Protecting US forests

| 1st February 2004
The ongoing battle between US tree-sitters and North America’s big logging firms pitches some of the world’s most determined activists against some of its most ruthless corporations. It is a battle that the tree-sitters simply must not lose.

Phoenix is screaming. He hangs by one leg 160 feet above the forest floor. The man holding onto that leg says he’s dangling him there in order to make him safe. Eric Schatz, of Schatz Tree Service, (whose ad in the Yellow Pages declares, ‘yes, we even rescue cats’) is working for Maxxam Inc/Pacific Lumber (PL) – evicting tree-sitters from old-growth redwoods PL plans to fell. Schatz’s two assistants, Jerry and the appropriately-named Ox, pull Phoenix’s legs back onto the plywood platform that has served as home to several tree-sitters these last four months, but they leave his torso hanging, bent at an unnatural angle. Ox pushes down on his chest, bending him further. Phoenix continues to scream.

Minutes pass. Finally, Phoenix is pulled halfway onto the platform and a rope is put around the back of his neck. Ox uses the rope to bring Phoenix’s face close to his. No one on the ground knows what, if anything, is said. Soon after, with Phoenix’s head and back still over the plywood edge, Ox climbs atop him to stand with both feet on Phoenix’s chest, then puts one foot firmly on his neck.

Phoenix is bound with ropes and lowered to the ground, where he’s promptly arrested. Soon Schatz and co’ go to work on Jungle, another tree-sitter also 160 feet above the ground, who has locked his arms into the metal sleeves of a ‘lock-box’ (a device activists use to tie themselves to objects and from which only they can free themselves) secured around an outstretched branch of the same ancient tree.

Jerry hauls up a generator and grinder, then sits for a smoke. Ox drops a crisp in his mouth and, still chewing, steps forward to kick Jungle in the ribs. Ox kicks him again, then ties a rope around each of Jungle’s legs so he can stand on it to cut off the tree-sitter’s circulation.

This is how Schatz’s team pass their break.

Break finished, the climbers begin to cut away the lock-box. Jungle’s screams can be heard over the whining of metal on metal. Ox takes his foot off the rope, and pulls it up – leaving Jungle’s full weight to hang from chains around his wrists. He screams louder.

The lock-box severed, Jungle is lowered and arrested. Minutes later, another ancient redwood hits the ground. It shatters on impact: the tree stood on a steep slope, and it fell to the downward side; this kind of thing happens a lot. PL has killed the tree and tortured the tree-sitters for no financial gain.

Welcome to the front line of the fight to save the last of North America’s ancient forests. Welcome to the world of tree-sitting.

A short history of tree-sitting

The first tree-sit in defence of forests in the western United States occurred in 1985, when Oregon’s Cathedral Forest was being cut by Willamette Industries. Rock climber Mike Jakubal modified his climbing gear to ascend old-growth Douglas fir trees in an attempt to stop this destruction. It didn’t take loggers long to figure out how to deal with this new challenge. From 80 feet above the ground, Jakubal watched as trees as close as 20 feet from his platform were cut. After a day, every surrounding tree had been cut. Jakubal rappelled down to the suddenly devastated forest floor, where for millions of years a diverse ecosystem had previously thrived. While sitting on a stump amid the wreckage, he was knocked to the ground and arrested by a US Department of Agriculture Forest Service law enforcement officer.

Undaunted by this initial failure to halt deforestation, activists began using the tree-sitting tactic more and more often, refining it as they went. In 1987 Randy Prince conducted the first long-term tree-sit in protest against the Lazy Bluff timber sale in Oregon’s roadless North Kalmiopsis wilderness. On the 42nd day of his occupation, a logger cut one-third of the way through the tree Prince was sitting in before being talked into turning off his chain saw. The tree-sit ended that day as Prince’s tree had been critically weakened by the cut.

The same year tree-sits were also used for the first time in the ancient redwood forests of California. In the early stages of the struggle to save northern California’s Headwaters Forest three tree-sitters perched 130 feet above the forest floor were forced down when PL loggers and security agents used slings to pelt them with rocks.

Tree-sits continue to take place across the US, as hundreds of mainly young people take to the trees to try to protect the places they love. Contrary to the reports of the corporate media, these tree-sits often have extensive community support. For one group of tree-sits in 1999, for example, the ground support crews were made up primarily of loggers and their families from the small town of Randall in Washington state. The tree-sitters and residents were opposing the cutting by the distant Plum Creek corporation of the forest on Watch Mountain just next to Randall. Logging of the 60,000-acre forest would have meant certain death for the community because of clear-cut-triggered landslides. The community won.

