What Now, Treesitter?
An eerie dreamlight slanted in from the west, a spray of pale gold shot through a crack in the late-day cloud ceiling. It struck a small remnant of ancient redwood forest, where one sky-vanishing tree towered taller than the rest, wider, older -- 2,000 years old, some say. Straight up, up, until its bulk was interrupted by a reiteration -- a smaller tree, just like itself, jutting out from its trunk and then also rising, side-by-side the big old boy, up, up, to where an array of branches fanned out and the green canopy of feathery redwood leaves began. Nearby, an osprey -- whose nest sat like a cartoon haystack atop a snag -- screeched.
Near the base of the ancient tree, a toddler, 21 months old, gamboled barefoot in the leafy dirt, while her mom -- brown dreadlocks draping long -- kept close watch. A handful of other adults gathered nearby, sitting on the ground. One, a white-haired older woman, a pre-school teacher, kept saying she felt like Alice in Wonderland, like she’d fallen down the rabbit hole. The others, mostly younger, sounded just as giddy. And then a smiling young man dropped out of the sky, out of the big-big tree, suspended from a rope with his legs in front of him. He untied and joined the group. And not long after, the faintest crackle of leaves crushed underfoot announced the arrival of one more -- she skipped into the small alcove in the forest where the others sat, softly giggling and calling cheerily, “Hello hello!” and plopped crosslegged to the ground.
As the light faded, they talked and talked. They still couldn’t believe it. Spooner, the landmark old giant here within whose presence they’d gathered and in which a succession of treesitters have sat was saved. Grandma-Grandpa, a nearby massive double redwood conjoined at the base and balanced above a ravine aflood with soft thimbleberry plants, and in whose branches the latest treesitter, the laughter-prone “Cedar,” had been living for nearly 11 months, was saved. And so were the other old growth trees in this grove and elsewhere on former Pacific Lumber Co. lands.
They won’t be cut, ever. That was the word, delivered in person on Aug. 12 by Humboldt Redwood Co. President Mike Jani, who hiked into the woods to two treesitter villages with his wife and several activists to see the old trees and talk to the treesitters. He told them it wasn’t his company’s policy to cut old-growth trees such as these. He said if they hadn’t sat in these trees, the trees surely would have been cut under the former company’s plan. He shook their hands and said, “Thank you.” Then they all walked around attaching pink “Do Not Cut” tape to the trees.
Gone were the bad old days, as of mere weeks ago, when with one lapse in vigilance -- a night unattended by a sitter -- a centuries-old tree could fall to a Pacific Lumber Co. feller’s saw lickety-split. Enter the bright days of Mendocino Redwood Co., the “greener” timber outfit owned by the Fishers, the San Francisco family that grew The Gap clothing company, who’ve promised to reorganize the bankrupt, ravaged, Maxxamized Pacific Lumber Co. into an eco-conscious and sustainable prospect to be called Humboldt Redwood Co. It was like a dream.
But apparently it is real. So what now for these defenders of old growth and, especially, for their steady influx of eager treesitters, now that their big trees are saved?
Last Thursday at 5 p.m., Humboldt Redwood Co. area forester Jim Adams arrived to unlock the gate near the bridge that spans the Eel River between Scotia and Rio Dell. This is the gate that treesitters and their support crews have sneaked over regularly at night for the past three years, tossing over piles of fresh food, gallons of water and other provisions to be hiked a couple miles down the road into the Nanning Creek treesits in company timberland east of Scotia.
Adams worked for Pacific Lumber Co. and was recently hired back to work for the new owners.
“Hi Jim,” several of the activists had shouted as Adams got out of his car holding a ring of keys. “Thanks for coming.”
Adams smiled shyly at them as he approached the gate. He opened the padlock and swung the gate open, but then they all hung around a bit talking, as if reluctant to part.
“We’re sort of embarking on a new era here,” said Adams.
Eventually, Adams handed them the lock -- they could secure the gate when they drove back out later -- and they parted, but not before each activist had shaken Adams’ hand and said, “Thank you, Jim.”
