SCOTIA, CALIF. -- At 6:30 a.m., two blasts from the mill whistle ricochet through empty streets, past the look-alike boxy bungalows, by the Protestant church and the Catholic church, around the inn, beyond the school and on up the misty Eel River valley.
Scotia's communal alarm clock has rung in another day. It will sound again in an hour to begin the daily transformation of giant redwood logs into lumber.
Scotia, 260 miles north of San Francisco, is one of America's last true company towns, a place where everything belongs to Pacific Lumber Co. The company owns the mills, the houses, the gas station, the churches, school and inn. If you live in Scotia, you are a company tenant. When you retire from the company, you must retire from the town.
Pacific Lumber also owns the hills around Scotia. And the hills are covered with stately redwoods that were centuries old when Sir Francis Drake sailed the Northern California coast in 1579, ancient trees that reach 250 feet and more into the air: Sequoia Sempervirons, the tallest trees on earth.
Now those massive redwoods and Pacific Lumber have become the focus of a strange battle involving tree-climbing environmentalists, Wall Street corporate raiders and the company town. The outcome will determine just how many of those threatened redwoods will survive.
Largely family-run for most of a century, with a reputation for enlightened management of its trees and benevolent paternalism for its people, Pacific Lumber -- the world's biggest private owner of virgin redwood -- was seen as a model timber company and a secure employer since it began producing lumber in 1887.
But time, which seemed to stand still here for so long, finally caught up with Scotia.
In the era of Wall Street corporate raids, Pacific Lumber was taken over, bought up by a Houston real estate and oil magnate. To help pay for the $750 million debt created by the controversial purchase, the new owner has doubled the company's redwood lumber production.
That means, for the first time in recent memory, Pacific Lumber loggers are clear-cutting stands of virgin redwood, cutting down all the old trees, rather than leaving some for the future. The one-time darling of the environmentalists now finds itself facing well-orchestrated environmental protests, complete with arrests and tree-climbing protesters.
And in Scotia, people who had assumed their future was as certain as their past are worried. How long will the trees last? How long will their jobs last? Will Pacific Lumber be sold off, whole or piecemeal, to pay for debts on corporate books in Houston, Los Angeles and New York? Will Charles Hurwitz, the new owner, continue to provide $8,000 scholarships for every employe's college-bound child? Will he sell their homes? Will he sell their town? Does he care?
"For so long, we were protected, sort of like an eagle protects its young," said Colette Daggett, who has lived for 20 years and raised four children in the same house.
Daggett, 46, grew up in Scotia, one of 10 children of the town's laundry operator, and is married to Larry Daggett, who runs Pacific Lumber's print shop. "We had never heard of mergers or takeovers. The company's been very good to everybody here ... . People wonder what's going to happen to them."
Hurwitz, a Houston financier known in investment circles as a shrewd takeover artist, shocked the insulated community when his Maxxam Group Inc. raided Pacific Lumber in late 1985, attracted by a company with little debt, millions of surplus dollars in its pension fund, and rich stands of "old-growth" redwoods.
Old-growth trees are the 200- to 2,000-year-old redwoods that were growing here before the first European settlers arrived, virgin stands of trees whose trunks may be 15 feet or more in diameter. Those old trees, because of their tight grain and limited supply, are three times more valuable than younger, "second-growth" redwoods, and are used for such things as paneling and fine furniture.
About 80,000 acres of the giant trees are in state and national parks near here, and Pacific Lumber owns most of the rest of the old-growth redwoods. About 60 percent of its redwood holdings, 3 billion board feet, are old-growth trees, and the company's new owners hope that by doubling the rate at which the old trees are cut, they can make enough money to pay their rising debt from the Pacific Lumber takeover.
So, instead of cutting 140 million board feet, as it did in 1985, Pacific Lumber expects to cut 260 million to 280 million board feet this year.
"There's no doubt we've got a debt to service," said David Galitz, a company spokesman in Scotia. "When Mr. Hurwitz bought the company, he thought it was undermanaged ... and could be run more efficiently, and we are."
Efficiency for Pacific Lumber now means clear-cutting groves of old-growth redwoods, instead of the "selective cutting" method long practiced by the company before the takeover. Selective cutting left 30 percent to 50 percent of the redwoods standing to provide shade for new trees that would spring from the stumps and seedlings. Under the faster logging plan, the old-growth trees will be gone in 20 years, instead of in 30 or 40, Galitz says. The company commissioned a forestry study that it says supports 20 years of doubled redwood cutting before returning to the slower, historic pace.
As is obvious from a grove north of Scotia, clear-cutting means what the name implies. On a 40-acre swath of hillside, a redwood stump the size of a small car is surrounded by smaller stumps, shredded timbers, an ax, a saw blade, a broken chain, piles of dirt and stacks of huge new logs.
Greg King, 26, an environmentalist who has been one of Pacific Lumber's chief critics, kicks through the debris and points to the surrounding forest of remaining redwoods, where even sunlight has trouble making it through the canopy to the fern-covered floor.
"That's what all of this looked like ... when I first walked up here this year, this was beautiful," he said. "Now, maybe in 1,000 years, it could look like that again."
King and other local environmentalists who have mounted a campaign against Pacific Lumber contend the clear-cutting of the virgin redwood stands will destroy the habitat of animals like the spotted owl and the red mountain vole and the marbled murrelet, increase erosion runoff into salmon-rich streams and wipe out the last large, unprotected holdings of old-growth redwoods.
"To see one of the great ecosystems of the world turned into a tree farm is a travesty," said Richard Jay Moller, a local lawyer representing environmentalists in a lawsuit filed in June in an effort to block Pacific Lumber from going ahead with plans to log about 375 acres of nearby old-growth redwoods. Pacific Lumber has halted logging operatings there pending a court hearing on the suit.
The environmentalists -- many, like King, members of the uncompromising Earth First group -- have also tried direct action to block Pacific Lumber logging.
Six were arrested in May for climbing trees selected for cutting, and seven were arrested when they clambered up a log pile to unfurl protest signs. Five other Earth First members were arrested when they barricaded a Pacific Lumber sales office with stumps near Sausalito, Calif.
Pacific Lumber officials argue that the real result of ending old-growth logging would be fewer jobs and economic hardship for residents of Scotia and surrounding Humboldt County. Timber-related business is an economic mainstay of the county, with pulp mills in the county seat of Eureka, sawmills in a dozen towns, logging trucks on every highway and redwood-souvenir shops lined up along U.S. 101.
In California, the nation's third-largest lumber producer, Humboldt County is the logging leader. More than 5,000 people work in the timber industry, which ships about $500 million worth of lumber from the county a year.
''We're very sensitive to managing our lands properly without excessive interference from public regulators or private environmentalists,'' said Pacific Lumber's Galitz. ''Greg King doesn't know a Douglas fir from a redwood.
''The same people are still in charge in Scotia. Not one Hurwitz person was sent in here from the outside. We're still the same guys following the same principles.''
Hurwitz promised to keep all benefits in place for at least three years -- wages, college scholarships, everything. That time is half gone.
''Everybody always figured it would always go on like it was,'' said Larry Daggett. ''But it's never going to be like it was.''