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Tearing limbs from limbs

With video cameras rolling, climbers and tree-sitters match wits and skills in the fog-slickened old-growth treetops of Humboldt County. But, as Eric Simons reports, very few eco-activists escape the noose of Eric Schatz, a man they call the "tree butcher."

March 30, 2004|Eric Simons | Eric Simons is a freelance writer based in San Jose.

Peer through the lens of the minicam mounted on Eric Schatz's climbing helmet, up through the spindly canopy of an ancient redwood at a young woman out on a slick, brittle limb -- in socks -- one wobble from a 200-foot free fall through the coastal Northern California fog.

Schatz is parked on the massive trunk three stories down, recording the scene. He pleads with her:

"Do you understand what you're doing? If you go farther out on that tree limb, you won't have a future."

She yells back something, but the words drift away on the wind -- out over the blunt stumps and the lanky Douglas firs springing up amid deadwood and into a thick wall of untouched forest. Far below, along the winding road that cuts through private land, Schatz's lens captures points of color where police are corralling protesters eager to cheer the young woman on.

Tree-sitters and their supporters view Schatz as Enemy No. 2, just behind the company, Pacific Lumber, that hires him to forcibly extract redwood squatters. His arrival with harness and rope incites the final chaotic scene in a standoff that the activists rarely win. Once Schatz and his crew clear out the sitters, loggers with chain saws go to work de-limbing or topping or felling giant trees. Yet the 46-year-old climber, who developed a passion for trees early and still spends much of his life deep in the woods, takes no great pleasure in a job well done.

"A kid loves to climb trees," he says. "I was no different."

In this way, Schatz is just like the people he lassos. But they unequivocally despise him. They have branded him on the Internet as a "corporate thug," a "tree butcher" -- and far worse -- and compelled him to document his every move in the trees.

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The platform

The fight over forests that smolders in public hearings and courtrooms throughout the Pacific Northwest flares in the old-growth treetops of Humboldt County. Volunteers who describe themselves as "forest defenders" hang out in places such as the co-op in Arcata, where they beam from behind a collection jar, pass out newsletters and strategize. During lulls, with dreadlocks jostling, they kick around Hacky Sacks. They adopt pacifist rhetoric and "forest names," and give trees names too: Kristi Sanchez evolves into "Mystikque," for example, while a redwood anthropomorphizes into "Jerry."

When Pacific Lumber submits a timber harvest plan to the state, making it a public document, the activists mobilize. They descend on the targeted area and establish plywood platforms, which suspend from ropes tied to the trees' upper branches. Traverse lines connect platforms in neighboring trees to create the redwood version of Ewok villages.

To move around safely, a tree-sitter steps into a harness that is hooked into a rope secured to branches above the platform. She can then rappel and climb back up in a quad-busting, stair-stepping motion using a pair of short ropes tied into the main rope. Many sitters abandon shoes, explaining that their feet do less harm to the bark, and go without gloves. Colleagues deliver food.

The success of Julia Butterfly Hill emboldens the sitters. In the late '90s, she dwelt in a redwood dubbed Luna for two well-televised years -- long enough to prove the effectiveness of squatting. By March 2003 as many as 20 sitters occupied trees on Pacific Lumber land. With $100,000 or more per tree at stake, the company turned to Schatz, an expert climber and longtime tree service pro with search and rescue safety certifications.

Schatz and his crew not only work in trees but train and play in them. "We go out and spend time in the trees just as something fun to do," he says.

When he sees the activists climb, though, their inexperience and equipment -- often either the wrong gear or the right gear in poor condition -- worries Schatz. Although he's paid under a Pacific Lumber contract, and lives behind a new redwood fence in a logging county, Schatz insists his only motivation is saving lives.

"I'd just as soon run out of a job than have these kids coming up here," he says.

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The tree

As Highway 101 cuts into the Humboldt Bay shoreline through Eureka, residential roads branch off, heading inland through meadows, farmland and forest. On one branch there's a left turn at a roadside market and then another left. Soon the broken yellow line fades and trees close in, exhaling their organic musk. The last of the houses disappear. Suddenly, the tunnel ends where tall redwoods give way to stumps. Light stabs the pavement.

Where the road bends into a horseshoe around a ridge, a dirt pullout appears. Down a muddy hill, the sitters' stuff litters a clearing. A weathered CD player perches on a stump. Climbing harnesses and ropes twist on the ground. Ahead is the redwood, 15 feet thick and 180 feet tall, named for a famously laid-back musician: Jerry.

Out on one of its upper limbs, with nothing between her and Humboldt Bay except gray sky, stands the young woman in socks.

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