISHER, third son of Gap founder Don Fisher, who has made the Fisher family the largest private owner of redwood forests in the world.

The enviro
“The business begins with substantial capital, so it can operate to a higher environmental standard.”—ROBERT FISHER, Gap chairman and the eldest Fisher son, explaining to a redwoods activist how he and his family justified becoming loggers.

The don
“I don’t have a lot to say about that; you’re better off talking to John.”—DON FISHER, the patriarch of the family, who passed away last year, referring a journalist to his son to talk about the family’s bid for control of Pacific Lumber’s redwoods.

The cheerleader
“Today’s decision in the Pacific Lumber bankruptcy case is good news for the people of California.” —Governor ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER, celebrating the 2008 decision to turn over the reins of Charles Hurwitz’s company to friend Don Fisher.

The jilted bidder
“I will serve as chairman of the company, with the authority to manage these 209,000 acres of timberlands.”—Former governor PETE WILSON in 2008, boldly proposing himself as “plan agent” when noteholders tried (and failed) to win Pacific Lumber over the Fishers. 

The dealmaker
“This agreement was truly the last, best chance to save Headwaters.” —Senator DIANNE FEINSTEIN, whose private five-year negotiation with Hurwitz led the government to pay him $406 million for a fraction of his forest. Feinstein was dogged by claims that she drove a soft bargain due to her Wall Street ties.


The seal of approval
“Redwoods are a natural treasure, as much a part of our legacy as the world’s great libraries and cathedrals.”—BILL CLINTON, who had made saving the Headwaters an election pitch in 1996, attempting to share in the glory of Feinstein’s Headwaters deal.

The convert
“Until you come here yourself, and this is my first time, you cannot understand how awe-inspiring this is.”—Democratic governor GRAY DAVIS, after signing the Headwaters deal, even though it was questioned by his own forestry chief and negotiated by his Republican predecessor, Pete Wilson.

The avenger
“We will produce experts who will talk about how these models were manipulated.”—Nationally famous Bay Area plaintiff’s attorney JOE COTCHETT, in the opening statement of his case charging Hurwitz with fleecing the government in the Headwaters deal by misleading them about how many redwoods were left on his land.

The defender
“Excuse me, I’m here, too. And I can be just as loud as you, if the court please.”—Equally famous Bay Area defense attorney JAMES J. BROSNAHAN, going toe-to-toe with Cotchett as he defended Hurwitz against the charges in an Oakland court.

The raider
“There is the story of the golden rule: He who has the gold rules.”—CHARLES HURWITZ, CEO of Maxxam and infamous 20th-century corporate raider, to his new Pacific Lumber employees in 1985, kicking off the mighty battle and 23 years of clear-cutting.

The financier

“[I] never made a penny dishonestly.”—MICHAEL MILKEN, who ultimately pleaded guilty and served 22 months in jail for securities violations, helped Hurwitz take over Pacific Lumber with about $800 million in junk bonds.

The talk-show host
“No one from Texas can own the trees, birds, and all the other species!”—JERRY BROWN, shouting to a crowd of thousands of anti-Hurwitz protesters, including Bonnie Raitt and Woody Harrelson, in 1997. Brown was lost in the political wilderness and hosting a show on KPFA at the time.

The wild card

“The swap for Treasure Island has great promise.”—A 1996 San Francisco Chronicle editorial, parroting then mayor WILLIE BROWN’s thumbs-up on offering Treasure Island to Hurwitz in exchange for the Headwaters.

The symbol
“I had to laugh, because I was so thankful that I didn’t have to sit through another winter.’’—JULIA BUTTERFLY HILL, on the cold, damp morning when she descended (after 738 days) from her famous perch in the 1,000-plus-year-old tree she named Luna, after Hurwitz cut his deal with the government.


Three shifts that will rebuild the redwoods
By Jaimal Yogis

More consumers buy sustainable.
Look for “FSC-certified” on redwood you buy at the lumberyard—it means that the timber company that grew it manages its forests sustainably. “If people vote with their dollars for certain kinds of ecological forest practices,” says Peter Tittmann, a PhD candidate studying forest carbon management at UC Davis, “that will send a clear message to timber companies.” The Home Depot, for example, is now the largest retailer of FSC-certified wood in the country. (Influencers, take note: President Obama had his inauguration invitations printed on FSC-certified recycled paper, and his annual Easter-egg hunts have used FSC-certified wooden eggs.)

Sustainable foresters are rewarded with lighter regulations.

Given the lessons of the past 150 years, deregulating the forests doesn’t sound like a good idea—but it is, at least for landowners who can show a record of sustainability. Cumbersome regulations keep outfits such as the Humboldt Redwood Company from having the time and resources to conduct crucial research into sustainable forestry, says the HRC’s top forester, Mike Jani. These days, timber companies must meet bureaucratic requirements for eight regulatory bodies. “We spend so much energy just going through the permitting process and compliance that we don’t have time to study what we’re doing,” Jani says. Even former state forestry leader Richard Wilson, who played a pivotal role in creating many of the regulations, now says that the state “really needs to just start over.” Of course, no one suggests that we unfetter the timber market completely—only that we reward good behavior. “It’s a balance,” says John Rogers, of the Institute for Sustainable Forestry. “Obviously, there will be companies out there that will take advantage of looser regulations, but it’s a problem when people of goodwill can’t achieve positive results.”

Carbon trading takes off.
Because of their age and resistance to disease, redwoods are the best trees for removing and storing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, so timberland owners are licking their chops at the deals awaiting them on the incipient carbon-trading market—deals that could potentially make them serious bucks and save the trees. Already, big timber company Sierra Pacific Industries is in the preliminary stages of the largest carbon-offset deal in U.S. history, involving giant sequoias.Some environmentalists are excited, too, albeit with caveats. On the plus side, the nonprofit Conservation Fund bought 24,000 acres of redwoods and Douglas firs in Mendocino that a series of large logging companies had raked over. Had the Fund not stepped in, reps say, the land might have been turned into a vineyard or subdivisions. The deal was made possible by the ability to sell millions of dollars in carbon credits to investment firms and to PG&E under the advance carbon-trading market, which officially kicks off in California in 2012. However, in an irony that drives environmentalists crazy, there’s some evidence that clear-cutting actually sequesters more carbon than leaving the trees alone does. That’s because redwoods grow back faster after a clear-cut, and some experts believe that the faster a tree grows, the more greenhouse gases it sucks up. So carbon trading could wind up as a classic rob-Peter-to-pay-Paul dilemma, encouraging the exact wrong approach to the forest.