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Timber War Stories 

Darren Frederick Speece's Defending Giants

Sometimes a book invites a reader's favor. Darren Frederick Speece's Defending Giants seems like a love affair for those concerned with protecting ancient forests.

The book cover entices readers with a powerful image of an activist with his hand up blocking a truck, and the back features a glowing blurb from climate activist Bill McKibben.

And how can we not like an author who attended Humboldt State University, bartended at the Alibi, and is now a history teacher and assistant dean at the highly selective Sidwell Friends School?

Speece quickly establishes his expertise in the environmental and legal issues related to Pacific Lumber's hostile takeover by Charles Hurwitz. In addition, he is clearly familiar with the chief players in the timber wars, including Greg King, Julia "Butterfly" Hill, Judi Bari, Darryl Cherney and many others. He draws on David Harris's The Last Stand, a fascinating account of the takeover and the eventual purchase of the Headwaters Reserve by the state and federal governments.

Probably best of all, Speece establishes his credibility through extensive research. He provides a historical context, going back as far as the late 19th century to the roots of forest protection before examining the activism in our era. He explores the roles of women in forest defense over that 100-year span and he challenges the premise that recent forest activism was primarily fought at a national level by environmental organizations in order to save the land for leisure uses.

In spite of those strengths, the book is a difficult read. Speece's writing is academic, though not in a positive sense. The prose is tedious, with only rare passages that bring the narrative to life, and the writing is abstract and repetitious. He takes what should be a fascinating narrative and flattens much of it into a slog.

Some of his premises seem debatable, too. Although he carefully examines how the Clinton administration circumvented courtroom battles over the Endangered Species Act by using a Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP), suggesting that HCPs will be increasingly used to resolve disputes between landholders and conservationists, he misses the numerous weaknesses of HCPs that have made them controversial. He also doesn't provide any evidence of how HCPs have been used since Clinton era. Speece ends the book by asserting that there were no clear winners in the Headwaters deal, entirely omitting that Charles Hurwitz milked billions of dollars of profit from the hostile takeover of Pacific Lumber, avoided jail time for activities that sent several of his business associates to prison and walked away with an additional $370 million for the Headwaters purchase.

So if you can hold your nose over the tedious writing and some of the more dubious claims, then you may find yourself intrigued by the outstanding historical research he provides on forest defense and activism.

Darren Frederick Speece speaks about his book on Thusday, April 27 at 5:30 p.m. in HSU's Founders Hall. See Calendar for details.

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David Holper

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