ON THE COVER North Coast Journal Weekly

Standoff in the Mattole - Observations from a Journalist

Story and photos by  ARNO HOLSCHUH



THE SUN'S LAST RAYS HIT THE FRONT YARD OF THE FARM just north of Arcata, washing the old pickup truck and storage shed in golden light. Ducks quacked, sheep stared dolefully into the distance, a giant turkey showed off his plumage and a dog chased some geese until they scattered in noisy, honking chaos.

And 10 young people in full camouflage packed their backpacks, preparing to trespass on private land to try to stop timber harvesting.

The 10 activists, members of the loosely knit group Earth First!, were part of a months-long campaign to stop the Pacific Lumber Co. from logging old-growth fir forests in the remote Mattole River valley of southern Humboldt County. The occupation of PL's 14,000 acres in the Mattole, nicknamed the Mattole Free State, was started during harvesting last fall and continued with little resistance until logging resumed for the summer May 9. (See map)

Over the last six months, more than 50 activists have been arrested, most within the last few weeks. Logging continues despite their efforts.

The crew's mission? To resupply the remaining protesters, many of whom had been holed up in the harvest area for months, reportedly occupying individual trees to protect them. After their mission was complete, the crew, which had met just a few days earlier at an Earth First! organizing event called Action Camp, could continue with a tree-sit themselves.

A man calling himself Devastation -- all the activists have assumed "forest names" to protect their identity when doing illegal actions -- was to guide them in to the remote Mattole valley. The group carried with them food, clothing, equipment and, for the first time, a reporter.


[photo of Devastation in camoflage]Devastation, the group's guide into the Mattole.


As the packing continued, one of the crew seemed distracted. Banzai, a young woman with freckles looked how I felt: scared.

I asked her if she was nervous. "Yeah," she said smiling, "a little bit. Tomorrow's my birthday, and I just don't want anything to go wrong." She didn't say what, but the thing that could "go wrong" was that she might be arrested. The soon-to-be-20 year old woman from Pennsylvania smiled, literally putting a brave face on the situation, and continued to pack.

The protesters guessed that their chances of coming back out of the woods on their feet rather than in a sheriff's vehicle were less than 50-50. Others have received jail sentences of as much as 120 days. A civil lawsuit filed against Earth First! and the Mattole Forest Defenders has added the potential for extra penalties if they should be caught or their identities discovered.

There were also rumors of violence. According to the protesters, loggers had physically assaulted members of their crew. Requests to have neutral observers from the Humboldt County Human Rights Commission sent into the harvest area have been denied by the county board of supervisors.

Riding in a green custom van away from the farm just after dark, the crew was buzzing with excitement. A woman named Essence answered my misgivings about arrest by saying it "isn't that bad."

She said she wasn't "nearly as worried as I could be."

"Yeah, we've got one of the experts with us," said Ad Rock, a young man with blond dreadlocks.

That expert is Kangaroo, a 20-year-old protester with dark hair and a contagious smile. He earned the title of expert by surviving in the Mattole without arrest. A storehouse of knowledge, he'll tell you how to stay in a tree overnight by weaving yourself a web. Before leaving, he instructed me that I should unwrap all my individually packaged energy bars and consolidate them into a plastic bread bag.

"That way there's less trash," he said, "and if you're hiding from the cops and want to eat one, you don't have to crinkle those noisy wrappers to get one out."

But Kangaroo is more than a source of advice. Despite his youth, he is something like an elder to the group. They listened when Kangaroo talked; they respected his advice; for the most part, they obeyed his orders. Kangaroo is a leader, and it's clear from the ease with which he carried out this task that he is a natural.

Kangaroo had been in the Mattole for a long time, including this winter. Pacific Lumber has said that over the winter vandalism and property destruction took place. Among other alleged misdeeds, culverts were apparently blocked -- which could contribute to erosion, one of the things Earth First! says it is trying to stop.

Asked about whether the protesters had blocked a culvert, Kangaroo responded that someone might have without knowing what he or she was doing. "But any damage we have done is minuscule compared to what Pacific Lumber does out there every day," he said.


[photo of boulder blocking culvert]Left, a blocked culvert, part of the vandalism PL alleges Earth First! has engaged in on the property.
Right, an abandoned RV serves as an Earth First! blockade.
(Photos courtesy of Pacific Lumber Company)

[photo of abandoned RV]


Just about midnight the vehicle stopped at a locked gate at the end of the county road. As the group piled out, three older men emerged from the shadows at the side of the road. Recon, Shutterbug and Hummingbird had heard about the trip at Action Camp and wanted to help tote the supplies in.

