Do or Die

An article from Do or Die Issue 6. In the paper edition, this article appears on page(s) 122-127.

The Last Stand For Headwaters Forest

The Ancient Redwood Forest: Going, Going ...

In the coastal ranges of northern California, the tallest of all living beings - the ancient redwoods - are crashing toward extinction. Myriad creatures depend on the forest's dense canopies, clear streams and rich soils for their continued survival.

Ancient forests provide some of the last refuges for endangered species, and set the stage for raging battles over property rights, biodiversity and the enforcement of environmental laws designed to protect endangered species and their habitat. Activists and earth warriors have defended the remnant forests with non-violent civil disobedience and direct action in the woods.

The majestic giant redwoods thrived for thousands of years unaffected by the birth of Christ and the arrival of Columbus. These ancient redwoods lived with black bears, fog larks and prehistoric tailed frogs. Native people lived on the edges of the dark forest, fishing for salmon in its cool, clean streams and fashioning homes, ceremonial lodges and other essentials from the soft, even-grained wood of fallen giant trees.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, industrial civilization had arrived at the edge of the continent, driven by its ravenous greed for gold and timber. As the saws chewed through the great pine forests of Minnesota and Michigan, lumber barons began to look westward to the Pacific Northwest's lush valleys, filled with almost unimaginably giant redwoods, cedars and Douglas fir. The newcomers proved themselves capable of unspeakable brutality, exterminating whole tribes of the area's inhabitants and removing the survivors to distant reservations while carving their ancestral lands into "property." Railroads drilled their iron tentacles deep into the steep river valleys, and the giant trees began to fall.

Mostly owned by large timber companies, the rich forests of ancient redwoods were converted to cattle ranches and fiber plantations with increasing speed throughout the 20th century. By the 1990's, over 96% of the 800,000-hectare coastal redwood forest was gone. However, a few timber companies were reluctant to simply clearcut their lands, preferring to "selectively" cut some ancient trees while leaving others to stand, holding the steep, fragile soils in place and allowing the forest to recover. One such company was Pacific Lumber Company (PL), a family-run corporation that still possessed relatively large tracts of undisturbed forest late into this century.

In 1986, PL's remaining old growth trees had become more valuable as their rarity increased, and the potential for a quick profit from these lands attracted the attention of corporate predator Charles Hurwitz, CEO of Maxxam Corporation. From his air-conditioned Houston offices, far from the towering calm of Headwaters, Hurwitz leveraged $750 million in junk bonds to buy out PL and take over its Board of Directors. To pay off the junk bond debt, Maxxam raided the PL workers' pension fund and hastily began a program of liquidating the company's 78,400 hectares of forest land.

In the course of financing the takeover, Hurwitz took actions that caused his United Savings Association of Texas to go under. This failure was one of the largest in the series of thrift [US equivalent of building societies] collapses that swept the US during the last decade, spurred by corporate mega-mergers, hostile takeovers and unbridled financial speculation [and also thanks to deregulation by the Reagan government]. The US government had to bail out the savings and loan, a move which cost taxpayers $1.6 billion. Activists are now calling for a "Debt for Nature swap," in which the public could acquire title to Headwaters Forest in exchange for the outrageous debt Charles Hurwitz owes American citizens. Meanwhile, his rampage through the forest continues.

Almost overnight Maxxam transformed PL's selective logging policy into one of clearcutting the last of the ancient redwoods, doubling and even tripling the former rate of cut. Now only six groves of redwoods remain, surrounded by clearcut hillsides and ruined streams, providing a last refuge to the once plentiful creatures of the forest. Together, these six groves and the lands around them comprise the 24,000-hectare Headwaters Forest.

The largest unprotected stand of ancient redwoods remaining on Earth, Headwaters Grove covers approximately 1,200 hectares. So named because it straddles the upper reaches of two watersheds, the grove's shady canopy cradles rare birds while providing cool cover for the salmon spawning in its still-clear streams. The water in the Little South Fork of the Elk River is pure enough to drink without filtration or treatment, and tastes like no other nectar on Earth. The nearby Elkhead Springs Grove is fairly small, but every summer its canopy thickens with marbled murrelets, endangered seabirds that lay their eggs only in the mossy upper limbs of old growth trees. The murrelet has been driven to the brink of extinction by industrial forestry on the West Coast, and the six groves of Headwaters taken together constitute one of only three nesting areas left in California.

Across a sea of clearcuts stand the other four groves: All Species Grove, its rich landscape crisscrossed with roads and skid trails from recent "salvage" logging; Shaw Creek and Allen Creek Groves, largely intact stands of redwood forest; and Owl Creek Grove, the site of a recent legal battle that resulted in a US Supreme Court victory for the marbled murrelet and its environmentalist friends.

