In Humboldt County, California, thePacific Lumber Company puts bread on the table for most of thearea’s residents. As the region’s largest and mostinfluential private-employer, Pacific Lumber employs nearly 900 workersand generates over $54 million in business activities. Thus, whenHumboldt County District Attorney Paul V. Gallegos decided to challengethe Pacific Lumber Company just weeks after winning his own election,many people believed that he was committing political suicide. However,in the face of a vicious recall campaign, Gallegos acted with thecourage of his convictions.
In 1999, Pacific Lumber agreed tothe Headwaters Forest settlement in which it would sell 5,600 acres ofland to the state as a public trust for $480 million. In return, thecompany would be allowed to log the remaining 211,000 acres, although itwould have to follow a strict set of environmental restrictions. However, it was later discovered that the company had lied to stateofficials about the risk of cutting down trees on unstable slopes inorder to make an additional profit of $40 million per year. RichardWilson, the Department of Forestry’s director, stated that if hehad been given accurate information, he would not have sanctioned thecompany’s logging plan. A panel of seven scientists who wereemployed by the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board alsoissued a scathing condemnation of the company’s blatant disregardfor environmental protection. According to the panel, thecorporation’s logging had resulted in the degradation of waterquality and the destruction of habitats for salmon and other endangeredanimals. Rancher Michael Evenson described the devastating outcome:“Their clear-cutting has caused massive landslides, and that hasfilled up the river with silt and gravel.”
Thecompany’s disregard for the environment was nothing new. In 1998alone, Pacific Lumber had been cited for fourteen violations of stateforestry laws. However, since the corporation employed many residentsand retained an enormous amount of influence, legislators andpoliticians turned a blind eye to the situation. In 2003, a judgeconcurred with the Humboldt Watershed Council that Pacific Lumber hadviolated environmental regulations, but refused to penalize thecorporation or even slow down its logging. Furthermore, the CaliforniaFish and Game Department did nothing to punish the company.
Onlysix weeks after barely winning the local election against thetwenty-year incumbent, the new district attorney, Paul V. Gallegos,risked his political career when he became the first elected official toever confront the timber giant. His office sued Pacific Lumber on thegrounds that the corporation had provided the state with deliberatelyfabricated information regarding the potential environmental impact ofits logging. The six-count litigation asserted that the company’smisleading attempt to generate a greater profit had “causeddestruction to ancient redwoods, serious harm to Humboldt Bay, andserious harm to streams, bridges, roads, homes, and property rights ofHumboldt County.” Moreover, Gallegos sought an additional $2,500for each tree that was cut, a lawsuit that had the potential of costingthe corporation over $250 million. When asked about his decision topursue the case, Gallegos responded, “Government needs torepresent and treat everyone equal. Whenever you have businesses engagedin unlawful fraudulent activity...it affects the overall integrity inour systems. We cannot have two levels of justice in Humboldt County.That is how simple it is.”
The district attorney’sactions were met with bitter opposition. In retaliation, Pacific Lumberlaunched a vicious recall campaign against Gallegos, and poured over$300,000 into the effort. This was more than 90% of the total moneygoing into the recall attempt. Pacific Lumber sent out thousands ofpro-recall letters to Humboldt County residents, granted employees paidleave to campaign against the district attorney, falsely accusedGallegos of being “soft on crime,” and paid professionalcirculators eight dollars for each signature they could add to therecall petition.
For months, the antipathy against Gallegos wasubiquitous. Almost everywhere he went, the district attorney would seesigns and bumper stickers that read “Recall Paul Gallegos.”Loggers began to protest outside of the courtroom, and long timesupporters of the district attorney began to turn against him. MelvinBerti, the mayor of Fortuna, remarked, “My wife and I voted forPaul Gallegos. Unfortunately, now we see what his true platformis.” In addition, the county’s supervisors voted 4-1against providing his office with additional funding to handle the case. Gallegos’s house was even broken into twice, and e-mails from hisoffice were stolen.
Gallegos, though, retained his faith in thevoters and the political system. Despite the fact that Pacific Lumberhad vigorously campaigned to remove Gallegos, the voters ultimatelydecided to keep the district attorney, 61% to 39%. Gallegos exultinglystated, “It’s a triumph of the people over the influence ofmoney and lies in politics.” The district attorney’s officeis continuing its lawsuit against Pacific Lumber.
The districtattorney could have easily avoided the firestorm that resulted from hisdecision to pursue Pacific Lumber. Instead, Gallegos disregarded theconsequences that had put his career in limbo and acted with the courageof his convictions. As retired Humboldt County science teacher RalphKraus noted, “The D.A. [district attorney] is showing the kind ofintegrity and courage that should be a giant moral inspiration to allcitizens, and rejuvenate our faith that with the right people in office,the system can work.” District Attorney Paul V. Gallegos’scourageous actions marked a turning point in the dominance of the timbercompany’s interests in the county, and reflect a man who waswilling to act on principle and not politics
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“DA Says PL Harmed Redwoods, Seeks Penalty of $250Million,” Northcoast Environment Center Newsletter, March 1, 2003.575 H Street, Arcata, California 95521
Elias, Paul of theAssociated Press, “Recall Targets Prosecutor Who Took on Lumber inRedwood Country,” The San Diego Union-Tribune, March 2, 2004.Online.
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Stanton, Sam, “Humboldt DA: Lumber Firm’s Out to GetMe,” The Sacramento Bee, February 16, 2004. Online.
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Tempest, Rone, “Pacific Lumber Aids Effort toRecall D.A.,” The Los Angeles Times, November 7, 2003. Online.
Tempest, Rone ofthe Los Angeles Times, “Pacific Lumber-Backed RecallOK’d,” The Contra Costa Times, November 9, 2003. Online.
“The People of the State of California vs. The Pacific LumberCompany, Scotia Pacific Holding Company, Salmon CreekCorporation,” Second Amended Complaint for Civil Penalties andOther Relief Filed By Paul V. Gallegos, District Attorney. Online.
Weiss, Kenneth R., “Voters Reject Attempt to Recall North CoastDA,” The Los Angeles Times, March 3, 2004. Online.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.