If Not Now, When?

Co-authored with Remedy, a forest activist who spent 361 days in a 1,200 year-old redwood without touching the ground before being forcibly removed by Maxxam hired climbers. She lives in Humboldt County, California.

Phoenix is screaming. He hangs by one leg a hundred and sixty feet above the forest floor. The man holding onto this 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 at work for Maxxam Corporation/Pacific Lumber, evicting tree-sitters from old growth redwoods PL plans to cut. His 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, in a message sent not only to Phoenix but to all of us standing below, 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.

The climbers bind Phoenix with ropes and lower him to the ground, where he’s promptly arrested. Soon they go to work on Jungle, another treesitter, also one hundred and sixty feet above the ground, who has locked his arms into the metal sleeves of a ‘lockbox’ (a device activists use to voluntarily lock themselves to something where only they can free themselves) around an outstretched branch of this ancient tree.

Jerry hauls up a generator and grinder, then sits for a smoke. Ox drops a potato chip in his mouth, then 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 treesitter’s circulation.

This is how they pass their break.

Break finished, the climbers begin to cut away the lockbox. 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 lockbox 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 happens a lot – the company has killed the tree and tortured the treesitters for no financial gain.

This is what it’s like on the front lines of the fight to save the last of this continent’s ancient forests. Welcome to the world of treesitting.

A short history of treesitting

The first treesit in defense of forests in the Western United States occurred in 1985, when Oregon’s Cathedral Forest was being cut by Williamette Industries. Mike Jakubal, a rock climber, modified his 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 situation. From 80 feet above the ground, Jakubal watched as trees as close as 20 feet from his platform were cut. By day’s end, every surrounding tree had been cut. He rappelled down to this suddenly devastated landscape, where for millions of years stood a diverse and thriving forest ecosystem. While sitting on a stump amidst the wreckage, Jakubal was knocked to the ground and arrested by a Forest Service law enforcement officer.

Undaunted by this initial failure to halt deforestation, activists began using this tactic more and more often, refining it as they went. In 1987, Randy Prince conducted the first long-term tree-sit in the Lazy Bluff Timber Sale in Oregon’s North Kalmiopsis roadless area. On the 42nd day, a logger cut one-third of the way through the tree he was in before being talked into turning off his chainsaw. The tree-sit ended that day as the tree was significantly weakened by the cut.

1987 was also the first year tree-sits were used in the ancient redwoods of California. In the early stages of the struggle to save Headwaters Forest, three tree-sitters were perched 130 feet above the forest floor, but were forced down when PL loggers and security agents used slingshots to pelt them with rocks.

Treesits continue to take place across the country, as hundreds of mainly young people take to the trees to try to protect the places they love. In opposition to portrayals in the corporate media, these treesits often take place with extensive community support. For example, in one group of treesits in 1999, the ground support crews were made up primarily of loggers and their families from the small town of Randall, Washington, who were opposing the cutting of the forest on Watch Mountain above their community by a distant corporation, Plum Creek Timber Company. Logging of the 60,000-acre area would have meant certain death for the community from clearcut-triggered landslides. In this case, the community won.

There’s an important lesson to be learned here: while treesitters were in their perches, and ground supporters were hiking in supplies, townspeople were organizing their outrage during community meetings that overflowed with everyone from children to the elderly. Buses were chartered for people to confront Plum Creek’s officers in Seattle. The small town of Randall raised a unified voice, vowing to not give up until the deal to cut the forest was stopped. It was a celebrated victory.

Unfortunately, it was a rare moment of triumph in a history of continuing destruction. Families continue to be piggybacked from their drowning homes in the middle of the night because floodwaters 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. Others have houses sporting two-foot high waterlines in every room as constant reminders of the now-annual ‘hundred year’ floods. Property values plummet, flood insurance skyrockets, and meanwhile corporate timber is rewarded for its crimes.

All across the world communities are living with the consequences. Maxxam has been forced to deliver agricultural and drinking water to residents of the Elk River watershed since 1998 due to logging operations that have muddied and destroyed water quality. Logging destroys streams by causing massive erosion. Natural forests act as sponges, absorbing rain then releasing it slowly over time. Cutting these forests causes ‘hundred-year’ floods to become annual or semi-annual events. In 2002 residents were flooded seven times.

In Freshwater, however, Maxxam has been able to avoid paying for permanently destroying the town’s water supplies by silt from clearcuts. The residents of this small community, however, have had to pay tens of thousands of dollars to get municipal water piped in from Eureka in lieu of the local clean water they’d relied on for decades. In addition to losing water supplies, residents are forced to pay out of pocket to put their houses on stilts in answer to the newly regular flooding. As recently as eight years ago, the people who inhabit these areas would be kept awake by salmon runs making their way up the creeks, their thrashing tails propelling them upstream. Now it’s rare to see any salmon at all. In Cloney Gulch, the vicinity of my treesit, populations of Coho Salmon are down to one-tenth what they were less than ten years ago.

Activists — and citizens — everywhere can tell similar stories. Boise Cascade, for example, overcut the Pacific Northwest, and as ‘cut and run’ timber corporations do the world over, moved on to deforest other regions. To tell just one horror story of Boise Cascade, it moved a mill from Idaho to Papanoa in Guerrero, Mexico. Overcutting led to dried springs and communities with no water. Community members protested. 17 were murdered and 20 others 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, leader of the farmer-ecologists, was arrested and tortured with electric shock. As soon as Montiel was jailed, Boise Cascade’s former partners attempted to begin logging again.

Then there is Weyerhaeuser, which by its own admission in only one year deforested 45 square miles in Washington state, 25 square miles in Oregon state, and 152 square miles in the southern US. This is in addition to forests liquidated in Indonesia, the Philippines, and Canada.

