The Maine Woods

A Publication of the Forest Ecology Network

 Volume Five     Number One                           Late Winter 2001

 Maxxam Out of the Mattole!

A remarkable drama is playing itself out in the remote Mattole Valley on northern California's Lost Coast. Residents of the remote watershed are rising up in growing numbers in opposition to logging in one of the last great stands of old growth Douglas fir still in private hands in the entire region. At stake is almost 3,000 acres of previously unentered forest as well as the rights of a local community to protect their watershed and their future against the economic demands of a distantly-run corporation.

Rainbow Ridge in the Mattole, Humboldt County, California.

The Mattole has been the scene of one of North America's most comprehensive entirely citizen-run efforts to take on the restoration of an entire watershed. Since 1975, the people of the Mattole have been struggling to rescue their once-great salmon runs from an oblivion to which 40 years of intensive and often damaging logging seemed to have doomed them. (93% of the valleys forestlands were logged since WWII. Salmon runs are at about 5% of their original stature.) Now, residents of all ages and walks of life are rising up, literally, at three in the morning every day to stand vigil at the gates that loggers must use to get to Rainbow Ridge, the site of the challenged timber harvest.

Rainbow Ridge is currently the property of Pacific Lumber Company, once a well-run family-owned operation, which was taken over by corporate raider Charles Hurwitz and his Houston, Texas-based Maxxam Corporation in 1985. Hurwitz has since been rapidly and
systematically reducing the standing timber volume, especially the old growth, on the company's 200,000 acres. Prior timber harvest plans on PL's lands in the Rainbow Ridge area, like the current ones, call for clear-cutting in old growth forest stands, a practice largely discredited elsewhere in California. The earlier logging has resulted in delivery into the river system of so much sediment from steep eroding slopes that the whole lower main stem of the Mattole has been destabilized.

Most recently, PL gained a measure of attention when they sold to the government some of their last stands, amounting to thousands of acres, of old-growth redwood. This "Headwaters deal" was sold to the public by the Clinton administration and others as an unqualified environmental success. In fact, the deal gave the company almost a half a billion dollars plus the latitude to log heavily on its other holdings under a Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP). These HCP's came to be the preferred tool in the Clinton era for abetting resource extraction that endangered species considerations might otherwise prevent.

Rainbow Ridge blockade - 20 November 2000.

Residents in the Mattole and in other watersheds in the area began to think of their valleys as "Orphans of Headwaters' since their old growth and associated endangered species seemed to have been thrown up for grabs. When PL began to submit a series of seven timber harvest plans for Rainbow Ridge over the past two years, all of them calling for clear cutting in old growth, people began to fight back. How they have fought is a combination of legal challenges, public relations campaigns and, when all other means to stop the logging failed, direct action in the woods and at the gates.

The leading edge of the citizen struggle is a group of dedicated young people who call themselves the Mattole Forest Defenders, among whom are core members of the team that supported Julia Butterfly Hill in her two-year-long tree sit. Some are local, some from out of the area; all are willing to make considerable sacrifices. They have set up a camp on Rainbow itself in the deepening winter, a twelve mile hike in, and faced rain, snow, cold and hunger while waiting for the logging to begin. When it finally did, they were ready.

Matttole Forest Defender being taken away by Maxxam security in early February.

Their method is to stand between the loggers and the trees to slow down the rate at which the big stems can be felled. It is very dangerous work. The fact that the loggers have been accompanied each day by nine to twelve Humboldt County Deputy Sheriffs has not limited the activists' effectiveness. The sheriff's role in the woods was described by one of the Forest Defenders as that of "blocking backs for the tree fallers." A lawsuit has been filed in local court challenging the legality of several of the timber harvest plans. PL has been cited for violations of forestry regulations more often than any other company in California. Their timber harvesting license was withdrawn for several months in 1999.

Meanwhile, groups of Mattole residents, with an average age of fifty years, keep up a blockade at the gates into the property to slow down access and engage loggers in discussions about what is going on. Their ultimate hope, though, is for PL to sell the land to a Humboldt County group that recently formed a non-profit organization to manage timber lands for maximum ecological and economic benefit to the local community. PL has refused to become a willing seller up until now.

In a final irony, it was learned that Maxxam's Hurwitz shares the top floor of Houston's most exclusive condominium building, the Houstonian, with the family of president George W. Bush. It is perhaps significant that Maxxam did not resume the logging in earnest until the day after Florida's Secretary of State made her controversial decision to certify the state's election.

More information can be found on the web at

The above report was prepared in December 2000 by the Circle of Life Foundation. On February 26th and 27th I spoke with Sawyer and Dave, two of the members of the Mattole Forest Defenders. February 27th was their 100th day of maintaining the blockade at Rainbow Ridge. To date, Pacific Lumber has made a few major logging attempts in the area but due to the blockade, has mostly been unsuccessful, only cutting about 55 trees in total. A new tree-sit was established in the area just the day before, and the energy level and enthusiasm of the Forest Defenders is high. They're out there protecting the area because it's what needs to be done, and are prepared to stay the course as long as it takes.

- Paul Donahue

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