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Headwaters Forest Reserve National Conservation Area

Headwaters Forest Reserve. Bureau of Land Management.
Headwaters Forest Reserve. Bureau of Land Management.
Established: 1999
Location: Fortuna, 250 miles north of San Francisco, California
Size: 7,400 acres

Special Features

Old-growth redwoods. Rarely can so few words conjure so much majesty. A grove of ancient trees, some 300 feet tall and as more than 2,200 years old , Headwaters Forest Reserve is a spectacular and delicate ecosystem. The Reserve was established in 1999 to preserve the precious and stately redwoods and the varied animals that thrive in a forest rich with Douglas fir, tan oak, western hemlock, sword fern, lichen, and mosses.

Headwaters contains hundreds of plant species, the headwaters of several major stream systems, and habitat for the marbled murrelet, spotted owl, and threatened Coho salmon. The marbled murrelet, a seabird that nests in the redwood branches, is particularly sensitive to human disturbance (Accordingly, Headwaters is closed from March 25 to September during the murrelet's breeding season).


Conservationists have struggled for more than 15 years to protect California's old-growth redwoods against logging interests. In 1986 MAXXAM Corporation purchased the rights to the Headwaters area from Pacific Lumber Company and planned to clearcut the grove. In 1999, however, the State and Federal governments, Pacific Lumber and Elk River Timber Company, worked out a complex deal in which the companies were paid $380 million for Headwaters and a protective buffer around the area--a total of about 7,400 acres. The agreement left 200,000 additional acres open to continued logging as well as some parcels still privately owned within the Reserve. BLM and the state of California now co-manage the Reserve (see below).

In 1997, close to 8,000 people attended a rally to preserve Headwaters Forest. Julia "Butterfly" Hill ascended and made a home in Luna, a glorious ancient redwood. She remained there for two years, raising awareness world-wide of the danger to primeval forests.

Issues Facing Headwaters

In September 2003 the Bureau of Land Management and the State of California completed a Resource Management Plan (RMP) to guide decisions and management of Headwaters Forest Reserve in coming years. (Click here for the plan.) While the plan proposes some good management strategies, the BLM lacks adequate resources to implement them. Major needs include funds for invasive species control, removal of old logging roads that fragment the redwood grove, watershed restoration, interpretive signs for visitors, and monitoring of species and ecosystem health.

Other problems include:

  • Hole in the Headwaters: this 705 acre privately owned parcel within the northern boundary of the reserve remains open to logging. Located in the South Fork Elk River watershed, a major tributary to Humboldt Bay, logging will damage fish habitat and water quality and cause erosion.
  • Lack of protection for the 4,400 acres of land within Headwaters Forest Reserve that possess wilderness character. In 2003, the Bush Administration renounced authority to designate such lands as wilderness or wilderness study areas--critical means of ensuring the lands remain roadless and free of mining and drilling.

Bay Area Coalition for Headwaters
Bureau of Land Management Arcata Field Office
California Wilderness Coalition
Environmental Protection Information Center (EPIC)

Updated June 2004