The whole group assembled and received instructions from Kangaroo: Unload, get over the gate and wait quietly. They did, leaving behind the comforts of civilization, their normal lives and the law.

The hike into the Mattole was an arduous, all-night affair. The group walked across open meadows and through dense forests by starlight. The new moon made it harder to see potholes in the road in front of you, but the blanket of darkness it provided was comforting to a crew new to the Mattole.

The use of flashlights had been prohibited as they were visible for miles in the clear night air, although some people occasionally turned them on anyway.

The air was mild, the road was even and the stars were rolled out in a spectacular display, but the crew continued to be preoccupied and edgy. Nerves aside, there were moments of comedy, as when the group faced a vicious gang of ... cows.

Crossing a pasture, the frontrunners of the group spooked a herd of cattle and sent them running across the field. This in turn spooked the team, who huddled together and had the following conversation:

"I wonder if there's a bull out there," someone said.

"If there is, we could all be in trouble," replied a slightly shaky male voice.

"Maybe," reasoned a third voice, "if we all walk together really slowly, we'll be OK." Assent was murmured.

Thus assured about the relative unlikelihood of bovine injury, the 15 of us scuttled across the pasture to the trees on the opposite side.

[photo of hikers along creek]The hike continued until morning. Walking was punctuated by frequent breaks for Shutterbug and Hummingbird, who were having trouble keeping up. In the dark you could not see their faces, but it was clear from their voices that they were suffering from the physical demands.

At the last rest stop, the glows from the crew's cigarettes were answered by a blinking radio antenna on a nearby ridge. The group was told by Kangaroo that the antenna is their landmark, and they were now close to their destination. Everyone gets admonished one more time to be extra quiet, as this area was suspected to be "hot," i.e., patrolled by security.

As the sky began to gray and the birds began their morning songs, the group left the trail and ran over open pastures to a shady grove to bivouac for a few hours.

"Make sure to get under the canopy before you fall asleep," Kangaroo said, "especially if you have a bright-colored sleeping bag. Otherwise you could bust the whole camp." As I rolled out my bag (bright magenta) I heard something that explained his caution: the percussive thup-thup-thup of a helicopter.

Kangaroo cocked his head and listened, then declared it was one of the large choppers used to yard cut logs. That was good news for the crew's safety, he said, as these helicopters wouldn't be out specifically trying to spot us.

But as I lay my head back and was pulled from a bone-tired consciousness into sleep, it occurred to me that those choppers were in another way very bad news for the Earth First!ers: The chopper's presence meant that logging was going ahead unabated by the efforts of those awaiting resupply.

After a mere three hours of sleep, people started to rouse themselves. Food was broken out, mostly uncooked rolled oats with raisins and energy bars.

Hummingbird, a 61-year-old typist from San Francisco, announced he had twisted his ankle and could not go on.

"I think I'd better walk home," he said. "I'll just go back up to the road."

It is the nature of Earth First! that every person involved in an action specifies their level of commitment; in theory, everyone remains an autonomous individual.

In practice, that idea is difficult, as Hummingbird showed. If he walked along roads in broad daylight, he could get arrested. That didn't faze him -- the 30-year veteran of activism said it would "just be getting arrested, just the normal" -- but it would endanger everyone else by alerting law enforcement to the presence of protesters in this area.


[photo of Hummingbird, Earth First! activist] 'I'm old enought to remember the beginning of the environmental movement. When I went to college, ecology was a one-unit elective for biology majors.'
-- Hummingbird, 61-year-old Earth First! activist from San Francisco


This point was raised, as was the fact that no one had room for all the cargo he had carried so far. Gradually a kind of peer pressure built to keep him with the group. Someone came up with an elastic bandage to wrap around his ankle and he was convinced to walk on. There may not be many rules in Earth First!, but there was social structure in this group.

While we packed our bags again to continue, Shutterbug called out for "the journalist." I raised my hand and the words tumbled out as he tried to explain why he thinks Earth First! actions are so important.

He did not initially raise the issues of trees or salmon at all but rather offered a social explanation: "It's about keeping the idea of a social movement alive," he said. "A cause, a cause, a cause. But what we have to ask ourselves," he said, staring quizzically at his cup of cowboy coffee, "is what the effect is."

