Area Jews see themselves saving a forest from one of their own

The ongoing battle to protect the Headwaters Forest isn't only pitting environmentalists against industry, it's setting Jewish leaders against one of their own.

The 60,000-acre Humboldt County forest, owned by the Maxxam Corp., has the distinction of being the last remaining privately owned virgin redwood forest in the world.

Houston financier Charles Hurwitz is Maxxam's CEO. He is also a member of and a major contributor to his Reform Congregation Beth Israel in Houston.

For more than a decade, environmentalists and others have been trying to protect the ancient forest and its wildlife, some of which is endangered.

Politicians have been stepping in, most recently proposing a deal to purchase 7,500 acres for $380 million and to protect key areas from logging. While the federal government has committed $250 million, many California legislators currently are fighting against handing over the other $130 million — unless Hurwitz is willing to permit more environmental protections.

"We're throwing up our hands and are ready to walk away," Dan Reeves, chief of staff for state Assemblywoman Carole Migden (D-S.F.), said this week.

Migden, who is Jewish, is co-chair of the state's Joint Committee on the Headwater Forest and Ecosystem Management Planning Committee.

Reeves added that Maxxam officials have "refused to negotiate in any real way on the conservation plan. The deal is falling through."

Nothing could be further from the truth, according to Maxxam spokesperson Bob Irelan.

"We have made a great many concessions and have cooperated with every entity — the state, the federal government — in preservation of a habitat and in resolving this issue," Irelan said Tuesday from Houston. "Mr. Hurwitz thinks we are acting very responsibly and have shown enormous patience. After all, we are in business."

Many Jewish leaders who are passionate about saving Headwaters expect more from Hurwitz than business-as-usual.

"The Jewish point of view relates to spiritual and ethical limits as to how people are permitted to make their money," said Rabbi Margaret Holub of the Mendocino Coast Jewish Community in Caspar. "The whole world is not his oyster."

Irelan contended that preserving the entire forest is unrealistic, unnecessary — based on the company's scientific studies — and will prove disastrous for the economy in Humboldt County, where Maxxam's Pacific Lumber Co. is the No. 1 employer in the area, providing 1,500 jobs.

"If we close up shop, an already economically distressed area would be extremely distressed," Irelan said.

Holub doesn't buy Hurwitz's balancing act. "He's taking the trees hostage. It's as if he's saying, `I'm going to kill them unless the government pays this ransom.'"

Jewish leaders in the environmental movement say they are troubled that Hurwitz has consistently dismissed all pleas, protests, negotiations and requests on behalf of preserving more of the Headwaters land.

"A core Jewish value is stewardship of the earth," said Rabbi Stephen Pearce, spiritual leader of San Francisco's Congregation Emanu-El and a founder of the Interfaith Coalition to Save the Headwater Forest.

"It's sad," Pearce said. "Here's a Jew that should somehow be [driven] by higher Jewish values and doesn't seem to care. This is a guy who could be a hero and go down in history along with John Muir. But, instead, he's going to go down as one of the devils of environmental catastrophe."

The Reform movement's Central Conference of American Rabbis overwhelmingly passed a resolution at its annual meeting in June in support of "protecting and restoring the ecological integrity of the Headwaters Forest."

Other Jews involved with Headwaters supported the rabbis' stance.

"The guy [Hurwitz] makes no connection between his faith and his actions," said Ted Nordhaus, a Jew who is executive director of the Oakland-based Headwaters Sanctuary Project.

According to Nordhaus, 96 percent of California's original redwoods have already been cut down.

To mourn the forest's destruction, student rabbi Naomi Steinberg of B'nai Ha-Aretz near Garberville and Barak Gale of San Francisco's Congregation Sha'ar Zahav led a group of 25 people, mostly Jews, in a day hike in the Headwaters in observance of Tisha B'Av on Sunday.

Tisha B'Av, a remembrance of the destruction of the First and Second Temples, was appropriate for honoring nature, said Gale.

"Where is there a greater temple than in an ancient forest?" Gale asked.

Several people fasted at the event, which drew people from as far away as Phoenix. The day was spent mourning, hiking, praying and sharing Torah commentaries.

For Gale, the most moving moment came toward the end of the service when one of the participants blew the shofar. "The last blow was really long," he said. "It was as if all the trees were joining in and wailing. It was fitting."

The group ended the day with a walk through one of the ancient groves, which is currently protected.

"There was a spirit of hopefulness as I saw light streaming in through the trees, lighting them like gold," Gale said. "It gave me the feeling of what it was like at one time."