Last year more than the typical thick, gray clouds were hovering over Rio Dell's Wildwood Days, the annual street festival replete with logging contests, boccie tournaments, and bucket brigade races between local volunteer fire departments. Days earlier, after a protracted fight in federal bankruptcy court, PL (as the company is known here), employer of generations of the two towns' mill workers and woodsmen, had been sold. The future was now in the hands of Mendocino Redwood Company (MRC), owned by the Fisher family of San Francisco, who had made their fortune with the Gap and Banana Republic clothing chains. The only thing most people in Rio Dell knew was MRC's new incarnation of the old Pacific Lumber operation: Humboldt Redwood Company (HRC). No one knew who would have jobs when the dust cleared.
Down at the logging contest—featuring an event in which two men see who can cut a log faster with chain saws—Len Nielson of Fortuna just beat out Chris Hall of Rio Dell, a big man with a shaved head, a neat, red goatee, and a tattoo that read "HOSS" across his Popeye-like forearm. All told—grandfather, dad, uncles, and cousins—Hall's family had spent 142 years working for PL. He'd been felling trees, driving Cats, skidding logs since he was 15. Now he works in the power plant.
"We're definitely glad to see Hurwitz go," Hall says, as he puts away his chain saw, with his five-year-old daughter dancing at his feet.
It's hard to have a conversation about forestry practices in the redwoods without hearing the name of Charles Hurwitz, CEO of Houston-based Maxxam, Inc. In 1985 Hurwitz orchestrated the hostile takeover—underwritten by junk bonds provided by the financier Michael Milken—of Pacific Lumber, which had been run conservatively by the Murphy family since 1905. By leaving some of their old growth standing, the Murphys, men who learned the lumber business from the chain saw up, had planned to sustain their timber harvest and jobs well into the 21st century. "When the Murphys owned PL, they cared for their employees," Hall says.
With Pacific Lumber, Hurwitz inherited roughly 70 percent of the remaining old redwoods in private hands. In his first meeting with the employees, the dark-suited businessman told them—in a now famous quote—that he believed in the golden rule: "He who has the gold, rules." Hurwitz then proceeded to break up the company and sell its assets. He sold Pacific Lumber's office building in downtown San Francisco and a profitable welding division, and he cashed out the workers' pension fund, replacing it with an annuity from a poorly rated insurance carrier.