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Time running out for redwoods deal

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September 27, 1996
Web posted at: 4:45 a.m. EDT

SAN FRANCISCO (CNN) -- If the U.S. government can't make a deal with a private timber company, thousands of ancient northern California redwood trees will start coming down Monday.

Charles Hurwitz, a Texas financier, agreed to delay the start of logging for two weeks in a virgin 3,000-acre portion of the Headwaters Redwood Forest in northern California, the nation's largest privately held tract of redwoods. But if no deal is reached by Monday, logging will begin in earnest.

The prospect of thousands of trees falling to the wayside has rallied environmental activists throughout the region.

California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Deputy Interior Secretary John Garamendi and California State Resources Secretary Doug Wheeler have been negotiating in earnest to find a reasonable exchange that will make Hurwitz abandon his plans to sell the trees as lumber.

Brown

Even former California Gov. Jerry Brown got into the debate, offering his own radical suggestion to save the trees. "You plant 100 marijuana plants in the Headwaters and you know what the federal government would do -- confiscate the forest. So you know what to do," he said.

But the government only has until Monday. Once the September 29 deadline passes -- no agreement, no more holding back.

Environmentalists protest

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Fueled by their passion to save the trees, sympathizers in the north have strung themselves across the canopy of 200- foot-tall trees in hopes of stopping the chainsaws.

For many, the Headwaters and the redwoods represent the heart and soul of the environmental movement; this round of legal maneuvering represents their last glimmer of hope.

Earlier this month, 897 people were arrested in one of the largest one-day mass arrests ever in California.

Other environmentalists are using an unusual legal strategy to slow down Hurwitz and his company, MAXXAM Inc., by attempting to freeze his assets.

Hurwitz once owned United Savings Association of Texas, a savings-and-loan institution that failed, costing taxpayers $1.6 billion.

"We know that MAXXAM will say that they need to log now to use profits to pay off the debts," said Jill Ratner, an environmental attorney.

Others have suggested that the U.S. government offer to swap the redwood forest in exchange for forgiving Hurwitz' $1.6 billion debt.

Irelan

But MAXXAM spokesman Robert Irelan refused to acknowledge a link between the savings-and-loan issue and the redwoods.

"There is no debt. That is a non-starter as far as we're concerned," he said.

Still, company spokesmen say they are willing to bargain to preserve the ancient redwood grove.

There are a number of options, one being that the government could give the company other less environmentally sensitive land in return for protecting the redwoods.

"We would swap the Headwaters," Irelan confirmed, "if what we got in return was just compensation."

But if no resolution is reached Monday, the chainsaws will fire up -- and the protesters will be there, doing everything they can to stop them.

Correspondent Rusty Dornin and Reuters contributed to this report.

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