No, these first few weeks of the new Humboldt Redwood Co. have been nothing like the past 20 years under Charles Hurwitz, with his log-it-all-now, never-mind-the-debt (or the forest) mentality. As soon as Hurwitz had junk-bonded his way into a takeover of Pacific Lumber Co. in the mid-1980s, and then tripled the rate of cut, sparing no old growth, the troubles began. Activists researched the company’s timber harvest plans, infiltrated the company’s woods to survey what could be lost, blockaded logging roads, filed legal challenges and climbed into the trees. Tens of thousands of protesters engaged against the company to save a 60,000-acre forest containing a massive stand of old growth, named the Headwaters Forest by activist Greg King. Just before the activist-organized Redwood Summer, in 1990, a bomb blew up in a car occupied by organizers Judi Bari and Darryl Cherney, crippling Bari. Julia Butterfly sat, famously, in the tree she named Luna for two years, drawing worldwide attention to the redwoods. In 1998, a tree felled by a logger, whom witnesses say was angered by forest activists playing cat-and-mouse in the woods with him and his crew, landed on and killed activist David “Gypsy” Chain. It was the darkest moment. At other times, activists were peppersprayed by Sheriff’s deputies called in by the lumber company.
In 1999, the Headwaters deal was signed, and for a moment activists rejoiced then just as they do now. But only a portion of the forest was preserved, and activists say the deal sanctified the logging of the company’s other old growth stands. In 2003, two treesit villages sprang up in the Freshwater Creek drainage to defend old growth from another round of timber harvest plans. People from all over the world, including celebrities, came to fete the treesitters. It was also the site of several frightening treesitter extractions by climbers hired by Pacific Lumber Co., and the court battles that ensued -- company lawsuits against the treesitters for trespassing, treesitter counter-complaints over rough treatment, and so on -- dragged on for years.
But as quickly as it had arisen, the public’s enchantment with treesitters flagged. The treesit in Nanning Creek has garnered little media interest. Likewise the Fern Gully treesit in Freshwater, up since New Year’s Day 2004.
Sitting in Spooner’s Grove last Thursday evening, the multigenerational handful of forest activists contemplated the strife-strewn path that led to this stunning moment. Jeanette Jungers, of Eureka -- the diminutive, white-haired special education pre-school teacher and a 30-year veteran of forest defense -- was there. So was Naomi Wagner, a Mendo-Humboldt resident, who worked beside Judi Bari and thousands of others at the height of the timber wars. Younger veterans “Lodgepole” and Amy Arcuri, who’ve set up numerous treesits for We Save Trees, were there. And the current young treesitters "Billy" and "Cedar" dropped from their perches to visit. They all marveled that they could sit on the forest floor, on Pacific Lumber Co. land, in broad daylight and laugh.
“It’s such a good feeling,” said Wagner. “It’s peace, and freedom -- knowing that these trees are not going to be milled.”
“And to be able to not feel fear,” said Lodgepole. “Not feeling afraid that some logger will pop out of the woods and chase me and steal my backpack.”
“It used to be normal for loggers to assault treesitters,” said Wagner. “I was picked up and dragged by my hair by [P.L. security chief] Carl Anderson. This was at Yager Creek.”
“I’m out in Freshwater one day ...” begins Lodgepole, and launches into another struggle story. There are many such stories.
“So this is an incredible day to be here,” said Wagner.
“It’s epic,” said Arcuri.
“We’ve been chased, threatened, shot at,” said Lodgepole.
“We’ve been called environmental terrorists,” said Jungers, whose forest name is Sparrow -- or, often, Mama Sparrow, because she has for years made meals for treesitters, and sometimes knit them caps while sitting in a tree herself.
“And now to be able to call them and have them open the gate for us ...” said Wagner. “You know, I actually use to think that treesitting was a symbolic tactic to get more recognition and PR. I did not think it was a physically viable way to save a tree. But now I can see that it is.”
The robber baron loggers are long gone -- those who first entered the virgin forests and felled the biggest giants the world’s ever seen, the kind you could lead a train of massive white workhorses onto to pose for a photograph. And the days of the Wall Street logger seem over -- Maxxam has exited the forest, leaving behind a ravaged landscape and hobbled company, but also the first glimmer of hope Humboldt County’s timber arena has seen in a long time.
