Jewish, Christian leaders issue call to protect redwoods

Jewish and Christian religious leaders found common ground — literally — when they jointly protested plans to cut down the world's largest unprotected ancient redwood forest.

Twelve religious leaders held a press conference at San Francisco's Grace Cathedral April 25 to deliver a statement asking President Clinton to help preserve Humboldt County's 4,500-acre Headwaters Forest.

"We must be responsible stewards" of the earth, the leaders said in their statement. "Plant and animal life are to be valued and conserved."

The Headwaters Forest area is owned and logged by the Pacific Lumber Company, which was bought in 1985 by investor Charles Hurwitz's company Maxxam.

Pacific Lumber Company's public relations director, Mary Bullwinkel, said she was surprised to see religious leaders tackling this issue. She said the clergymembers did not contact Pacific Lumber before releasing their joint statement.

In his own statement at the press conference, Rabbi Stephen Pearce of San Francisco's Congregation Emanu-El compared harvesting trees in the Headwaters Forest to tearing down the Washington Monument and using its stones to build a shopping mall.

Other clergy addressed scriptural justification for environmental activism.

Rabbi Daniel Goldblatt of Danville's Congregation Beth Chayim discussed religious traditions banning destruction of the earth. All the religious leaders at the event "shared a sense of stewardship of the earth," he said.

Pearce also drew upon a specific section of the Talmud, Eruvin 13B, in which God shows the world to the first man and woman:

"Think upon this and do not corrupt or desolate my world. For if you do, there will be no one to set it right after you," the passage states.

"When you consider that this [passage] is 1,500 years old, the ecological statement it's making is just phenomenal," Pearce said after his presentation.

Many of the Humboldt trees — some date back 2,000 years — are at least as old as the scriptural passages the speakers quoted at the press conference.

The forest is now temporarily protected from logging by a preliminary court injunction, designed to enforce the Endangered Species Act. Among the endangered species in the area are the marbled murrelet and the coho salmon.

Once the injunction expires, however, the forest could be clear-cut in 20 years, according to the religious leaders' statement.

Shortly after its hostile takeover of the Pacific Lumber Company in 1985 — a takeover structured by Michael Milken and the now-defunct Drexel Burnham Lambert investment company — Maxxam doubled the rate at which it cuts down trees.

The religious leaders are asking President Clinton to expedite a suit the Office of Thrift Supervision is currently filing against Maxxam and Hurwitz over the failure and subsequent bailout of the United Savings Association of Texas, a savings-and-loan institution controlled by Maxxam.

The statement also calls for Hurwitz to cede Headwaters Forest to the public as restitution to taxpayers for the failure of United Savings of Texas, and as a penalty for "unsustainable logging practices."

Bullwinkel said, however, that Maxxam and Pacific Lumber are two legally separate entities and that Pacific Lumber is not responsible for Maxxam's debts.

According to Karin Rosman of the religious and environmentally oriented World Stewardship Institute in Santa Rosa, who coordinated the press conference, Hurwitz has offered to sell the land but not give it away.

Bullwinkel also denied the statement's claims that Pacific Lumber twice illegally cut down trees in Owl Creek Grove, one of the forest's oldest sections. All cuts have followed approved harvest plans, she said.

Bullwinkel also said the area is zoned exclusively for the harvesting of trees.

The religious leaders, however, voiced a different perspective.

"The principle of sustainability summons each of us, in every aspect of our lives, to behave in ways that are consistent with the long-term sustainability of our planet," said the Rev. Rolf Bell, chair of the Sierra Pacific Synod, Environmental Concerns Committee for the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America.

Sally Grover Bingham of the Commission for the Environment, the Episcopal Diocese of California, said, "`Love thy neighbor' does not stop with the person next door — it extends to all of creation."