Fighting for the redwoods

World Reports

Only when I hear the deafening roar of the chainsaws nearby do I realize the dangers all around me. I am climbing a 180-foot-high old-growth redwood tree nicknamed “Allah” in northern California, along with two “tree-sitters” who choose to live in a fort up in the forest canopy to prevent loggers from cutting down their beloved trees.

We are trespassing on land owned by the Pacific Lumber Company (PL), and our goal is to avoid detection until we’ve reached an 8-by-12-foot platform suspended from the tree. Deep in the foliage of the redwoods, some of the oldest and largest trees remaining in the world, we are not easily detected. But the whine from PL’s chainsaws reverberating through the forest is proof that trees are being felled nearby. All of a sudden my ears catch the unmistakable crack of wood divorcing its roots, followed by a “whoosh” as a giant plunges toward the forest floor, devouring everything in its path. The ground shakes upon impact, and I am too frightened to move.

“C’mon,” yells my guide, known to me as Lodgepole. “Don’t think about what’s happening around you. This is just like climbing a tree in your backyard when you were a kid.” The physical act is not that difficult, actually. This redwood tree is full of protruding limbs and branches that make it easy for me to pull myself upward toward the canopy. The wood is thick and sturdy, which is why it cherished by loggers and environmentalists alike.

Redwood trees make the best outdoor decks and hot tubs because the wood is so durable and weather resistant. PL can earn as much as $100,000 from a single tree once it has been chopped down and cut up. So the company’s motivation for logging here is clear. In turn, environmental activists will do almost anything to save this forest—the largest swath of unprotected old-growth redwood trees left in the world.

Groups like We Save Trees and Earth First!, to which the several dozen tree-sitters and their ground support network in this part of California are loosely affiliated, say that PL is cutting down trees at a rate that the forest has no hopes of sustaining. They also maintain that extensive logging on this hilly terrain creates landslides and ruins the water quality of local streams.

PL agreed to set aside the 10,000-acre Headwaters Preserve four years ago and accepted regulations on its logging in the remaining 211,000 acres it owns here in exchange for $480 million from federal and state governments. But the district attorney in Humboldt County recently filed a lawsuit claiming that PL deceived the court and knew that its logging could damage unstable slopes near riverbeds. As many as a dozen ancient trees in nearby Humboldt Redwoods State Park may have been lost because of channel changes caused by logging on two creeks.

Meanwhile, PL faces an ongoing public relations battle over what to do with the tree-sitters who live in its redwoods and put themselves at risk on a daily basis. PL will do anything to avoid looking like the bad guy. The lumber baron recently filed lawsuits against 110 tree-sitters and other protestors for civil damages compiled over the last two years, since a protestor in the tree means lost lumber revenues. PL apparently wouldn’t dream of cutting down a tree if it meant murdering a human being.

“This group of people is on the fringes of society,” says PL spokesperson Jim Branham. “Most normal people think what they are doing is ridiculous and outrageous. The more attention brought to tree-sitting works in our favor.

“It’s clear to us they are not about protecting the environment; they have a political and social agenda. They’re not a bunch of ‘peace, love, joy’ hippies hanging out up there in the trees.”

PL embarked on a subtle yet ambitious tree-sitter extraction campaign in late March, and has since removed all but three redwoods in the area the tree-sitters dub “Lower Village.” The lumber company hired several local arborists as “extraction climbers,” who scaled trees that were occupied, overpowered the tree-sitters, bound their hands and feet with rope, and lowered them down to the ground, where sheriff deputies arrested them and hauled them off to jail. This action is unprecedented in California’s long and colorful history of civil disobedience. PL extraction climbers, led by “Climber Eric” Schatz, initially removed half a dozen tree-sitters over a three-day period—beginning the day President George W. Bush gave Saddam Hussein a 48-hour ultimatum to leave his country, and ending the day the United States invaded Iraq, thus limiting the exposure this would receive in the media, the tree-sitters point out.

Among those removed was Jen Card, who goes by the forest name “Remedy.” While trying to escape the climbers on March 17, she took off her safety harness and made them chase her up to her lockbox above the platform, where she then chained herself to the tree, a 1,200-year-old redwood nicknamed “Jerry” by the tree-sitters because its Usnea lichen reminded them of former Grateful Dead singer Jerry Garcia’s beard. It took the extraction climbers half an hour to sever the chains around Remedy’s hands with a bolt cutter and lower her 180 feet to the ground.

“I felt sad saying goodbye to Jerry in that manner and not being able to fight for her any longer,” said Remedy, who says she decided on the day of the 9/11 terrorist attacks not to return to her job at a bookstore in Olympia, Washington, because she refused to pay taxes and “contribute to World War III.” “All of a sudden it seemed strange to walk on solid ground. I had to catch my balance as they walked me to the squad car.”

At the time, removing Remedy seemed like an important victory for PL. She had been living in Jerry non-stop for the last 361 days. That’s the second-longest tree-sit for protest purposes ever, after that of Julia “Butterfly” Hill, who occupied a redwood tree named “Luna” for a whopping two years and eight days in the late 1990s before she made a deal with PL to save her tree. Even PL’s spokesman Branham admitted that Hill’s “infamous” feat popularized tree-sitting by showing how it can be used as a weapon against lumber companies.

Remedy has been on the ground ever since, and is writing a book, which she hopes to publish before the one-year anniversary of her extraction from Jerry.

PL has since extracted two more tree-sitters from Jerry, including one who locked his arms to a 600-pound cement barrel to impede his removal. “Smokey” was lowered to the ground along with the barrel on June 17. PL limbed Jerry after removing Remedy, thinking that would impede future tree-sitters.

But by the next morning another forest offender was up in the redwood—a skeleton of its former self—playing the mandolin and gazing out over the Pacific Ocean. Jerry still stands to this day.

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