The shooting of Manuel Esteban Paez Terán (known as Tortuguita) on 18 January by Atlanta police has garnered international headlines as the first killing of an environmental activist by police in the US. This may or may not be true. But Terán’s shooting (we now know he was shot at least 13 times) was not the first killing of a forest activist in the US. I have profiled two previous deaths: Navajo activist LeRoy Jackson and redwood forest defender David Chain. This piece ran in the Texas Observer in January 1999.
David “Gypsy” Chain, originally from Pasadena, was killed on September 17 , 1998 on Pacific Lumber land, near Grizzly Creek off Route 36 in Humboldt County, California, because he formed part of the last line of defense in a battle plan fatally betrayed by Democratic politicians and environmental executives cringing before a corporate predator from Texas. A.E. Ammonds, the 52-year-old faller who put the tree down on Chain, crushing his skull, was the party immediately responsible for the young man’s death – but if Ammonds ever has to face charges of involuntary manslaughter, the people who put him in the woods that day should bear the full brunt of penalties consequent upon a wrongful death.
The terrain where Chain died forms part of the Headwaters Forest, owned by Pacific Lumber, taken over some years ago by Houston-based Maxxam, owned by Charles Hurwitz. As is well known, Headwaters is the largest private holding of old-growth redwoods in the world. When Hurwitz announced a few years ago that his crews would start logging, the most resolute plan against the tycoon was to have the U.S. government penalize Hurwitz for his looting of a Texas savings and loan, by taking Headwaters from him as compensation for his $2 billion heist. But this plan fell by the wayside, derided by the establishment enviros as far too extreme.
Next came a well-conceived plan by former California Congressman Dan Hamburg to have the U.S. government buy out 40,000 acres of the entire 63,000-acre watershed for a substantial, albeit defensible sum. Although it was helped forward through Congress by two of the craftiest manipulators on the Hill – Vernon Jordan and Tommy Boggs, working for Hurwitz – the bill failed in the Senate.
Then came a well-conceived strategy by the Environmental Protection Information Center, an enviro group based in Garberville, California, to tame Hurwitz by rigorous application of federal and state regs. Thousands of acres would be put off limits to the chainsaw in order to protect dwindling habitat for the marbled murrelet, the northern spotted owl and the coho salmon. Given the ravaged condition of Pacific Lumber’s holdings after a decade of Hurwitz’s onslaughts, the mandatory protections for these species would put most of the land out of Hurwitz’s reach. E.P.I.C. put its strategy into play with a series of lawsuits and petitions under the Endangered Species Act, and the strategy began to take effect. At this point Hurwitz raised the stakes, announcing that in the face of these regulatory inhibitions, he was going to file a “takings” suit against the federal government, suing it for hundreds of millions for preventing him from enjoying the rights and ravages of private property.
The Clinton administration and large environmental organizations such as the Sierra Club and the Wilderness Society took this threat as the signal for immediate retreat. Hurwitz, they quavered, might have a chance of victory in such a takings claim, which would encourage further “hostage-taking” by corporations. So, they argued, the prudent course was to give Hurwitz more than he had ever dared dream when he had sent Jordan and Boggs up to Capitol Hill to work for the Hamburg bill.
Enter California Senator Dianne Feinstein. She successfully lobbied Clinton to announce a deal whereby the feds and the state of California would pool money to acquire the minimal core area of Headwaters – less than 10,000 acres of the entire watershed. Of that, only 3,500 acres are composed of old growth redwoods, for which the government offered to Hurwitz the astounding sum of $480 million.
One story going around Washington and Sacramento is that Hurwitz had argued that the acres were worth $900 million, roughly what he paid for the entire company, and the Department of Justice countered with a valuation of $20 million. At which point Tommy Boggs reportedly said, “Why not split the difference?”
By any measure this is surely one of Hurwitz’s greatest financial coups. But there was a lagniappe. As part of the deal Hurwitz demanded that he be allowed to work his will on the rest of the entire 210,000 acres of his Pacific Lumber holdings. The Department of Interior and the State of California duly agreed to sign off on a Habitat Conservation Plan proposed by Pacific Lumber. In the Clinton era, these H.C.P.s have become the preferred corporate method of circumventing the Endangered Species Act.