And that hope rides on the promises of Mendocino Redwood Co. and the liberal-leaning Fisher family which in July, with Marathon Structure Finance, took over the bankrupt Pacific Lumber Co, including the town of Scotia, the mills and 210,000 acres of timberlands, after a federal judge approved their $550 million reorganization plan. MRC renamed it Humboldt Redwood Co., hired back about 250 old Pacific Lumber Co. employees, and said it would begin implementing the sustainable forestry policies it practices on its 235,000 acres of timberland in Mendocino.
Immediately upon hearing the news, Amy Arcuri started courting the new owners. She brought them gifts of baby redwood trees. “I would call them and talk to them,” she said, last Thursday, as she sat amid a group of burned-out redwoods near Spooner called the “cave trees.” Her 21-month-old daughter, River, played in the caves as she talked; Arcuri climbed Spooner when she was pregnant with River.
“I said, ‘I want to bring you people here,’” Arcuri said. “And they said, 'We have an old-growth policy -- those trees wouldn’t be cut under our policy.’ I said, ‘We need more. We need to come out here together.’ They called me and we made a date.”
She and Lodgepole met Mike Jani and the others, and the now-famous timber boss-treesitter friendship meeting ensued. “Meeting with him was progressive, intelligent and refreshing,” she said.
Naomi Wagner, last Thursday at Spooner, said she’s still a little skeptical. She’d like to know how much timber, and what kind of timber, the company needs to cut in order to make its payments on the property. “How much can they afford to let the forest alone to let it recover?” she wondered.
In 1998, the Fishers bought 235,000 acres in Mendocino County from Louisiana Pacific. The land had been overlogged. Mendocino Redwood Co. vowed to return it to a cycle of sustainable forestry, which meant it would cut less than could grow per year. It promised to protect old growth and endangered species. But the environmental community quickly lost faith: Sandy Dean, president of MRC, announced the company would carry out the 100-plus timber harvest plans already approved under L-P when MRC took over, plans that reflected L-P’s heavyhanded style.
Deane Rimerman, a tree climber and activist who now lives in Washington, last week recalled that time.
“In 2000, I was part of a treesit campaign in Albion, and there were some old growth trees,” he said. “There was a treesit we put up in 'Gypsy' -- named after the activist who was killed.”
It was on MRC land, and the trees were slated to be cut under a carryover harvest plan. Eventually, MRC said it wouldn’t cut those trees. “But it certainly wasn’t glamorous, like now,” he said. “Mike Jani [then MRC’s forester] wasn’t going around talking to the treesitters.”
Activists say MRC President Dean made a similar announcement about the Humboldt timberlands -- they’d carry out existing timber harvest plans. Jani’s promise to the treesitters, however, indicates otherwise. Though wary, Rimerman, who just got his master’s degree in public administration from Washington's Evergreen College, said he sees a real opportunity with MRC’s entry into Humboldt. For one thing, there’s very little old growth left to worry about on the PL lands. And so, he said, “Mendocino Redwood Co. can move into these destroyed landscapes ... and create a new model.”
Lately, he said, he’s been e-mailing Jani -- and Jani, even on his vacation last week, even after midnight, has promptly written back to him. Rimerman hopes he can talk more with Jani about ideas he has for MRC’s future, including ensuring long-term protection for groves now under a time-limited logging moratorium; rewriting the HCP; more community involvement with the company; and developing a strategy to keep MRC from being pressured someday into selling out to developers.
Reached by phone last week, while on vacation, Jani sounded frazzled. Between the huge undertaking of reorganizing Pacific Lumber Co. and restaffing it, the fires that threatened to engulf whole swathes of Humboldt and Mendocino timberlands, and now a flood of media attention -- National Geographic, the Los Angeles Times, the Associated Press, local journalists and more -- over his forest-side chat with the treesitters, he hasn’t had a moment’s rest.
