The War in the Woods — A Personal Journey

By Ben White

Most of my work with AWI involves the protection of whales and dolphins, but for over twenty-five years I was a professional tree climber and arborist. Recently I was asked to help out some kids in Humboldt County, California who are trying to stop the cutting of the old-growth forests.

Five years ago I fought the cutting of another ancient forest after President Clinton had signed the Salvage Timber Rider, allowing the logging of wildlife preserves set aside as "refugias." These had been preserved to spread their original flora and fauna eventually to the surrounding denuded hillsides. Rocky Brook was one of these refugias. I slept 100 feet up a cedar tree for three days and nights and was arrested blockading a logging road and leading 200 people into the area deemed off limits. On my third arrest, I was put in manacles and chains and sent to federal prison for violating the "forest closure law." This law enables police to arrest anyone within a three mile radius of a logging site on grounds of "safety." Eventually, we knocked down this law on the grounds that it violated my rights to speak, assemble and worship in a place I considered sacred. But Rocky Brook forest was clear-cut to the ground while I was in jail. 

I thought I knew a little about the struggle to protect these forests.  

Just back from a trip to the forests of Northern California, I realize that I knew nothing about the duration, intensity, difficulty and danger of the war over the woods now being waged from California to British Columbia.  

I met a young climber named Bob in Arcata, about to hitchhike with many pounds of climbing gear to a huge threatened forest called Rainbow Ridge. Rainbow Ridge runs above the Mattole Valley, a remote and precious green swath along one of the few undamned rivers in California. Charles Hurwitz (the butcher of the Headwaters Forest who commandeered the Pacific Lumber Company through a hostile takeover ten years ago) also has claim to thousands of acres of ancient trees along Rainbow Ridge. 

I gave Bob a ride down to the edge of the ridge, dropping him off at a gate stretched across a logging road. He hoisted his packs to hike five miles to a blockade where twenty kids have been camping in the snow since November 1, braving strong winds and heavy rain, stopping the trucks and loggers.

Bob was equipped to set up tree-sit platforms in the trees slated to be cut first, another seven miles from the blockade. Whereas Rocky Brook had been in a National Forest, all twelve miles of land from the gate on is private property: hostile territory for anti-logging protesters. Many of the rights I took for granted in my fight do not apply here, and the police and loggers have on occasion been brutal in their protection of clear-cut logging. Just last year, a young Earth First! activist and tree climber named David (Gypsy) Chain was killed when a logger dropped a tree in his direction.  

The people who live in the Mattole Valley have been fighting the threats to their corner of the world for over twenty years, including proposals to dam or divert the water and the ongoing decimation of the forests. When major logging actions begin, local folks (ranchers and farmers and schoolteachers) have been known to set up their own blockades to stop the loggers and police from heading up into the hills to battle the kids.  

Court proceedings and deals made with the state and federal government give little hope for justice or the preservation of the forests. Habitat Conservation Plans approved for the Headwaters allow Maxxam (Charles Hurwitz's mutation of the Pacific Lumber Company) to cut trees known to contain endangered species. These wink and nod deals actually override the Endangered Species Act, allowing the cutting of some areas if others are left alone. Charles Hurwitz bilked the American people out of over a billion dollars during the Savings and Loan debacle a decade ago and a just arrangement would be a debt for nature swap. We'll let the guy off the hook for the billion dollars he owes taxpayers if he leaves all of the old trees alone to live for another thousand years.  

Back home in Washington, I pulled out a videotape from the Headwaters Action Video Collective that I had bought from the Trees Foundation in Garberville. The film is entitled "Fire in the Eyes," a reference, I thought, to the intensity and dedication of the kids involved. I sat down with my fourteen-year-old daughter Julia to watch the short film. Julia was a turtle at the WTO meeting in Seattle, and is a tree climber and avid young activist. The kids obstructing the logging are her tribe.  

Within ten minutes both of us were in tears. Using police footage obtained through court discovery, the film showed the technique the Humbolt County Sheriff's Office is using against young protesters. In one scene, protesters filed into the office of conservative lawmaker Frank Riggs in order to protest his facilitation of clear-cut logging. They brought in a stump and a bucket of sawdust, sat in a circle around the prop and joined their arms with lockboxes. Lockboxes are steel tubes that slide over the forearms of two adjacent people, with rebar welded on the inside. Each participant has a carabiner attached to their wrist with a rope that locks onto the rebar. Unless cut off, they can only release themselves. No amount of pulling will separate the protesters unless they choose to let go.  

In "Fire in the Eyes," police officers announce to the protesters that they have five minutes to disconnect or "chemical agents" would be used. Then, one officer bends back the head of a protester while another puts a Q-tip soaked in pepper spray into the corner of each eye. Nothing much happens for forty seconds or so while the police go to the next person. Then the pain begins. Excruciating, debilitating pain that makes the kids scream out. Still they do not release. One girl cries out for compassion, asking the officers if they don't have daughters of their own. After another warning the police spray a canister of pepper spray directly into the eyes of each protester. In spite of the torture, the kids amazingly stayed locked together, even when the cops eventually pick up the entire circle and carry them out of the office.  

The film ends with the devastating news that when the kids tortured by the police sued, the technique was upheld as acceptable use of force. A plea from the American Civil Liberties Union that the torture was prohibited under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was ignored. An appeal is pending.  

The war over the woods in the northwest is one of the most intense, most dangerous efforts to protect animals' habitat (the trees and rivers on which they depend) in North America. Hundreds of people have mortgaged their homes, faced arrest, torture and death, and braved week after week either up in a tree or freezing in a road blockade. These folks need the rest of us.  

The movie Gandhi has a scene where Indian men illegally gathering salt are beaten by British troops, one after another. Some believe that the British Empire died that day in India when Brits decided they couldn't stomach the degree of brutality that would be necessary to crush the drive for independence. Seeing the torture of kids trying to protect these forests makes me wonder how much repression Americans will tolerate.  

Instead of being depressed over yet another natural tragedy of huge proportions unfolding, what stays with me from my short trip into the war zone of Northern California is hope. Kids in their teens and twenties are offering their lives to protect the last of the ancient forests. Even knowing they might be tortured or killed, they persevere.  

This fight is not a passing fancy. North of my home stretches the largest intact temperate rainforest in the world. Five million acres of salmon, grizzlies, eagles and trees ten feet thick stretch along the western coast of British Columbia. Logging roads are slated to invade almost every pristine valley. For those who believe that a very important part of who we are depends on the existence of wildlife and wild places, and our refusal to acquiesce to its destruction, protecting these places may well be the fight of our lives.

How strange and wonderful is our home, our earth,
With its swirling vaporous atmosphere,
Its flowing and frozen climbing creatures,
The croaking things with wings that hang on rocks
And soar through fog, the furry grass, the scaly seas…
How utterly rich and wild…
Yet some among us have the nerve,
The insolence, the brass, the gall to whine
About the limitations of our earthbound fate
And yearn for some more perfect world beyond the sky.
We are none of us good enough
For the world we have.
—Edward Abbey