At this point younger members of the group stepped forward to supplant Shutterbug's explanation with the Earth First! party line: They are breaking the law because they have exhausted all their legal options.

Asked what those already-exhausted options were, nobody seemed absolutely clear. Several seemed unfamiliar with the fact that extensive legal efforts had taken place.

Lawsuits had stopped logging in part of the Mattole. In 1999, a Petrolia resident named Michael Evenson sued the California Department of Forestry for approving a PL plan to log in another part of the Mattole watershed. Evenson, who represented himself, won on the grounds that CDF hadn't considered concerns from other agencies about the logging's effects.

But the legal battle over this particular plot of land had been lost. On Oct. 26, 2000, rulings came down in two separate cases in which environmental organizations were trying to stop the current PL logging in the Mattole. In both cases, the organizations lost.

The overwhelming feeling among these protesters is that they have been left no other choice but "direct action": the attempt to stop the logging through their physical presence rather than by using legal or political channels.

The group knew Pacific Lumber had won the legal right to cut down the trees because they were on PL land, but there was a widespread and often articulated perception in the group that property rights were secondary to the old-growth's survival.

It's easy to see how the younger activists can have that attitude: They did not own large tracts of rural property. But at least one in the group very literally practiced what he preached: Devastation owns land in Mendocino County but said he plans on signing it over to a land trust.

The preparations the group made for the day's hike were not limited to mundane packing or eating; spiritual preparations were also made as Essence took a tiny piece of sage out of her backpack. She lit it and let the fragrant smoke drift over her, passed it to Grizzly, who fanned himself with the smoke. The smoking twig was passed from one to the next, each new person extolling the virtues.

"It's a healing," said Essence. "It cleans your energy."

"It's like a smell mantra," said the lanky, bearded young man who called himself Breez.

After they all had smelled their daily mantra, we were back on our feet and heading down into a valley holding one of the tributaries of the North Fork of the Mattole. Brush and poison oak made the passage difficult and once we had crossed the creek and were a little bit up the slope on the other side of the valley, we stopped for a rest.

The hikers gratefully dropped their packs and sprawled out. A conversation about a homeopathic cure for poison oak was interrupted when a noise was heard in the woods.


[photo of Earth First! activist Simplicity]Earth First! activist Simplicity


Kangaroo snapped to attention. Donning his face mask to improve his camouflage, he crept outward into the woods to try and see what was going on. We were close enough to the timber harvest to hear the chainsaws and the possibility we had been discovered mainlined the crew with adrenaline.

Kangaroo cautiously whistled into the woods. An answering whistle came back, but we couldn't see anyone. After 10 tense minutes, Devastation emerged and said with an innocent smile that he had just been scouting out the area.

"That kind of stuff happens all the time," Kangaroo said, sitting back down. "It's good, it keeps you on your toes.

"The funny thing is that the more paranoid you are the less likely you are to be caught."

After we climbed another half a mile up the valley's side, we found a spring on an old skid road. It was noon and the group decided to set up camp.

Sitting under a giant laurel tree, the supplies that had been carried in were dumped into a pile and an inventory was taken: bread, chocolate, oats, sugar, bagels, cookies, jam, a can of juice, cord, socks.

Kangaroo outlined the situation for the group: The activists in the trees had run out of cell phone batteries and hadn't been in touch with town for days. Their status was therefore unknown, but Kangaroo knew they would need more supplies.

He would lead a small team up to resupply the activists while another group would perform reconnaissance on a new route out of the area. I asked to come along to watch the resupply team, but my request was met with some concern.

"I'm not sure," Kangaroo said. "I don't know if the people up there would be comfortable with a reporter there." After a few minutes of spirited conversation, he denied my request and said he couldn't take me with him. He and four others left shortly thereafter and headed up the hill, their bags filled with food. The remaining activists watched them go up the hill and blend into the thick foliage.

"Young people have this innate clarity about their purpose," said Devastation as he watched Kangaroo go. A longtime veteran of Earth First!, Devastation said he "could never design missions like these. I can only assist in their execution. It makes me realize how precious youth is."


[photo of man locked in car] Blockades have been part of the Earth First! strategy since protests started last fall. Activists lock themselves down inside cars to try and prevent access to the property for logging trucks and crews.So far, none of the blockades have been successful in stopping the logging. (Photo courtesy The Pacific Lumber Co.)


