Religious leaders pray to save Headwaters

Led by Emanu-El's Rabbi Stephen Pearce, the interfaith gathering was only the first step in a five-part action plan to save California's redwoods. Over the next six months, the Bay Area's spiritual community will bring its moral weight to bear on the issue of Humboldt County's beleaguered Headwaters Forest.

"Every religious tradition has a sense of stewardship of the earth," said Pearce. "This is an issue for the faith community in general."

It's a constituency that Headwaters needs. Traditional campaigning seems to have had little impact on corporate raider Charles Hurwitz, whose Maxxam Corp., which owns Pacific Lumber, made a hostile takeover of Headwaters in 1985. The company has been logging the property aggressively since then, despite protests that Headwaters is the nation's last unprotected redwood forest.

"We need a miracle," reads the Interfaith Task Force's promotional material. "We need you."

Though the religious community has not traditionally been associated with environmentalism, symposium participants expressed little doubt about the connection between religion and the environment.

"It's something for our coming generations — we have to save our earth," said Iftekhar Hai of United Muslims of America. The Rev. Gerard O'Rourke of Saint Gabriel Church described the current decade as a kairos (opportune) moment to save the environment.

And for Dr. Barak Gale, Bay Area organizer for the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life, the salvation of Headwaters is a profoundly Jewish issue.

"What is more sacred in our tradition than the continuity of life?" he said.

Moral weight or no, the task force has its work cut out. Though a deal was made in October 1996 in which the Clinton administration agreed to buy 7,500 acres of Headwaters for $380 million, the remaining 52,000 acres of the forest is still in danger.

On Sept. 15, a moratorium on salvage logging in the ancient groves of Headwaters Forest will expire. Feb. 17, 1998 marks the deadline for negotiations on a Habitat Conservation Plan being negotiated between Maxxam and the federal government.

In view of the project's urgency, four foundations "cast aside their traditional ways of making grants," said Pearce, and made substantial donations. The Goldman Environmental Foundation and the Columbia Foundation each gave $20,000; the Wallace Alexander Gerbode Foundation and the Walter Elise Haas Fund donated $10,000 each.

Pearce hopes that clergy who attended the symposium will now commit themselves to the action steps outlined by the task force. These start with the delivery of a sermon on Headwaters on the weekend of Sept. 12-14.

"If every church and synagogue next weekend has a sermon on Headwaters, and if all of their congregants write letters and distribute posters, we could have 40,000 or 50,000 letters being written," said Pearce. "That would have tremendous impact."

And for any participants who might still doubt the religious nature of the issue, keynote speaker Paul Gorman pointed out that they were not just jumping on the environmental bandwagon.

"There is more to prophecy than protest," he told the assembled clergy. "We are not the environmental movement at prayer."

Instead, he said, "We are people of faith, coming to address an inescapable crisis."