The Mendocino County Sheriff's Department said Thursday that it is investigating the possibility that malicious damage by timber harvesting opponents may have been responsible for a lumber mill accident in which a worker was injured when a huge saw band flew into his face after hitting a large nail embedded in a log.
It was the first-known accident that could be linked to "tree-spiking," a tactic advocated by radical environmental activists to stop the logging of old-growth trees. Timber industry officials charged Thursday that the "eco-tage"--a play on the word sabotage--was endangering the lives of lumberjacks and sawmill workers.
But there was no official indication Thursday that any particular group was connected with the accident at the Louisiana-Pacific Corp. sawmill in Cloverdale, Calif., near Ukiah, last Friday. The company did not publicly disclose the incident until Thursday in order to give the Sheriff's Department time to investigate.
The company said it is offering a $20,000 reward leading to the arrest and conviction of the person or persons responsible, and Mendocino County Sheriff Tim Shea scheduled a press conference in Ukiah for this morning.
A tree cut down in a forest owned by Louisiana-Pacific near Elk was going through a large band saw when the jagged-tooth blade struck an 11-inch nail that had been driven into the log. The force caused a 10- to 15-foot section of the blade to fly off its track and hit millworker George Alexander, 23, in the face.
The blade ripped through Alexander's safety helmet and face shield, tore his left cheek, cut through his jawbone, knocked out upper and lower teeth and nearly severed his jugular vein, the company said. Alexander, who has worked for the company for less than a year and was married a month ago, is resting at home and will have to undergo plastic surgery and will require false teeth, the company said.
John Bennett, Western regional manager of the American Forest Council, an industry trade association, said there has been a growing number of spiking incidents.
Most have involved trees harvested in national forests, but the two in Cloverdale involved trees on privately owned Louisiana-Pacific land.
'Pretty Deadly Serious'
When a band saw hits a spike, according to Bennett, "It just rips the teeth off the saw, and they fly around like shrapnel from a hand grenade. In this case, too, I guess, a large part of the tree broke off and hit the man in the head. These people (tree-spikers) see themselves as peaceful little protesters, but this is getting pretty deadly serious."
Louisiana-Pacific spokeswoman Glenys Simmons said Thursday, "I think it's time that these criminals that commit acts of violence like spiking trees should no longer be protected under the guise of trying to save the environment."
But several people associated with Earth First!, a radical environmental movement that has publicized "monkey wrench" tactics to thwart actions that they say threaten the environment, said they are skeptical that any of them is responsible.
Betty Ball, who said she is an Earth First! "contact" in Ukiah, said, "The last thing I want is for someone to get hurt. I don't think we know enough about exactly what happened. I can see where associations are being drawn . . . but details are way too sketchy to draw any kinds of conclusions about anything."
Greg King, who writes for the Earth First! Journal, said tree-spiking is usually accompanied by warnings in order to prevent cutting the tree in the first place.
"I've never spiked a tree. But, normally they put a big S with spray paint on the tree or they will write a letter or they will call to let people know trees have been spiked. Otherwise, it would be worthless. They would still cut down the trees."
'Greed of the Timber Industry'
King added, "The real unfortunate thing is if the tree was spiked, a millworker had to suffer from what was the inevitable greed of the timber industry. There would be no spiking were it not for that greed."
In Tucson, Earth First! Journal editor Dave Foreman said the accident will not deter him from continuing to publish his "how-to" book on tree-spiking and other tactics, entitled "Eco Defense." He said the book is in its second printing and has sold 7,000 copies.
"I think it's unfortunate that somebody was hurt, but, you know, I quite honestly am more concerned about old-growth forests, spotted owls and wolverines and salmon--and nobody is forcing people to cut those trees," Foreman said Thursday.
He added that the nail could have been driven into the tree by campers or someone setting up a hammock.
"I think the timber industry . . . will try to use the incident to paint us as eco-terrorists. But, from my perspective the real terrorists in the woods are the big timber companies and the Forest Service who are destroying the old-growth forests," Foreman said.
Old-growth forests contain trees between 200 and 2,000 years old and are the natural habitat of the endangered spotted owl and other wildlife.
Times staff writer Mark A. Stein in San Francisco also contributed to this story.