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Sierra Magazine
Good Going: Hearts, Minds, and Headwaters

California's new redwood preserve is more than big trees

by B. J. Bergman

Chuck Powell and Joan Dunning have explored Headwaters Forest for years, but that was before the ground shifted. "Surreal," mutters Powell as we pass through the bare-bones visitor station at the north gate. Here, not so long ago, camouflaged champions of ancient redwoods were spray-painting pithy editorials on the subject of Charles Hurwitz, whose Maxxam Corporation swallowed Pacific Lumber in 1986 and has been clearcutting its assets ever since.

Powell and Dunning, like many of the forest's most ardent defenders, have tromped through Headwaters only as trespassers. Since March, though, when California and the U.S. government struck a controversial $480 million deal with the Texas takeover artist, this grove, at least, belongs to us. Today, the summer solstice, we have ventured out under a thick coastal fog to figuratively kick the tires.

We're primed for buyer's remorse. Powell, a longtime activist with the watchdog Environmental Protection Information Center, is armed with maps that confirm what we already know: the 2,750-acre Headwaters Grove is merely a chapel in the sprawling, 60,000-acre church known as Headwaters Forest. The deal rescued 7,500 acres, but freed Hurwitz to log other critical wildlife habitat on terms conservationists fear are more favorable to business than biology. Endangered spotted owls and marbled murrelets nest in the forest's old-growth canopy. But the first casualty of logging is apt to be the coho salmon, a federally threatened species that spawns in Headwaters' increasingly silty streams.

There is no escaping The Deal. It surrounds us, informs our conversation. Dunning is an author and illustrator whose book on Headwaters, From the Redwood Forest, is dedicated to Powell. With us are five fellow forest-lovers, each keen to remember, as we hike our new preserve, the parts of the map marked for chainsaws. The north-gate graffiti is gone, but it is not forgotten. The trail follows an abandoned logging road, flat for 2.8 miles and then up 2.2 miles of what is officially described as "extremely steep terrain."

The road runs along the south fork of the Elk River, flanked by a mix of alder, Douglas fir, Sitka spruce, and big leaf maple. We're in bear country, and one of the kids in our group spots a paw print in a mound of mud. But this feels like a bulldozed forest, not a sanctuary. And it doesn't help to know that just to the east, unprotected, lies the verdant 500-acre valley Maxxam calls Timber Harvest Plan 520, and activists call "The Hole" in the Headwaters deal. "You come over the ridge and it's like looking into the past," says Dunning dreamily. "It's a beautiful valley. It breaks your heart."

The trail ends, abruptly. We eat lunch in a clearcut at the edge of the preserve and admire the thickly wooded ridge to the the north and east, beyond which The Hole awaits its executioners. "For a transitory enchanted moment," Scott Fitzgerald wrote, "man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired." Has Hurwitz ever read The Great Gatsby?

We begin bushwhacking our way through the ancient grove. The redwoods are dazzling, but the more we bushwhack the more aware I am of the forest, the entire interconnected system the big trees make possible. Beneath the great redwoods and Douglas fir is an underworld of moss, huckleberries, sorrel, salal, salamanders, and—as Dunning reminds us—mycorrhizal fungi, the unseen organisms that serve as the redwoods' link with nutrients in the soil. "Headwaters," declares Powell, "is more than just big trees."

When we're deep in the grove, Powell suggests a minute of silence. We park variously on fallen logs or the soft duff, and say nothing for two, five, ten minutes. Through the canopy I see the blue-and-white of sky and cloud, sky and cloud; sunlight glints off a spider web in some nearby branches. Mosquitoes buzz, an osprey calls, and the rest is dead calm, the music of the living forest. For a transitory enchanted moment The Deal is forgotten, eclipsed by our contemplation of this crack in time, contemplation beyond understanding but not desire. The world needs wilderness and Headwaters Grove, at least, will survive. It's enough to take your breath away.

B. J. Bergman is Sierra's writer/editor.

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