Lumber firm loses licence in eco battle

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A LOGGING company at the centre of a bitter environmental dispute over the fate of California's redwoods has had its licence suspended because of its repeated violations of state forestry regulations and "gross negligence".

The Pacific Lumber Co, which owns the highest concentration of old-growth redwoods in the world, was told this week by the state Department of Forestry that it would not be allowed to cut any trees for the rest of the year and would have to reapply for a licence to resume operating in 1999.

The decision marked a victory for environmentalists who have accused the company of wantonly destroying ancient groves, silting up rivers, provoking landslides and attacking the habitats of endangered species including the spotted owl and the coho salmon.

A handful of activists from the group Earth First! have been camping for months on top of the tallest redwoods owned by Pacific Lumber in a last-ditch effort to save the trees.

The Department of Forestry, which briefly suspended Pacific Lumber's licence a year ago, said there had been more than 200 violations of its rules over the past three years and two recent criminal citations.

Environmentalists also hold the company responsible for the death of an activist crushed by a felled redwood in September, although no charges have been pressed in that case.

"This decision is not an easy one to make, considering the effects on employees, but we simply cannot allow these violations to continue," Richard Wilson, forestry department director, said in a statement.

Pacific Lumber said it would not fight the department's decision. "Frankly the company and I are embarrassed by the suspension and we have reached the conclusion that no valid purpose would be served by appealing," Pacific Lumber's president, John Campbell, said. He also announced that 180 of the company's 1,500 loggers would be laid off with immediate effect.

Outside of a handful of small national parks, the redwoods of northern California have been disappearing with alarming speed over the past few years. Greatest attention has been focused recently on the 200,000-acre Headwaters Forest in Humboldt County, owned by Pacific Lumber, where once thickly clustered hillsides have turned bald and rare species are dying out.

The federal government recently agreed to buy 7,000 acres of the forest for $480m - 25 times the market price - in a deal hotly contested by environmentalists as too little, too late at way too high a price.