Roots of Discontent

One of the most active places for responsible environmental militancy this summer and fall is in a remote corner of Northern California. Dozens of people have risked their lives and their economic future security and given up huge chunks of their daily existence to stop environmental damage from intense logging, including significant amounts of ancient forests.

"Common sense and reason are insufficient to effect social change," says Randy Hayes, director of Rainforest Action Network.

And the activists are indeed causing a ruckus in their attempts to effect change. They are in the corporations' faces and the government's crosshairs. They get arrested, tear-gassed, pepper-sprayed. They're loose cannons, non-strategic thinkers. They have been branded "eco-terrorists." Far from being Sierra Clubbers, they consider themselves the brutal soul of the environmental movement.

Hayes and a handful of other graying environmental leaders hold up militancy as a good thing -- unless it's really stupid and then Hayes admits he tries to distance the organization from any embarrassment. He makes the distinction, however, between "responsible militancy" and anarchy. "I don't hide my face."

The corporate adversary is Maxxam, which owns land on which some of the last vestiges of ancient redwoods and Douglas fir still reign. Activists haven't yet stopped Maxxam from logging a potential 32,522 acres this year, but living in treetops and flailing their bodies in front of logging machinery, they aspire to bloody well do something about the devastation the lumber company has wreaked upon California's North Coast.

Julia Butterfly Hill, who spent two years perched in a redwood tree named Luna, is the most famous of the protesters. Now, after her, there are many more treesitters. Some take their cue from Hill and remain aloft for months; others put up strategic short-term tree occupations just in front of current logging operations. Both types know that one false move and they end up a pile of broken bones 100 or so feet down. Indeed, one tree sitter fell to his death in October.

Add to that anti-logging tactic now is a hunger strike. "I had my backpack packed about three weeks ago to go sit in a tree," explains Susan Moloney, executive director of the Garberville-based Campaign for Old Growth. "I can take to a tree and stay for two years and maybe I'll protect that tree, but there are not enough people to protect all the trees." She estimates there are only seven million ancient trees left.

Her hunger strike, taking place from a lawn chair at the steps of the California State Capitol, is intended to get California Governor Gray Davis' attention. Moloney insists that Davis own up to a promise he made in 1998 to ensure that "all old-growth trees are spared from the lumberjack's ax."

While Moloney starves herself and the treesitters face a chilling winter season of wind and rain, Maxxam continues to fell trees at an alarming rate -- despite two court orders to stop operations and with the support of two California regulatory agencies managed by the governor's appointees.

Louis Blumberg, spokesperson for the California Department of Forestry & Fire Protection, defends Davis: "The governor has followed through with the promise," he says. "It was made at a time when he was trying to consummate the Headwaters Forest deal which brought the largest grove of virgin redwoods under state control." The Headwaters deal had state and federal taxpayers pony up $380 million to save 7,500 acres of ancient redwoods from Maxxam's logging operations.

State regulators have a curious relationship with Maxxam. The Department of Fish and Game has sent wardens to help Humboldt County sheriffs and Maxxam security forces. Earth First! reported that while temperatures were in the 40s, law enforcement, including DFG wardens, poured cold water 10 times over four hours on protesters. DFG again helped the county sheriff, chasing protesters with dogs, helicopters and all-terrain vehicles, according to Jack Nounnan, a 71-year-old activist. Maxxam's Pacific Lumber spokesperson Mary Bullwinkle would not confirm or deny the reports. "We did chase people around on foot," admits James Barton, assistant DFG chief, Region 1, who adds, "I'm 99 percent sure" marshals weren't in the helicopters or pouring water on protestors.

In April, Maxxam's logging subsidiary Pacific Lumber president and chief executive officer Robert Manne asked the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors to apply for anti-terrorism funds through the federal Homeland Security Act to fight what the company branded "eco-terrorists" on its property. Humboldt County Sheriff Dennis Lewis' spokesperson said that Manne's request is "not currently active."

But the lack of interest on behalf of county officials hasn't deterred Maxxam/Pacific Lumber. "In April, when I warned the supervisors that eco-terrorism was coming to Humboldt County, there were those who scoffed," Manne stated in August, after protesters locked themselves into a car at the entrance to the company's office. "This kind of activity," he stated, "fits a pattern of behavior that the Department of Justice will be keenly interested in reviewing."

Meanwhile, on the Capitol steps Moloney is one of the few forest activists who uses her real name. Most treesitters are known only by monikers like "Remedy" or "Wren."

"They have their forest names. I learn their real names when they get arrested," says Nounnan. Since late 2000, there have been about somewhere between 50 and 70 arrests related to logging protests.

Maxxam is pursuing not only criminal arrests for trespassing, but civil suits against protesters, as long as the company can find out their names. Considered by some outside of the corporation to be a SLAPP suit (strategic lawsuit against public participation), Maxxam filed its civil suit in April 2001 with a long list of empty spaces for names of future activists -- John and Jane Does. They have been adding new names rapidly -- from the original nine to about 60. Maxxam left room for up to 200 unknown names in the civil suit and adds one every time someone new is arrested.

"As they're arrested, jailers serve them with the [civil] lawsuit," explains attorney Jay Moller, who represents many on the civil lawsuit, which he does not consider a SLAPP suit. "You can sue someone who trespasses on your land and causes you damage."

What Moller feels is overkill on Maxxam's part is the damages the lawsuit portends. Assuming most activists have few assets, the civil suit calls for paying back Maxxam for the time and cost of logging not completed.

"There's a variety of damages sought," says Pacific Lumber attorney Paul Brisso. "By blocking access of contractors and subcontractors, there's a substantial amount of damage just in down equipment time, helicopters and crews idled." He's in the process of tallying up a total, which could run $100,000 or more. "These people entered into a conspiracy," Brisso said.

"Nothing I'm doing is illegal," says Susan Moloney. "I'm not trespassing or breaking any laws." But as a non-violence trainer, she sees many activists who do break the law, and she calls them "my absolute heroes." And she respects them for hiding their true identity given the risks involved.

Rainforest Action's Hayes advises the activists to keep on acting on their convictions. "Whose hands are on the chainsaw?" he asks. "It's not the workers who cut down trees. It's the corporate executives who don't give a damn about survival of the earth."

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