Saturday, October 6, 2007

The Big Trees Revisited

Last night I watched The Big Trees starring Kirk Douglas. The movie was set in 1900, but I felt I was in a time warp back to the late 1980's.

In The Big Trees we quickly learn that the Kirk Douglas character, Jim Fallon, is not an honest businessman. He does not pay his timber workers; he cons the investors who advance him money. With any number of people about to gun him down in Wisconsin, he decides it is time to go cut down trees in California. He has learned that a new law is stripping some settlers of their land and allowing anyone to buy 40 acre sections for a $150 filing fee.

He transports his unpaid timber workers to California where each will get 40 acres of old growth coastal redwood trees to log for him. The land is being taken from a Quaker colony that has kept most of these huge and ancient trees. There is a beautiful heroine, of course, Alicia (Eve Miller).

The plot gets complicated because a local timber baron is also seeking to get the land and cut the trees. There are excuses for fights and double-crosses, plus, of course, a Hollywood ending that certainly did not occur in reality.

Keep in mind that this movie was made in 1952 with Felix Feist directing. Of course there were already environmentalists and parks and such. John Muir had worked to save the redwoods. John Steinbeck has written of there being two kinds of Californians, the ones who revered redwoods and the kind that cut them down. But Alicia actually sets fire to the local court house in order to slow down the granting of land - and is treated like a hero. Don't try this tactic today - the FBI will label you and everyone you know as a terrorist.

In the late 1980's and 1990's this whole situation replayed, but with a guy known as Charles Hurwitz. Briefly, former investors and customers had accused him of using fraud to build his fortune, but his lawyers always kept him one or two steps ahead of the lynch mobs [For the full story see my article Charles Hurwitz's Money].

Mr. Hurwitz bought a company called Pacific Lumber, which had been slowly liquidating the redwoods, ancient and re-grown, on it vast land holding. Charlie sped up the rate of cutting and targeted old growth groves. Earth First!, which was made up mainly of people local to Humboldt and Mendocino County, organized people to stop the slaughter. Eventually some redwoods got protection, notably the Headwaters Grove, but for the most part every tree worth cutting in Mendocino and Humboldt was cut. Then, with insufficient trees, the mills (most of them) were closed down. Oh sure, the trees will grow back. You can get a pretty decent sized redwood in 60 years under optimal conditions. At 400 years the trees take on old-growth characteristics.

So today most big redwoods are on small private holdings or in parks. It's a shame reality did not have a Hollywood ending.

The Big Trees is a triple blast from three pasts (1900, 1952, and 1989) and well worth seeing.

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