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Saving Redwoods Becomes a Battle of Life or Death

Activists try to prevent thinning of trees in Santa Cruz County. Tree-sitters must fight not only for the trees' lives, but for their own.

January 26, 2003|Michael Luo | Associated Press Writer

SANTA CRUZ — Shrouded in the darkness of early morning, two men and one woman hiked down a logging road in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

Every few minutes, Brian Connolly, 31, signaled his friends to halt. With furrowed brows, they listened for loggers. Except for the breeze whistling through the trees, Ramsey Gulch was quiet.

After 45 minutes, they cut through the woods and stopped before a massive redwood stump. It was all that was left of a tree they had once called "Esperanza," Spanish for "hope."

The three picked through the tangle of limbs next to it, fishing out a piece of plywood and a length of climbing rope -- the only clues to the tragedy that had occurred there a month before.

They gathered for a moment atop the stump. No one spoke.

"Environmental activism," Connolly said later, "is about temporary victories and permanent losses."

They just never expected this kind of loss.

*

Ramsey Gulch is tucked away in southeastern Santa Cruz County, about 20 miles south of San Jose. Two miles long, with slopes that drop 800 feet to a creek, it has some of the steepest terrain in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

Anchoring the slopes are coastal redwoods, the world's tallest living things. Redwoods can exceed 300 feet, their trunks up to 15 feet in diameter.

Loggers cleared the majestic old-growth forest in Ramsey Gulch in the late 1800s. The trees that grew up in the barren land left behind are more than 200 feet tall now.

Timber companies have long coveted redwoods; a tree can fetch as much as $100,000 today. Less than 5% of the 1.6 million acres of virgin redwood that once existed remains, most of it preserved in state and national parklands. The second-growth forest in Ramsey Gulch, privately held, has no protection.

Three years ago, Redwood Empire, a San Jose-based company, began making preparations to log Ramsey Gulch again. Clear-cutting is prohibited in Santa Cruz, so the company proposed to "thin" the forest. .

It seemed like a good compromise. Unlike a clear-cut, a thinned forest looks like a forest. Big trees shade the forest floor. Yellowing needles cover the stumps. From above, it's hard to tell the difference. Foresters didn't expect much opposition.

But a small band of activists took to the woods to stop them.

Environmental activism covers a spectrum. The moderate end includes groups such as the Sierra Club, which lobby Congress and pursue legal action. The radical end includes groups such as Connolly's -- part of a movement known as Earth First!

Founded in Arizona two decades ago, Earth First! has local chapters that operate autonomously, eschewing membership rolls and hierarchy. Their logo, a raised fist superimposed on the sun, speaks to their approach.

The Santa Cruz chapter was founded in 1982 by Dennis Davie, then a graduate student, antiwar activist and aspiring park ranger. Davie, now 54 and a software engineer in Silicon Valley, remains the putative leader.

The chapter dwindled in the 1990s as protesters flocked to Humboldt County's Headwaters Forest, site of an all-out war over the last large tract of privately held old-growth redwood forest.

But Davie's group believed that they should make a stand in Ramsey Gulch. These weren't thousand-year-old giants, but they represented hope for the future. The group also feared logging would cause erosion and harm wildlife.

So Davie put out a call for help. From Oregon, Connolly and three others responded.

A Georgetown University graduate, Connolly had wandered through a series of odd jobs before becoming active in environmentalism in Oregon, spending four blustery winter months as a tree-sitter.

*

Tree-sitting came into vogue in the 1990s. Protesters become human shields. Sometimes it saves the tree, sometimes not.

*

In April 2000, Connolly and three others hiked into Ramsey Gulch. With a crossbow, they shot a line up the biggest tree. Soon, they were building a platform 105 feet in the air.

Connolly helped create a network of interconnected trees, roped together by traverse-lines, covering 1 1/2acres. If loggers approached any of them, he could clamber over to protect it. Local activists rotated in to relieve him. They dismantled their platforms a year later after loggers moved on, leaving two small groves of uncut forest behind.

Connolly took a part-time job within sight of the gulch, and rented a one-room shack up the road. The group pressed on with more tree-sits.

Loggers usually worked around the activists, but encounters sometimes turned nasty. One protester claimed that a logger shot at him; several tree-sitters reported death threats. For their part, loggers endured a stream of insults from overhead.

In August 2001, a 20-year-old sitter fell 30 feet from a tree and hit her head. Although she recovered, her fall caused the group to pay more attention to safety. But it was hard staying ahead of the chain saws. The tension in the woods took its toll, and the group dwindled.

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