With no funds for Headwaters, Jews weigh next step

Negotiations have stalled and time appears to be running out for the California legislature to complete the proposed deal to purchase and preserve 7,500 acres of the Headwaters Forest.

Yet Headwaters activists in the Jewish community seem almost glad that state legislators are balking.

"I would prefer to see no deal in 1998," said Naomi Steinberg, student rabbi at B'nai Ha-Aretz in Garberville.

"Let's wait until we have a new governor and let's see if a new governor can negotiate a new deal that will actually protect the endangered species. What's the rush? It couldn't get any worse than it is now."

There actually is a deadline to make a deal. While U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-S.F.) helped convince the federal government to put up $250 million of the purchase price for the Humboldt County forest, the state needs to kick in the remaining $130 million by next March. Otherwise, the federal government will withdraw its chunk of money.

But the state Legislature has not approved the most recent proposal and will not offer the funds, unless certain environmental considerations are met, such as creating wider buffer zones for endangered species.

"The agreement is inadequate," said state Sen. Byron Sher (D-Palo Alto), who has written a bill calling for a no-cut zone of 170 feet from fish-bearing streams vs. the 30-foot no-cut zones being offered by the Maxxam Corp.

Maxxam is the holding company for Pacific Lumber, the Scotia company that owns Headwaters, the last privately owned virgin redwood forest in the world.

"The agreement Washington made was something our legislature had no part in," said Sher.

"And it's been criticized by environmental groups."

But Maxxam, run by Houston-based financier Charles Hurwitz, is not about to make any additional concessions to satisfy environmentalists' demands.

"Sher's bill is very different" from the agreement made with the federal government, Maxxam spokesperson Bob Irelan said by phone from Houston on Tuesday. "The wider stream-side buffers are totally unacceptable to us. We're in the business of producing commercial timber and we aren't in the business of preserving park land. If the deal is dead, we will have to reactivate our…litigation."

The corporation filed a suit against the state of California and the U.S. government in 1996, stating in essence that the Endangered Species Act was impeding Pacific Lumber from control over its own land.

Jewish environmentalists active in the Headwaters preservation fight have singled out Hurwitz because he is a major contributor to his Reform Congregation Beth Israel in Houston and a supporter of several Jewish organizations.

"We have a responsibility as Jews in our business practices to do our work in a way that's responsible to our neighbors and our community," said Barak Gale, co-chair of the Bay Area Chapter of the Coalition on the Environment in Jewish Life. "We also have responsibility as custodians of the land to be responsible tenants of the land."

Added Gale, "What Maxxam is doing in the forest is such a violation of the Torah."

For Carlotta resident Steinberg, who lives practically next door to the forest, her activism in the 10-year fight to save the Headwaters has been both a backyard and a Jewish issue.

"It's been very painful because Mr. Hurwitz is very much a member of our community [in Humboldt County] even though he doesn't reside here. He's the biggest employer and one of the largest land owners," Steinberg said. "How does a Jewish community deal with someone in its midst doing wrong? We are obligated to offer tochecha [a rebuke]. He's a member of the mishpoche [family] and we care how the mishpoche behave."