Forest Gumption

DARRYL CHERNEY REMEMBERS with delight the first time he saw a redwood forest. For Cherney, raised in New York City, “nature was grass growing in the cracks in the concrete,” so the great, soaring trees he encountered on a family vacation at 14 left him “totally awestruck,” he says. For years, he dreamed of returning to live among them. But when he finally left Manhattan for Northern California in the fall of 1985, he was shocked to learn that the forests were quickly disappearing, taken by the logger’s chain saw. “I couldn’t even believe it was legal to cut down an ancient redwood tree,” says Cherney.

Much of the cutting, he discovered, was being done by Pacific Lumber Company. As it happened, the very month Cherney arrived in Garberville, Calif., the company was taken over by Maxxam Inc., a Texas conglomerate headed by Charles Hurwitz—whose interest in redwoods was as purely entrepreneurial as Cherney’s was sublimely aesthetic. For 10 years now, Cherney and Hurwitz have been locked in battle over the future of those trees, the fight pitting an imperious tycoon against an unruly, latter-day cross between Abbie Hoffman and Woody Guthrie.

Pre-Hurwitz, family-run Pacific Lumber had logged selectively to preserve the forest ecosystem. But Hurwitz, 56, burdened by Maxxam’s $750 million debt from buying Pacific and its 200,000 acres, looked at the redwood trees—some as old as 2,000 years—and saw cash. Promptly he doubled the logging rate. With that, Cherney, now 40, a songwriter and folksinger, became a full-time environmental gadfly, the movement’s prankster troubadour. “I kind of feel like the earth guided me here,” says Cherney, “so I could take on Hurwitz.” He has become one of the most visible figures in the environmental war that has gripped the region.

At the heart of the dispute are Pacific Lumber’s six scattered groves of virgin redwood forest—including the crown jewel, the 3,000-acre Headwaters Forest—which make up America’s largest remaining privately owned tracts of old-growth redwoods. In September the Department of the Interior helped negotiate a tentative agreement with Pacific Lumber. It calls for the company to turn over Headwaters and one other grove and to submit a habitat conservation plan for the other lands in exchange for about $380 million in land and cash. Though environmentalists say Hurwitz has already cut 8,000 virgin, old-growth acres over the past decade, the government believes the deal would save 3,500 acres of ancient redwoods.

But the agreement is shaky. A loose coalition of some 50 environmental groups is battling, to save the 60,000 acres that embrace all six groves and says the agreement doesn’t offer enough protection. It is difficult to grasp the debate fully without walking through an ancient stand of redwoods, some taller than the length of a football field. Once the giant trees covered more than 2 million Northern California acres, but after decades of logging, only about 80,000 acres of virgin forest remain, most in state and national parks. Activists can get positively cosmic on the subject. “There’s something inspiring about ancient redwood forests,” says Cecelia Lanman, head of one environmental group. “They’ve captured the minds and spirits of the people. If they continue to speak, they will ultimately be saved.”

Cherney, for one, thought they needed someone to speak for them. When he first arrived and asked environmentalists what they were doing to challenge Hurwitz, he got little response. To Cherney, who had spent much of his life trying to change the world—at 12, he canvassed for Robert Kennedy; as a teen, he began writing protest songs; and at 22, he circulated antinuke petitions—Hurwitz seemed a perfect target. “You couldn’t have invented a better villain than Hurwitz,” he says. “But, unfortunately, he’s not a character of fiction.” Referring to Headwaters, Hurwitz, who declined to be interviewed for this article, once told a Houston magazine, “We paid for it, we pay taxes on it, it’s zoned for timber production. Why shouldn’t we harvest it?”

That may be the least provocative of Hurwitz’s comments on the subject. Visiting Pacific Lumber’s Scotia, Calif., mill soon after acquiring the company, he told workers he believed in the golden rule: “He who has the gold rules.” Next, he sharply stepped up the logging rate—a move critics say will exhaust the forests much sooner. “The employment life of lots of these people I’ve grown up with has been drastically shortened,” says William Bertain, a Eureka lawyer. Then, in 1988, Hurwitz ran into trouble on another front: His Houston savings and loan collapsed, forcing the federal government to step in with a $1.6 billion bailout.

At first, says Cherney, “we didn’t understand the deeper implications behind [the collapse].” But in a 1993 meeting of environmentalists, he suggested that Hurwitz turn over Headwaters and other forests to repay the government—a “debt-for-nature swap,” as he called it. Though Maxxam and the government dismissed the idea, the S&L failure—and a $250 million lawsuit by federal regulators—added to Cherney’s store of ammunition against Hurwitz.

Frequently, Cherney’s tactics involve publicity and ridicule. When Cherney and cohorts hung a huge JAIL HURWITZ banner from the bluffs over the Scotia mill, it attracted TV coverage. Another time, Cherney led a march of protesters wearing Hurwitz masks. For a 1992 protest, he posed as Robin Hood, wearing a green bandanna over his face and a green stocking cap for a three-day sit-in atop a tree. “[Cherney] is just infuriating to people in power, and he really enjoys that,” says Kathy Bailey of the Sierra Club of California. “His manner of operating is by humor and theater and being in the face.”

It’s a style he carried with him from New York. The son of A.A. Cherney, 75, an adjunct professor of English at New York University, and his wife, Geraldine, a retired office manager, Darryl earned a master’s in education in 1977, then drifted for years, playing guitar in folk rock bands and for a time running a small moving business. After he found his way to Garberville, he quickly became involved in the radical environmental organization Earth First!, once known for extreme tactics such as placing spikes in trees, endangering loggers—a tactic Cherney and the group now reject. In May 1990, Cherney was driving with fellow activist Judi Bari when a pipe bomb ripped through their car, leaving Bari’s right foot paralyzed. Though police initially charged the pair with transporting a bomb, the case was later dropped. Cherney insists that Bari, who had received death threats, was the target of the crime, which remains unsolved. “The entire forest movement will always consider that bombing a dividing line,” says Cherney, who sued police and the FBI for false arrest. “We lost our innocence.”

But not his commitment. Says Lanman: “I’ve watched him work long hours with very little compensation for over a decade.” Indeed, Cherney lives, with three cats, in a one-room, mountainside geodesic dome that rents for $125 a month. Hurwitz, for his part, seems equally determined. A week after the recent pact with the government was signed, Pacific Lumber sent loggers into one of the four remaining groves to remove fallen old-growth redwoods, which environmentalists consider a vital part of the ecosystem. The action didn’t break the accord but violated its spirit. Says Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who helped broker the deal: “It was very bad judgment…a provocation.”

Maxxam officials have a simple answer: They own the forests. That rationale enrages Cherney. “There was once a time,” he says, “when owning a piece of land meant you had some responsibility to honor the public trust and ensure that the land could be used in future generations after you were dead.” That is a message he isn’t likely to let Charles Hurwitz forget.



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