Fear among the redwoods

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The Independent Online
DRIVING INLAND from the coastal highway, the big white letters on the side of the vast mill complex loom into view long before the sign announcing the name of the town. "Pacific Lumber" is imprinted on every building, and the Pacific Lumber Company is the guiding spirit behind every last vestige of municipal construction, from the street lights to the gutters.

This is Scotia, buried deep in the heart of the redwood forests of northern California. Logging is its business, and also its soul. This is a company town, the last of its kind in America.

Every one of the pastel-coloured wooden houses is occupied by the family of a Pacific Lumber employee. The shops all owe their franchises to Pacific Lumber. The Scotia Inn caters largely to business travellers coming to the mill.

Everything about Scotia exudes an uncanny calm, the same picture-perfect pleasantness that will be familiar to viewers of Twin Peaks.

Residents tell you how well they are taken care of: great medical services, great schools. As a visitor, you are invited to tour the lumber mill and hear - in tones that protest just a shade too much - how the company makes full use of its trees without a morsel of waste.

This is pleasantness with a distinct corporate stamp; beyond its reassuring facade, it can seem downright creepy.And while the bigger settlements of Eureka and Arcata, a half-hour drive to the north, are hippyish and liberal, Scotia is firmly Republican.

Scotia has also come to represent the aggressive logging tactics of Pacific Lumber and its Texan parent, Maxxam. Environmentalists have launched a vociferous campaign to try to stop PL from chopping down the old-growth redwoods of the nearby Headwaters Forest, staging tree sit-ins and venturing occasionally into Scotia for demonstrations.

Just a few miles to the south, the hamlet of Stafford bears the marks of a landslide caused in part by PL's massive tree clearance policy: all the houses on the western side of the coastal highway have vanished, hit first by the forces of nature and then condemned to demolition by the local authorities.

Raise such issues with the people of Scotia and they invariably become edgy: "You know, those environmentalists are right, we should stop cutting down trees and build our houses out of hemp instead. That way when there's a fire we wouldn't need a fire brigade. The environmentalists could just rush to the scene and breathe in the fumes," remarked one sardonic logger.

The loggers love to remark on the marijuana consumption of the ecologists. The ecologists counter that half the loggers are addicted to crack cocaine, and say that is what makes them so aggressive.

The loggers also blame the activists for stymieing their work opportunities. If a road blockade by Earth First prevents a logger from working more than 30 hours in a week, then 30 hours' pay is all the logger gets.

It does not help that Pacific Lumber's character has changed beyond recognition since its takeover by Maxxam in 1985. For almost a century, it was a family-run concern that took great pains to safeguard the integrity of the forests. Maxxam has thrown aside such considerations in favour of maximising profits. Company rules forbid the formation of unions.

If the work disappears, so too will the pretty house and the caring doctor. Scotia may embody rural pleasantness, but it is pleasantness with the risk of a 30-day eviction order at any time.