But he said one of his first priorities had been to reassure the treesitters. On the day he went out to meet them, activists Arcuri and Lodgepole took him to Nanning Creek, then Fern Gully and finally they ended up at the tree “Jerry,” in which Jeny Card, aka “Remedy,” spent nearly a year before being extracted by treeclimber Eric Schatz.
“We sat at the base of Jerry and had a long conversation,” he said. They talked about the timber wars. “It’s just really a shame. People lost their lives. ... I’m not going to say whether what [the treesitters] did was legally right or wrong, but ... They showed me a video, and trees were being cut while people were sitting in them -- one can only guess what the motivation was for that. ... I said I admired [the treesitters] for their tenacity. They had some principles, and they stood by those principles.”
Jani said he has always tried to avoid clashes with treesitters. He worked for 25 years for Big Creek Lumber Co., in Santa Cruz -- where he and activist Rimerman locked horns over old growth -- and for the last 10 years he’s been with MRC.
“I think the process of forestry has gone through many, many evolutions,” Jani said. And, he added, every company does things differently. At MRC, for instance, when he got there it had an old growth policy that, he said, has since been refined. “It doesn’t preclude us from cutting old growth trees,” he said.
But the policy clearly defines what trees it does protect; it includes trees established prior to 1800. And if such a tree has to be cut -- say, to make way for a road -- it will be left on the forest floor to add nutrients to the system.
In Mendocino, he said, the company “had a lot to prove to people who had had an acrimonious relationship with Louisiana Pacific. But actions speak louder than words. … One of the things I’ve offered to people who may be suspect of our intentions is, I’m happy to lead tours on our Mendocino Redwood Co. land.”
Jani said his company will be writing new timber harvest plans, and amending old plans. And the old growth behemoths the treesitters have been in for years now -- the ones marked with blue lines for cutting -- are indeed saved, he said, along with a surrounding buffer of forest.
By mid-September or October, the treesitters will dismantle their treesits in Nanning Creek and Fern Gully. They don’t want to take any chances. They’re waiting until the timber harvest plans expire before they exit the trees.
Then what? Is the war really over? Is treesitting a thing of the past in Humboldt County?
In the twilight, last Thursday, the activists gathered near Spooner talked about their plans. Arcuri said she will need some time to “rehabilitate.” She was the one who, after studying Pacific Lumber Co.’s 250-acre “Bonanza” timber harvest plan in a marbled murrelet-inhabited portion of the Nanning Creek watershed, hiked into the area and discovered the 45-foot circumference, 14-and-a-half-foot diameter tree she named Spooner.
“And it had words spraypainted on it, in blue: ‘The Mother Fucker,’” said Arcuri. “And it had a blue line on it, to cut. This was their trophy tree, the one they wanted to cut.”
She and Lodgepole counted 28 old growth trees marked for cutting and numerous smaller ones. They set up a treesit, and over the years probably a hundred sitters have come to sit in the grove, high up on tarp-covered scrapwood or rope-rigged “dreamcatcher” platforms. Arcuri, who lives in Willow Creek, has shuttled food and supplies out to the grove two to three times each week.
“I’m like Spooner’s mom,” she said. “And now it’s like Spooner’s going off to college. Only, he’ll still be here.” She said she’d always visit. “This is where my heart is.”
After resting up, however, Arcuri said she’d like to focus on Richardson Grove, along Highway 101, where proposed road widening could threaten some old growth trees.
“There will be treesits there should they mess with those groves,” she said.
Lodgepole said he’ll stay vigilant, too. But he’s glad to leave behind, for now, the financial strain and the anxieties associated with sustaining the tree sits. “I run a tree-trimming business,” he said. “I dance to electronic music. I go to Burning Man ... So, a lot of us are relieved to get back to our lives.”
Billy, who's been in Spooner since before Christmas, said he’s planning to get right back into another treesit, in a place where a big landowner is still cutting old growth. He didn’t want to name specifics. He said he first learned about treesitting back in Missouri while working for a construction company whose practices he found less than green. One day he saw a program on TV about some treesitters. He googled treesitting, found We Save Trees, and called the number. Next thing he knew Arcuri was training him to climb and treesit one day, and sending him up into Spooner the next. He’ll never forget his first night up in his perch.