There’s an important lesson to be learned here: while tree-sitters were in their perches, and supporters on the ground were hiking in supplies, outraged towns-people were mobilising at community meetings. Buses were chartered for people to confront Plum Creek’s officers in Seattle. The small town of Randall raised a unified voice, vowing not to give up until the deal to cut the forest was ditched. It was a celebrated victory.

Unfortunately, Randall represents a rare triumph in a history of continuing destruction. Families continue to be piggy-backed from their drowning homes in the middle of the night because flood-waters are sliding off hillsides denuded of trees, and the coast guard is routinely called in to rescue motorists stranded atop vehicles on washed-out roads. Houses sport two-foot-high water-lines in every room. Natural forests act as sponges, absorbing rain then releasing it slowly over time; cutting these forests leads to ‘100-year’ floods becoming annual or semi-annual events. Property values plummet, flood insurance sky-rockets, and corporate timber is rewarded for its crimes.

In 2002 residents of northern California’s Elk River watershed were flooded seven times. Maxxam has been forced to deliver agricultural and drinking water to the local community since 1998; the firm’s logging operations are responsible for muddying and destroying local water quality. In Freshwater, however, Maxxam has been able to escape paying for the destruction of the town’s water supplies caused by silt from clear-cuts. The residents of this Californian small community have had to pay tens of thousands of dollars to get municipal water piped in from elsewhere. Residents are also having to pay to put their houses on stilts because of newly regular flooding. As recently as eight years ago Freshwater residents would be kept awake at night by salmon runs making their way up local creeks, the fishes’ tails propelling them upstream. Now it’s rare to see any salmon at all in the area.

Activists and citizens everywhere can tell similar stories. After over-cutting America’s Pacific northwest, for example, the Idaho-based Boise Cascade Corporation acted as ‘cut-and-run’ timber firms do the world over and moved on to deforest other regions. To tell just one horror story about Boise Cascade, the firm moved a mill from Idaho to Papanoa in the south-western Mexican state of Guerrero. The over-cutting of trees in Guerrero left springs dried up and communities with no water. When the locals protested 17 were murdered and another 20 wounded in the now infamous Aguas Blancas Massacre. Although Boise Cascade was forced to leave the region (no one would sell them trees for their mill) Rodolfo Montiel, a farmer-ecologist who had been mobilising communities against logging across Guerrero, was arrested, tortured and sentenced to eight years in jail for spurious drugs and weapons offences. As soon as Montiel was jailed, Boise Cascade’s former partners attempted to begin logging again.

Then there is the Weyerhaeuser Company, which merged with the afore-mentioned Willamette in 2002. In just one year Weyerhaeuser cleared 45 square miles of forest in Washington state, 25 square miles in Oregon, 152 square miles in the US south, and also liquidated forests in Indonesia, the Philippines and Canada.

And there is also the Californian company Sierra Pacific Industries, which between 1992 and 1999 increased its clear-cutting by more than 240 times, and expanded the size of its average clear-cut from 46 to 361 acres. It now has plans to clear-cut a million more acres – an area larger than Rhode Island – over the next 10 years.

Exterminating them all

When a forest is cut, it’s not just trees that are killed. Whether it’s lions in ancient Greece or, as today, spotted owls and coho salmon in America’s Pacific northwest and gorillas in Africa, the loss of forests means the loss of the creatures living in them. The list of plants and animals damaged or extirpated by the deaths of once-great forests is long, and getting longer every day. Golden-crowned lemur, orangutan, Siberian tiger (of which there are only 250 left), marbled murrelet, Port Orford cedar (killed by a fungus transported on logging equipment), black forest-wallaby, aye-aye, red cedar, mahogany, ivory-billed woodpecker, Carolina parakeet, golden-capped fruit bat, Hazel’s and smooth-skinned forest frogs, Amur tiger and leopard, forest owlet, Nelson’s spiny pocket mouse, saker falcon, red wolf, panda bear: the list goes on and on. Scientists estimate that 130 species are driven extinct every day; that’s about 50,000 each year. This devastation is not due just to deforestation; it is a consequence of the larger effects of industrial civilisation. Nonetheless, 75 per cent of the mammals endangered by the activities of industrial civilisation are threatened with loss of forest habitat. For birds, the corresponding figure is 45 per cent; for amphibians it’s 55 per cent; and for reptiles it’s 65 per cent.

Forests are under attack all over the world. One estimate says that, globally, two and a half acres of forest are cut every second. That’s equivalent to two football fields, or 150 acres cut per minute. That’s 214,000 acres per day – an area larger than New York city –, and 78 million acres each year – an area larger than Poland. Indeed, about three quarters of the world’s original forests have been cut, most in the past century. Much of what remains is in three nations: Russia, Canada and Brazil. In the continental US, only 5 per cent of native forest remains.

