Life + Outdoors » Field Notes

Headwaters: The Redwoods in our Backyard


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"On March 1, 1999, the Headwaters Forest and surrounding lands ... were acquired from private owners," reads the Bureau of Land Management information booklet, which you can pick up in the Headwaters Forest Reserve parking lot. What a tale of intrigue, greed and violence that brief statement omits! It all started with a hostile takeover of the Pacific Lumber Company (PALCO) in 1985 by Charles Hurwitz's Maxxam Corp.

For the previous 122 years, from its founding in 1863, PALCO harvested huge areas of forest in the Eel River basin. The company's long-standing policy of sustained-yield logging while protecting several old-growth stands changed when PALCO became a subsidiary of Maxxam, and clear-cutting became the new order of the day. Of particular concern to conservationists was Headwaters Forest, a vulnerable 20-square-mile section of old-growth redwood, Douglas fir, tanoak, Sitka spruce, red cedar and hemlock, centered about five miles northeast of Fortuna.

The takeover led to a 15-year battle to save Headwaters, especially its stands of 2,000-year-old redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens). A popular movement, Redwood Summer, was organized in 1990 to mobilize public opinion to protect this and other old-growth forests of Northern California. When a pipe bomb exploded in the car of activists Judi Bari and Darryl Cherney on May 24, 1990, the subsequent incompetent investigation by the FBI probably did more to promote the cause than any number of demonstrations could have done. In 2002, a jury awarded $4.4 million to Cherney and Bari's estate (she died of cancer in 1997) to settle a federal civil rights suit filed against the FBI and Oakland police officers for violation of the couple's First and Fourth Amendment rights. No one has ever been charged for the attempted assassination.

Finally — after 60 percent of the current reserve had been clear-cut, and some 35 miles of roads built — an agreement was reached. Maxxam accepted $380 million for the property (66 percent federal funds, the remainder state), and 7,500 acres of land came under the joint jurisdiction of the BLM and California Fish and Game. Today, the public has limited access to the reserve, since the primary intention, according to the BLM, is to "protect and preserve the ecological and wildlife values in the area, particularly the stand of old-growth redwoods that provide habitat for the threatened marbled murrelet, and the stream systems that provide habitat for threatened coho salmon."

That said, we can visit at least one beautiful section of Headwaters. To experience our area's nearest grove of old-growth redwoods, take Elk River Road (a mile south of Big K on 101) and follow the signs. The trail is basically in two sections: three miles (including a mile of pavement) of old logging road, which you can walk or bike; followed by nearly three miles of pedestrian-only steep (and sometimes muddy) trail. Your reward will be a loop trail through a virgin stand of ancient redwoods soaring heavenward. Total distance is 11 miles in four to five hours of hiking. I'll be covering the ranger-led hike from Salmon Pass (above Fortuna) in another column.

Barry Evans ( agrees with John Muir, who claimed he never saw a discontented tree.


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