Or Sierra Pacific, which between 1992 and 1999 increased its clearcutting by more than 240 times, and increased the size of its average clearcut from 46 to 361 acres. It now has plans to clearcut a million more acres — an area larger than Rhode Island — over the next 10 years.

Exterminate them all!

When a forest is cut, not only trees are killed. Whether it’s lions in ancient Greece, spotted owls or coho salmon right now in the Pacific Northwest, or gorillas in Africa, the loss of forests means the loss of the creatures who live there.

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 whom 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 parakeets, golden-capped fruit bat, Hazel’s forest frog, smooth-skinned forest frog, Amur tiger, Amur leopard, forest owlet, Nelson’s spiny pocket mouse, Saker falcon, red wolf, panda bear, and on and on.

Scientists estimate an average of 130 species are driven extinct every day. That’s about 50,000 each year. That is not just by deforestation, but by the larger effects of industrial civilization. Nonetheless, 75 per cent of the mammals endangered by the activities of industrial civilization are threatened by loss of forest habitat. For birds, the figure is 45 per cent. For amphibians it’s 55 per cent, and for reptiles it’s 65 per cent.

Worldwide, forests are under attack. One estimate says that a hectare (two and a half acres) of forest somewhere in the world is cut every second. That’s equivalent to two football fields. One hundred-and-fifty acres cut per minute. That’s 214,000 acres per day: an area larger than New York City. Seventy-eight million acres (121,875 square miles) deforested each year: an area larger than Poland. Indeed, about three-quarters of the world’s original forests have been cut, most of that 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 still stands.

And what do those who run the timber corporations want to do now? As Harry Merlo, former president and CEO of Louisiana Pacific stated, with no hint of irony: ‘We need everything that’s out there. We don’t log to a 10-inch top, or an 8-inch top, or a 6-inch top. We log to infinity. Because we need it all. It’s ours. It’s out there, and we need it all. Now.’

Fighting back

And so the fight goes on. Contrary to what many people think, treesitting 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, presenting their findings to the appropriate agencies. There are residents who come out in droves to speak at meetings with these ‘regulatory’ agencies, or those who include their voices in the public comment period that is part of the approval process for THPs.

On our public lands volunteers work on Timber Sale appeals – combing through thick stacks of brain-busting, bureaucratic paperwork which insist clearcutting hundreds of acres of forest will lead to ‘no significant impact.’ Citizen monitoring stations record the millions of pounds of sediment being dumped into our waterways from eroding clearcut hillsides. Other volunteers search the forests for endangered species such as red tree voles and rare plants in hopes 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 discernable 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 attempts to stop deforestation in North America, thousands of people have been arrested. Activists and organisers have had pepper-spray applied directly into their eyeballs, have been car bombed for building bridges between exploited timber workers and environmentalists, been shot at, and one man was killed by a tree intentionally felled his direction (just after the logger had been caught on videotape threatening to do just this). Corporations sue activists and activists sue them back. Laws are passed to protect environmental health, only to have deforesters appointed to ‘enforce’ those laws. For example, California recently passed a law giving the Water Quality Board the authority to stop logging that would further degrade impaired watersheds. Within weeks, a chief apologist for Maxxam was appointed to the California Environmental Protection Agency.

This is routine. Thus, soon after Lee Thomas left his job as head of the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) he joined Georgia-Pacific, one of the companies he had pretended to oversee. William Ruckleshaus, who also headed the EPA, went on to sit on the board of Weyerhaeuser, Browning-Ferris Industries, Cummins Engine, Coinstar, Monsanto, Nordstrom, Solutia, and Gargoyles.

Likewise, who better to oversee the U.S. Forest Service than the attorney who defended Louisiana-Pacific from charges of monopolistic practices detrimental to the people and forests of the United States? Ronald Reagan appointed such a person — John Crowell — Chief of the Forest Service. Crowell immediately set a goal of doubling timber production from the national forests by the turn of the century. That didn’t happen, in part because there weren’t that many trees left to cut, even if the market could have borne all that wood. But the cut did increase until by 1988 the US had become a net exporter of wood products for the first time, and Americans were subsidizing the US Forest Service’s destruction of public forests with billions of tax dollars. How can we work within a system that ‘works’ like this?

So, what can those of us who care do? So long as we relegate ourselves to symbolic resistance, we are assured that nothing will change. And so long as we expect a parade of ‘heroes’ to step forward to do the work for us, ecological and human health will continue to be destroyed, and all to the sound of a robotic rubber stamp that claims ‘no significant impact’.

Part of our problem is that most of us who pretend to resist generally don’t know what we really want. Do we want fewer clearcuts, smaller clearcuts, kinder and gentler clearcuts? We don’t know. And even if we do, we aren’t willing to do what’s necessary to stop those in power from murdering the planet.

Instead, more or less all of us yammer more or less endlessly about hope. You wouldn’t believe — or maybe you would — how many editors for how many magazines have said they want me to write about the apocalypse, then enjoined me to ‘make sure you 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, and so turned the question back on the audience. Here’s the definition we all came up with: Hope is a longing for a future condition over which you have no control. It means you are essentially 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 a plane, it doesn’t crash. To hope for some result means you have no control over it.

Does anyone really believe that Pacific Lumber will stop deforesting because we ask nicely? However, when we realize the degree of power we actually do have, 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?

We can join those who are sitting in trees. Or if we do not 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. In short, we can use whatever skills we have in whatever ways we can to keep the remaining forests standing.

The only question, then, is whether we are willing to do it.

Originally published in the February 2004 issue of The Ecologist
Republished in The Bay Area Forest Activist, Summer 2004

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