And what do those who run the timber corporations want to do now? As former Louisiana Pacific president and CEO Harry Merlo stated with no hint of irony: ‘We need everything that’s out there. We log to infinity. It’s ours, it’s out there and we need it all. Now.’

So the fight goes on. Contrary to what many people think, tree-sitting doesn’t require everyone to spend months or years without touching the ground. Over the years I have met all sorts of people working hard to stop or slow deforestation. There are people who file lawsuits against individual timber harvest plans (THPs), and people suing timber companies outright. Some people oversee monitoring stations that sample waterways to track the effects of logging on water quality, and present their findings to the appropriate agencies. There are residents who come out in droves to speak at meetings with the ‘regulatory’ agencies, or who attend the public comment period that is part of the THP approval process. Other volunteers search the forests for endangered species in the hope of protecting small pieces of land.

And yet the trees continue to fall, runs of salmon disappear, water quality is degraded, and the staggering effort put forth by concerned citizens leaves scarcely a discernible mark (or tree). It’s an awful reality that begs the question of what to do next.

What must be done

In the relatively short history of campaigning against deforestation in North America, thousands of people have been arrested. Activists and organisers have had pepper spray applied directly to their eyeballs. They have been car-bombed for building links between exploited timber workers and environmentalists. They’ve been shot at, and one man was killed by a tree intentionally felled in his direction – seconds previously, the logger had been caught on video threatening to do just that.

Corporations sue activists, and activists sue them back. Laws are passed to protect environmental health, only for de-foresters to be appointed to ‘enforce’ those laws. The state of California, for example, recently passed a law giving its Water Quality Board the authority to stop logging that would degrade impaired watersheds further; within weeks a leading Maxxam apologist was appointed to the California Environmental Protection Agency. Similarly, soon after Lee Thomas left his job as head of the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) he joined timber products firm Georgia-Pacific – one of the organisations he had previously pretended to oversee.


Fellow former EPA chief William Ruckleshaus went on to sit on the boards of Weyerhaeuser, Monsanto and several other corporations. And who better to oversee the US Forest Service than the attorney who defended building products manufacturer Louisiana-Pacific from charges of monopolistic practices detrimental to the people and forests of the US? John Crowell was made chief of the Forest Service by Ronald Reagan. He immediately set out to double the timber production from US national forests by the end of the 20th century. Part of the reason that didn’t happen was because there weren’t that many trees left. But by 1988 the US had become a net exporter of wood products for the first time in its history, and Americans were subsidising the Forest Service’s destruction of public forests with billions of tax dollars.
So, what can people who disapprove of this state of affairs do? So long as we relegate ourselves to symbolic resistance, nothing will change. And so long as we expect a parade of ‘heroes’ to step forward to do the work of stopping the loggers for us, ecological and human health will continue to be destroyed. Part of the problem is that most of us who pretend to resist the logging industry don’t know what we really want. Do we want fewer clear-cuts? Smaller clear-cuts? Kinder and gentler clear-cuts? We don’t know. And even if we did, we aren’t willing to do what’s necessary to stop those in power from murdering the planet.

Instead, we yammer on about ‘hope’. You wouldn’t believe how many magazine editors have said to me that they want me to write about the apocalypse but to make sure I ‘leave readers with a sense of hope’. But what, precisely, is ‘hope’? At a talk I gave last spring, someone asked me to define it. I couldn’t; so I turned the question back on the audience. Here’s the definition we came up with: hope is a longing for something over which you have no control; it means you are powerless. Think about it. I’m not, for example, going to say, ‘I hope I eat something tomorrow’. I’ll just do it. On the other hand, I hope that the next time I get on an aeroplane, the plane won’t crash. To hope for some result means you have no control over that event.

When we realise how much power we actually do have, however, we no longer have to ‘hope’ at all. We simply do the work. We make sure salmon survive. We make sure prairie dogs survive. We make sure tigers survive. We do whatever it takes.

And what will it take? Well, we can join those who are sitting in trees. Or, if we don’t want to climb, we can bring them food and water. Or we can help them in other ways – filing lawsuits, testing water quality or searching for endangered species. We can use whatever skills we have in whatever ways we can to keep the remaining forests standing. The only question is whether we are willing to do so.

Derrick Jensen’s most recent book (with George Draffan) is Strangely like War: the global assault on forests (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2003). Remedy is a Californian activist who spent 361 days in a 1,200-year-old redwood before being forcibly removed by Maxxam-hired climbers.

This article first appeared in the Ecologist February 2004

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