Jewish activists give Headwaters deal mixed reviews

Because the California legislature made an 11th-hour deal to save the endangered Headwaters Forest in Humboldt County, environmentalists can move on to another cause, right?

Wrong, said Karen Pickett, coordinator of the Berkeley-based Bay Area Coalition of Headwaters.

"Headwaters is not saved yet. I have mixed feelings about the deal," Pickett said. "Any acquisition of endangered forest land is a good thing. But it's like buying an island in a sea of clear-cut. There's still not adequate protection for the species," she said, referring to the ancient trees as well as threatened wildlife.

Nearing midnight on Aug. 31, the day the legislature adjourned its 1998 session, the state appropriated $245 million toward the purchase of 9,400 acres of the last remaining privately owned virgin redwood forest in the world.

In addition, the federal government had already committed $250 million toward the purchase from Maxxam Corp, which owns the land through its subsidiary, Pacific Lumber Co.

The complicated agreement, laid out in state bill AB 1986, also includes a proposed Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP), which will apply to the entire 200,000 acres that Maxxam now owns (including the 9,400 acres being sold). The HCP, which is subject to public hearings and may still be modified, must be approved before Maxxam receives its money.

Naomi Steinberg, a student rabbi at B'Nai Ha-Artez in Garberville, has been part of the fight to save Headwaters for more than 10 years. She called the bill and the HCP a "greenwash."

"That means when people claim something is good for the environment and it's not," said Steinberg. "We're giving [Maxxam] the license to kill endangered species and paying them nearly half-a-billion dollars to do so.

"Politics is the art of compromise. But you can't compromise when species are hovering on the brink of extinction. Saving isolated groves do not a forest make, no matter how beautiful they are."

The bill specifies that over the next three years, cutting will be restricted in areas such as fish-bearing streams, which provide essential habitats for the endangered coho salmon.

The bill also requires a federal wildlife agency to study the area and determine an appropriate buffer zone to protect animals such as the marbled murrelet bird.

Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt called the deal "a magnificent achievement" — despite the fact that it is the costliest acquisition of park land in U.S. history.

Steinberg, who lives in Carlotta, two miles from the Headwaters forest, said of the agreement, "It's unspeakably painful because it's in my backyard.

"As a rabbi," she added, "I can't say things are good when they're not. I've got to tell it like it is. Endangered species are going to be killed. I don't care if I look like a whiner.

"I have a vision of a world where justice and compassion for all creatures reign," she said. "The world is not there yet."

Some environmentalists worry that the government paid too high a price for the land. Said Pickett, "The primary problem with the price is that it sets a terrible precedent for corporations extorting money from the government for endangered habitat."

San Francisco Congregation Emanu-el's Rabbi Stephen Pearce, who has been active for at least three years in the battle to save Headwaters, viewed the deal as a realistic compromise.

"Money talks. For the right price, they were willing to sell everything," he said. "This was strictly a business deal. You just don't take somebody's property without some compensation."

Pearce praised the perseverance of Sen. Dianne Feinstein and San Francisco Assemblywoman Carol Migden, author of AB 1986, in negotiating with Maxxam CEO Charles Hurwitz of Houston.

However, Pearce added, "As a Jew, I was not proud that we were bucking up against another Jew [Hurwitz] who seemed difficult."

Steinberg recalled a Yiddish saying to sum up her opinion about the deal. "Oys dray zachn shtayt di velt: oys gelt, oys gelt, un oys gelt," she said, translating the phrase as, "The world depends on three things: money, money and money."

Another activist, Barak Gale, who is a member of Sha'ar Zahav in San Francisco, said the HCP has a number of holes, including logging being allowed in winter months. "That's a concern because it causes erosion," he said.

Gale plans to watch the situation closely and to stay involved in saving the forest wildlife by attending upcoming HCP public hearings in October (the dates and locations have yet to be determined).

With the High Holy Days approaching, Gale said he plans to examine what he has done in the past year "to preserve life, and what more I could do next year."