In February, after years of protracted negotiation, California and the federal government agreed to pay Pacific Lumber Company $480 million for approximately 17,000 acres of forest lands in Northern California's Humboldt County. The purchase includes the Headwaters, location of a 3,800-acre grove of old-growth virgin redwoods.

The agreement was conditional on development of a Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP) and Sustained Yield Plan (SYP) for the company's remaining 210,000 acres of forest lands, with Pacific Lumber and federal and state agencies working together to produce the plans. Between outright purchase and set-asides for the 50-year permit, more than 90 percent of the old-growth redwoods on Pacific Lumber property are protected.

The initial agreement to buy the Headwaters as a public preserve was brokered primarily by U.S. Sen. Diane Feinstein, and by Douglas Wheeler on behalf of then-Gov. Pete Wilson. The agreement allowed government agencies and Pacific Lumber to begin developing the HCP and SYP. The process was to be completed in 21/2 years, a time limit set by Congress. Within a month, however, negotiators bogged down over the data and methods to be used in identifying the environmental and economic resources of the 210,000 acres.

At this point, the California Resources Agency brought in Thomas Reid Associates (TRA), an environmental planning firm based in Palo Alto, Calif. Using ESRI ArcInfo GIS technology, TRA reconciled vast amounts of biological, geographic and economic data; modeled the resources involved; and created an interactive map that helped negotiators understand relationships between different resources and often disparate data sources. Although the technology provided no easy solutions, it let the parties develop the plans on time.

Redwoods History

Old-growth redwoods are the giant sequoias of coastal California -- some are 2,000 years old and stand almost 400 feet tall, with bases taking 18 people holding hands to encircle. Groves of these ancient trees form living cathedrals found nowhere else in the world.

Taking their cue from the conservation efforts of Theodore Roosevelt during the late 1800s, the federal government, the state and environmental groups have made numerous efforts to preserve these trees through the

creation of national parks and other public preserves.

However, the lumber industry has long been an economic mainstay in the Pacific Northwest, and redwood, because of its beauty and durability, is one of the most commercially important timber trees. Old-growth redwood, in particular, fetches premium prices.

Nevertheless, opposition to continued cutting of virgin redwoods has grown steadily. Although national parks have protected some sequoias, the largest concentration of these trees is still in private hands.

The Turning Point

The issue heated up in 1986 when Pacific Lumber, in operation since the late 1800s, became the target of a hostile takeover by the Maxxam Corporation of Houston. To pay off the relatively high debt cost of the takeover, Maxxam stepped up the harvesting of redwoods, angering environmentalists. From the late 1980s to the early 1990s, concern over the increased cutting of old-growth redwoods spawned a grassroots movement and a political groundswell of opposition.

In 1991, the marbled murrelet, a robin-size sea bird that nests only on the limbs of old-growth redwoods, was listed as an endangered species. The political movement was now joined by a regulatory process that imposed a moratorium on cutting old-growth redwoods. Numerous efforts by federal and state officials to hammer out a compromise with Pacific Lumber were unsuccessful, and the standoff between economic interests and the state's desire to preserve old-growth redwood forests, and the habitats within them, persisted.

The breakthrough came with the 1996 agreement brokered by Sen. Feinstein and Wheeler. It also set in motion a process intended to lead to development of conservation and sustained yield plans, pursuant to the State Forest Practice Rules, plus the initial $380 million Headwaters purchase -- later augmented when the state included other land in the agreement.