“I felt like I was in a nest,” he said.
Cedar, after a brief trip home later this fall to visit family in Canada, also will find the next available treesit as fast as she can, wherever she is needed, she said. She first heard about treesitting on YouTube, and it was the answer to her fondest dream, ever since childhood, to live in trees. She had thought she might study tree monkeys, but instead found herself in the tree "Grandma." Cedar said she never used to laugh out loud, before she climbed into Grandma. Slowing down to the rhythm of life in the tree, she’s gained something that had eluded her back home, where she said she got straight A's in school “but felt nothing.”
“I had no sense of purpose,” she said last Thursday night, her dark-gray clothes blending into the dusk as she leaned against Grandma. “The moment I got here, I thought, this is my calling. ... Out here, I wake up and I know how I feel. ... As long as it’s legal to cut old growth trees, I’m here for the trees.”
Last Friday, forest activists “Gemini” and “Sunset” wound their way on the circuitous route into the Fern Gully treesit, where a dozen or more old growth trees had been marked for cutting on smoothed-out knolls in between precipitous drop-away slopes. Wading through head-topping ferns and thimbleberry plants and up slick, near-vertical hillsides, they arrived at first one and then the other treesit village they’d established in 2004.
They said there are plenty of forests left to defend, and not just old growth ones.
“If Mendocino Redwood Co. agrees to abide by the four principles of sustainable forestry -- no clearcutting, no logging of old growth, no logging on steep or unstable slopes, no spraying of herbicides -- then there’ll be no need to protest,” said Gemini. Same goes for other companies, said Sunset. And, she added, treesitting -- most suitable for old growth defense -- was only one of many strategies.
Later that day, by phone, another activist, “Farmer,” said the recently reorganized Humboldt contingent of the Earth First! movement had, in fact, recently installed treesits. Just because Pacific Lumber Co. was dead didn’t mean there were no forests left to defend.
In July, Farmer said, EF!Humboldt occupied and roped together five trees on Six Rivers National Forest, in a place where Sierra Pacific Industries wants to build a road through the Underwood Roadless Area so it can log a 160-acre inholding. “There are Doug fir, cedar, sugar pines, ponderosa pines, some oaks,” said Farmer. Some are old growth. But they object, as well, to the fragmentation of a roadless area.
The treesitters were driven out by the forest fires started by the Summer Solstice lightning storm -- they called the firefighting command center, said Farmer, to alert them that they’d put in a “ropes course” out there. “We were concerned about the firefighters’ safety,” he said.
Julie Ranieri, spokesperson for Six Rivers N.F., was surprised last Friday to hear of the treesit. She’d had no idea, she said. Regardless, she said the forest service’s policy regarding treesitters is to “wait them out.”
Recently, Farmer and his crew also put in a treesit in woods owned by Green Diamond east of Eureka, in the McKay Tract, where they fear clearcutting will be followed by a selloff to developers. Much of the McKay Tract, some owned by Green Diamond and some owned by Security National, has already been rezoned from timber production to residential. The activists point to Green Diamond’s request to the county to rezone more of the land to residential. They say they’ve seen at least three spotted owls in the area.
“They have an 80-acre logging plan and it’s almost entirely clearcutting,” Farmer said. “These are 80- to 100-year-old second growth redwoods, and some spruce, and some residual old growth as well.”
When reached Friday afternoon by phone, Green Diamond’s Neal Ewald, vice president and general manager for the company’s California Timberlands division, was surprised to hear of the treesit. Ewald said he couldn’t remember the last time his company had had treesitters.
“We haven’t had a lot of experience with treesitters,” he said. “We try to do a good job.”
He said there was a plan for a clearcut and selective harvest out there, but denied any plans to sell it to real estate developers. “We’ll reforest and replant,” he said. Ewald said he’d be happy to talk to the treesitters. “I think we need to find out what their concerns are.”
Monday afternoon, EF!Humboldt sent another news alert: The treesit was over, because, upon further review of the harvest plan, the activists discovered that the logging wouldn’t commence until next February.
“At least now they know we’re serious,” said treesitter “Crossroads,” according to the news alert.