But not everyone in the crew was young. In addition to Hummingbird and Shutterbug, there were two people in their 40s. And it's never too late to start -- Root, in his early 30s, said this action was his first.

"I saw a need to get involved for the next four years," he said, because of what he sees as an anti-environmental bent in Washington.

"I think there's going to be an uprising," he said, "just like in the early '80s when there were a lot of actions."

Root shows that not all Earth First!ers are dreadlocked young hippies; the cleancut man holds down a regular job as a manager of a salvage yard.

He isn't even an opponent of commercial timber harvesting. "In areas where they have already cut, second growth stuff, I don't care. Just let them keep tree farming there," he said. His only problem was the harvesting of old growth trees, he said. "I don't see the need for cutting more old-growth."

Hummingbird's reasons for being out with Earth First! are much more general. An activist since the Vietnam War, Hummingbird has been protesting for the majority of his adult life.

He was alerted to "the redwoods" by newspaper articles four or five years ago, he said. While the land Earth First! is occupying in the Mattole is fir forest and not redwood, Hummingbird said he still thought it necessary to try and save the trees.

"I'm old enough to remember the beginning of the environmental movement. When I went to college, ecology was a one-unit elective for biology majors," he said.

His long tenure as a member of the environmental movement has given him a unique perspective on its accomplishments, he said. "People often decry how unsuccessful we are at protecting the environment, but the thing is that we haven't been doing it that long."

He said the Earth First! actions in the Mattole were to his eyes "an experiment."

"There are trees on private property; what do you do?" he said. This technique would hopefully "raise awareness. It's like extended guerilla theater," he said.

[map]But it was more than theater to most of the activists. The younger protesters were quite clear about what they were doing in the woods: They were going to save the trees. Being arrested made a fine point, but the group had ropes for climbing trees and chains for locking themselves down: They were interested in staying with the trees, not going to jail to raise awareness.

As the day's end neared, Root, Hummingbird and Devastation went searching for a good spot to watch the sunset. The conversation could have been picked up at any coffee shop. The men talked about their jobs, which magazines they like to read and the significance of the ancient Han culture of China.

But as the colors faded from the landscape, Devastation continued to scan for possible routes home. For all of the peace and beauty in the Mattole, it is still someplace he will have to escape from as a fugitive.

When I woke up the next morning and walked back to the meeting place under the big laurel tree, I found out that the resupply crew had made it back to camp the night before. They brought grim tidings for their comrades who had stayed: Of the five protesters who had been in the harvest area, all but two had been arrested in the last few days.

"There was a village set up" in the trees, said Grizzly. He described the village as a set of traverse lines from one tree to the next so that the protesters would be suspended between two trees.

"The people who were up there came down to defend other areas within the timber harvest plan that they were actively cutting," he said. Once in those active units of the plan, they were caught.

The crew had decided upon seeing the state of the protest that they needed to start their own occupation. Grizzly said that they too would use "occupied traverses" instead of traditional tree-sits.

"We're looking for multiple sits in one area defending one grove," he said. That's a safety measure, he said, and "more effective."

Asked if this group would fare better than the ones before had in evading arrest, Grizzly responded that "we expect this could last for a while. ... It has the potential to be permanent. It all depends on what they -- Pacific Lumber -- do."

"There are some huge trees up there that really need our protection," he said.

Sitting in an Arcata coffee shop two days later, I was told by Earth First! activist Josh Brown that the activists I had met were probably doing well. I had come down out of the woods before I got a chance to see their tree sit go up and was now trying to find out what had happened.

"I'm sure they've gotten something set up," he said. He said there have also been blockades and there were plans for more soon. But in the long run, they will lose their war unless people outside the forest begin to take notice, he said.

"At this point we're resisting as much as we can and we stop logging for as long as we can. But really, it's about making headlines and news," he said. "The days of stopping logging with direct action have come and gone."

The protesters in the forest may not agree. Activists' reports from the Mattole since then have successful tree-sits happening: Members of the group I went up with are apparently climbing trees and then locking themselves together. None have been arrested, although stories of violence on loggers' part persist.

Will their efforts work? To what extent are they even hindering PL's logging? What price might they have to pay? Did they even have a clear idea of the consequences of their actions? I left the Mattole not knowing for sure. That they believe in what they are doing is clear; for them, that was enough.

Editor's note: This article was prepared as a freelance submission to AlterNet.org, an alternative weekly newspaper service. It is reprinted with permission.


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