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Tree-Sitters Are Down but Not Out

Pacific Lumber declares victory in a feud over redwood logging. But the activists vow to fight on.

May 10, 2003|Emily Gurnon | Special to The Times

FRESHWATER, Calif. — After weeks of bitter confrontation, Pacific Lumber Co. has evicted most of the anti-logging tree-sitters from the redwoods here and declared at least a partial victory over the protesters who have hampered its logging operations.

"We've either been successful in removing individuals or removing their platforms and gear," said Pacific Lumber spokesman Jim Branham. "I think, overall, the effort's been a success to date. The effect of the tree-sitters on the logging operations is [now] minimal."

This week, helicopters droned over the picturesque landscape, hauling logs down the steep slopes of the Freshwater watershed, located just off a winding two-lane road a few miles from Eureka. A handful of protesters remain in the trees and the company will remove them as necessary, Branham said.

Meanwhile, tree-sitters decried the massive logging operation now taking place and vowed not to give up.

"It's definitely not over," said Jeny Card, 28, an anti-logging activist who calls herself Remedy.

Backers of the tree-sitters held a candlelight vigil last month to honor the activists and mourn "the magnificent forest just lost to the destructiveness."

Card, a former bookstore worker in Olympia, Wash., spent nearly a year 130 feet up in an ancient redwood she named "Jerry," for the late Grateful Dead musician Jerry Garcia. She was forced down in March and charged with trespassing and violating a court order.

She was one of about 30 tree-sitters and their supporters arrested since mid-March when company-hired climbers began forcing them down, according to the Humboldt County Sheriff's Department.

The vast majority of the arrests were for trespassing, but a few were more serious. One man was charged with brandishing a knife at loggers, one with vandalizing logging equipment, and another with felonious assault for allegedly tampering with the safety lines and harness of a climber attempting to remove a tree-sitter.

Card said the "forest defenders," as they call themselves, may turn their attention this summer to the Mattole watershed, another Humboldt County area slated for logging by Pacific Lumber. Several tree-sitters are already there.

Until she and others took up residence in the trees, Card said, little attention was paid to forest activism in the Freshwater area. Now the subject of logging is "in the paper every day. The community's whipped up about it, people are talking about it, they're impassioned," she said. "It's awesome that these really important issues are on the table."

The tree-sitters have called on Pacific Lumber and its parent company, Houston-based Maxxam Corp., to stop clear-cutting, using herbicides, harvesting old-growth trees and cutting on steep slopes. The company has countered that it follows strict state-imposed guidelines for its timber harvests and has every right to cut trees on its own land.

Although tree-sitters may be down, at least in Freshwater, the public debate continues throughout Humboldt County. Their removal has created a fierce controversy in this North Coast region, where supporters of the once-proud timber industry increasingly rub shoulders with newer arrivals: artists, professionals, and the students and faculty connected with Humboldt State University in Arcata.

Letters to the editor on the subject fill the local newspapers. Many applaud the tree-sitters for their courage; others attack them. One writer suggested chasing the "hippie tree-squatters" off by cutting their traverse lines and blasting them with Wayne Newton music.

In a letter defending the protest, Charmian O'Connor, a 52-year-old homeowner who lives up the hill from Freshwater, wrote this week that she blames Pacific Lumber for damaging the surrounding watershed.

When she moved here in 1986, "it was just nothing but beautiful forest," O'Connor said in a phone interview. "Now the whole thing is wide open."

Pacific Lumber fought back last month with a local ad campaign describing the tree-sitting as "a terrorist attack on our communities, jobs and way of life," and highlighting the involvement of a convicted arsonist who provided occasional ground support in the anti-logging protest.

The television, radio and newspaper ads pit people against each other, said Dave Meserve, a city councilman in nearby Arcata.

"The divisions between rednecks and hippies, intellectuals and workers, are being blown way out of proportion at this time," Meserve said. "It's things like the ads that [Pacific Lumber] put out that are doing that. This whole illusion is being pushed even stronger with the use of the word 'terrorist' with our nonviolent protesters."

Branham, the company spokesman, said calling Pacific Lumber's ads divisive is laughable.

"The divisiveness is being created by people who are breaking the law every day out on our property," he said. "Our ads are largely a reaction to what's going on out there on our property."

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