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There were several state and federal bills that -- if Pacific Lumber had thrown its considerable weight behind them -- might have passed, setting up mechanisms whereby the government could acquire the Headwaters. However, the company backed a candidate (who had previously lobbied for Pacific Lumber) to unseat the author of the best of those measures. That Hurwitz-backed congressman -- Frank Riggs -- recently introduced legislation related to old-growth forests that one environmentalist describes as having "something to horrify everyone."
The Riggs measure would give Hurwitz a green light to do as he pleases in old-growth forests, where the enormous, clear-grained trees are worth several times the value of younger, knottier trees. The bill says if the federal government can't fork over the cash for Headwaters within 18 to 24 months, Pacific Lumber can enter the grove and log it indiscriminately, with total disregard for any impact on the ecosystem or endangered wildlife.
Irelan says Maxxam appreciates Riggs' efforts to get the issue "off dead center." But he says the whole notion of a debt-for-nature swap or a public buyout of Headwaters ignores the larger question of how many redwood trees the public wants to save.
"Some 80 percent of the remaining old-growth coastal redwoods are already permanently preserved in more than 350,000 acres of public parkland," he points out. "How much more do you want to preserve?"
The debt-for-nature proposal has sparked a flurry of letters between the idea's backers and White House chief of staff Leon Panetta, California Senators Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, virtually the entire California Democratic congressional delegation and Vice President Al Gore. All of those letters express support for the concept of debt-for-nature, but many suggest the mechanics of conducting such a swap would be difficult. But the mere existence of these communiques allows Maxxam to mutter darkly about being the target of political harassment.
However, Maxxam and Hurwitz haven't been reluctant to exercise their own muscle in the political arena. Late last year, Hurwitz fired off a series of letters to key members of Congress, attempting to get the endangered species protection lifted from the marbled murrelet -- an obscure seabird that nests almost exclusively in Pacific Lumber's old- growth forests -- and in 1992 he personally hosted Bob Dole's private reception during the Republican National Convention in Houston. He also has met with Gore to discuss Headwaters, in addition to Pacific Lumber's playing a large role in Riggs' campaign and the drafting of his Headwaters bill.
"I know Pacific Lumber had a big hand in writing the Riggs Bill because they told me they did," says Dana DuBose, an aide to Congressman George Brown, a California Democrat and one of the most knowledgeable people on Capitol Hill regarding the debt-for- nature issue. "The federal government can't require Hurwitz to offer up Headwaters, but we do want to reach a negotiated settlement that lets him win as well."
Despite opposition to virtually every move he makes, Hurwitz continues to cast himself in the role of civic benefactor. He tried it most recently in 1994, when he offered to bring casino gambling to downtown Houston. And he tried it a few years earlier when he offered to rescue faltering Continental Airlines with a deal that would've netted him $3 billion in assets for roughly $25 million of his own money.
"It would be funny if it weren't so tragic -- the chutzpah Hurwitz demonstrates trying to say he's good for the community when he's so bad for the community over the long-term," says Bill Bertain, another Northern California attorney who has been suing Hurwitz on a variety of matters for most of the past decade.
Newsweek columnist Sloan -- who has lambasted Hurwitz for years as a "junkmeister" and, jokingly, "Mr. Altruism" -- says Hurwitz's failed Continental Airlines and casino deals are typical of his style: "You can't blame Hurwitz for making these offers. Why not? If it works, he makes a fortune. If it doesn't, he doesn't lose. That's a Hurwitz kind of deal."
One thing Hurwitz is undeniably guilty of is having an enormous blind spot when it comes to public perception. The way Hurwitz has portrayed himself, he looks at things from a strictly business perspective, dispassionately reducing a scenario to unemotional spreadsheets and risk analysis profiles. After careful study, he makes a calculated -- if sometimes enormously risky -- gamble, using the funds of a corporation where, as the largest shareholder, he has more to lose than anybody else.
But Hurwitz seems to be consistently amazed when, in spite of his careful analysis and superior business judgment, all hell blows up after he makes a move. To call his confidence legendary is to understate it.
Witness Maxxam subsidiary Kaiser Aluminum's recently rebuffed $2.5 billion attempt to take over Alumax, a larger rival in the aluminum trade, which had previously passed on the chance to buy Kaiser for itself. Alumax insiders say the company turned the offer down in part because of management's concerns about Hurwitz's character and private agenda.
Or take the stock reclassification plan the Kaiser subsidiary unveiled several months ago, outraging some shareholders so severely that they went to court to stop it. The plan would've created a special class of super-voting stock, allowing Maxxam to sell two-thirds of its majority stake in Kaiser while maintaining absolute voting control. A Delaware Chancery Court issued a preliminary injunction against the reclassification two weeks ago.
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