Thursday, October 25, 2007

MAXXed Out

"Aren't you the biggest employer in the county? And you only got one [county] Supervisor?"
--Judge Richard S. Schmidt
U.S. Bankruptcy Court, Texas

This statement, as reported by the Eureka Reporter, may be the most honest moment in this whole sorry affair. It's the so-far successful attempt of the MAXXAM corporation to screw its employees the way it has totally screwed the far northern California forests by declaring bankruptcy for its Pacific Lumber division.

The attempt is being made in Texas because shortly before declaring this bankruptcy, MAXXAM set up Pacific Lumber as a hollow corporation headquartered in Texas, where the courts are vastly more favorable to Texas robber baron and MAXXAM's owner, Charles Hurwitz.

I couldn't explain the ins and outs of this mess even if I wanted to, but to give you a flavor of it, MAXXAM's latest ploy was to propose selling off vast tracts of forest for pricey housing development to pay its debtors, and when the Humboldt County board of Supervisors got wind of it, they quickly voted to deny any permits to do so. The attempt got only one Supervisor's vote, hence the Judge's all-too candid question.

Yes, back in the day, Pacific Lumber may well have owned all the Supervisors. But it's not that big an employer anymore, and public support has waned, especially since these proceedings began.

Shortly after I came here more than a decade ago, I wrote a script for a one hour documentary video about MAXXAM's campaign to cut down as much redwood forest as fast as possible to pay off the debt it incurred when it bought Pacific Lumber, among other companies--acquisitions that Wall Street smiled on, raising the stock price so the bigwigs all got very wealthy. The massive tree slaughter, including on steep hills and along waterways, led to devastation one winter when heavy rains led to flooding and landslides. One small town was literally destroyed.

Just about every charge made in that video (called Voices of Humboldt County: Cumulative Impact), and every prediction of the future--including how MAXXAM was going to leave employees high and dry (they're now even trying to get out of paying pensions)--was proven to be true. I hope my writing helped make the video effective (it turned out to be instrumental in at least one court case) but I can't claim superior insight about the content--I was so new here that working on it with veteran environmentalists (who had a lot of the footage when I started) was a quick and thorough education. (I did satisfy myself with my own research that what they claimed was correct.)

That all this sad business came true has not especially raised the general reputation of environmentalists (as antiwar activists found, being right doesn't do that) but it has turned a lot of public opinion against the previously defended corporation. Which may be one reason that the company owns only one Supervisor.

What occurs to me today, when this quote popped out from an episode in the ongoing story, has to do naturally enough with fire. We've monitored several horrific days of vast fires in southern California. We get forest fires up here, too, but other parts of the state and the country don't usually hear much about them because there usually aren't any multi-million dollar homes endangered by them. Of course if MAXXAM and its allies get their way, that will change.