Pacific Lumber’s H.C.P. will allow the company to largely liquidate the old growth and residual redwood and Douglas fir tracts outside of the 10,000 acres scheduled to be bought by the government. The company is scheduled to receive a permit to kill as many as 340 marbled murrelets, the threatened seabird that nests in coastal old growth forest. This amounts to 17 percent of a total murrelet population in precipitous decline.
Right now on Pacific Lumber lands there are 116 pairs of nesting spotted owls. The H.C.P. estimates that 16 pairs will be “taken,” i.e., killed, and in the words of a California C.D.F. consultant for the plan, “the population [of owls] will be allowed to fluctuate with changes in the landscape.” Given that the spotted owl population has been declining at as much as a 4 per cent annual rate in Clinton-time, none of this bodes well for the creature’s long- or even middle-term survival. On top of that, if the evidence shows that the owl and the murrelet are disappearing at even higher rates, a “no surprises” clause successfully demanded by Hurwitz means that nothing can be done for fifty years – by which time the whole show will be over.
The coho salmon is probably the most complicated factor in the whole deal, and the species that could potentially keep most of the remaining mature forest on Pacific Lumber’s lands out of the sawmills. But instead of pushing an aggressive conservation strategy, the government accepted the following brazen proposal in Pacific Lumber’s H.C.P.: on what are called year-round salmon-bearing streams, Pacific Lumber proposed a thirty-foot no-cut buffer on each side. The federal guidelines for such streams in Washington, Oregon and California require between 300 feet and 500 feet, depending on the slope. On year-round streams without salmon that flow into salmon streams, Pacific Lumber has successfully proposed a ten-foot “buffer,” which is of course entirely meaningless.
At this level of protection the coho – once the mainstay of the Indian economy – has no future at all.
There was a late opportunity to lay this whole dreadful plan low. The feds approved its $250 million slice of the $480 million last year, when Clinton signed the Interior appropriations bill. But the deal still had to be approved by the California general assembly, where E.P.I.C. was making a decent effort at monkey-wrenching the process by fierce lobbying, stirring up fiscal conservatives at the huge cost to the taxpayer, and making environmentally-minded legislators writhe at the preposterousness of the H.C.P.s.
But working the phones behind the scenes were conspirators in the drama which would end in David Chain’s death. Dianne Feinstein and Tommy Boggs lobbied hard, and as the bill picked up legislative speed in Sacramento, the one group which could have stepped forward and killed it in its tracks was the Sierra Club. Instead, in familiar fashion, the Club’s executive director Carl Pope admitted later to his own board of directors that although it was “a close judgment call,” the club “did not actively try to block [the bill’s] passage, but rather put its energy into improving it.” This would be all that was needed to inch the bill past the finishing post, and the General Assembly passed it on September 1.
Oh, and the improvements? The Sierra Club suggested that the coho buffer by expanded from thirty feet to 100 feet and from ten to thirty feet, still far short of the minimum guidelines.
The stage was now set for its fatal denouement, and most likely a whole series of desperate and dangerous actions. Because of the deal finally ratified in Washington and Sacramento, there is no room left for regulatory inhibitions against corporate ravages. At the federal and state level, corporations can shove through Habitat Conservation Plans that are meaningless. The logging crews will be sent into the woods, and the only restraint left will be direct action demonstrators like Chain. There is no remaining alternative.
After Chain was killed, the Sierra Club board piously passed a resolution of “outrage” against his end. The resolution was opposed by David Brower, who told the board that the Club should look at its own shared culpability, abandon ritual expressions of regret, cultivate “inrage, and get its balls back.”
After Humboldt County District Attorney Terry Farmer refused to bring criminal charges in the case, Gypsy’s mother,Cindy, filed a wrongful death civil suit against Pacific Lumber and its parent company, Maxxam, alleging they were reckless and responsible for the death of her son. A settlement was reached three days before trial was scheduled to open.