Up From the Grassroots

Since the takeover, environmental activists have engaged in diverse strategies to protect these remnant forests from the corporate saws. Earth First! staged protests to awaken the public to the plight of the redwoods, and mounted a decade-long campaign of non-violent direct action aimed at slowing the destruction. Citizens took a wrench to the bureaucratic wheels by attending agency hearings, reviewing logging plans, and drafting initiatives to reform California forest policy. Meanwhile, the Environmental Protection Information Center (EPIC), a watchdog grassroots group, began a litany of lawsuits against Maxxam for violating environmental laws, leading to a series of court victories that have temporarily protected the ancient groves.

Over the years, a diverse and sometimes fractious coalition of environmental groups has collaborated on the Headwaters issue, building on the local work done largely by EPIC and Earth First! This coalition is largely responsible for organizing a massive outpouring of public support for Headwaters preservation over the past few years. In 1995, a rally in the tiny, remote timber town of Carlotta drew over 2,000 people, the largest forest-related protest in US history at the time. 265 were arrested in a ritual civil disobedience action organized by Earth First! The rally in 1996 was even more successful, with more than 6,000 protesters converging at the end of the main haul road into Headwaters; 1,033 citizens were peacefully arrested for trespassing as they walked over PL's property line, symbolically reclaiming the forest that many citizens believe they already own.

President Bill Clinton, scouring the country for cosmetic environmental victories that might help to salvage his dismal reputation with environmentalists, made the Headwaters issue a quiet part of his 1996 election campaign. His cronies in the industry-friendly Department of Interior, along with California Senator Dianne Feinstein, a shrewd political manipulator, negotiated a deal with Charles Hurwitz and trumpeted to the world that Headwaters had been saved.

Of course, they were lying. Their bogus deal merely declares a logging moratorium for Headwaters Grove and Elkhead Springs Grove. If the other conditions of the deal are met, these two groves alone would be acquired along with a small, largely devastated buffer zone. In order to take effect, the deal calls for quick government approval of long-range management plans that could eradicate our hard-won legal victories and allow the other four ancient groves to be clearcut within the next fifteen years. Topping it all off is the deal's disgusting price tag: $380 million dollars worth of oil leases, real estate and cash, plus almost 8,000 hectares of public forest land in California's Sierra Nevada mountains. In exchange for all these goodies, Hurwitz agrees to stay his bogus lawsuit against the federal government (which alleges that enforcement of laws protecting endangered species on corporate land amount to a seizure of private property). The Clinton administration seems dead set on further rewarding this corporate criminal, even to the point of paying him millions to drive endangered species to extinction.

So, even after a decade of grassroots struggle, Headwaters Forest is still under siege. Lawsuits, direct action and legislation have hampered logging but ultimately failed to curb Maxxam's ravenous appetite for redwood lumber. Grassroots groups remain undaunted by the dirty deal, however, and continue to work toward real protection of all six ancient groves.

The Architecture of Struggle

Earth First!'s campaign in the redwoods has been waged in strict accordance with a non-violence code inspired by Gandhian principles. Our code prohibits violence, whether verbal or physical, forbids sabotage and property damage, and strongly encourages non-violence training for anyone taking part in direct action. These principles have been controversial within the larger Earth First! movement, but those of us living in the redwood region for the most part have agreed to abide by them.

Earth First! icon Judi Bari, a longtime resident of Northern California, was instrumental in developing the philosophy behind these principles. With her long history of labor and feminist organizing informing her efforts, she worked tirelessly to establish Earth First! in Northern California as a community-based movement for social and environmental justice. She brought class and gender issues to the forefront of what had previously often been a male-dominated, elitist movement, clearing space for women to take leadership roles and insisting on the importance of class analysis in fighting what she called the "Timber Wars."

Most timber industry employees work incredibly hard under extremely dangerous conditions. When millworkers and loggers attempted to organize unions decades ago, they were machine-gunned by local cops and beaten by company thugs. The unions that exist now are like most others in the US, beholden to industry and largely powerless or unwilling to defend workers' rights.

Also, the logging industry relies heavily on "gyppos," independent timber fellers and haulers who work for themselves, and are paid by the volume of timber they cut and haul. These workers receive no benefits, are unemployed for months during the rainy season, and own and operate their own equipment. They are also our neighbors, sharing small rural communities with the environmental activists working for justice in the woods. Sabotaging their equipment makes little philosophical or strategic sense in this context.

Judi Bari, along with other activists, organized a chapter of the Industrial Workers of the World here on the North Coast, and fought for the interests of millworkers injured by their employers' lax attention to safety standards. In conjunction with displaced timber workers, she also developed a "Jobs and Restoration" plan that would provide employment at good wages restoring local watersheds devastated by over a century of industrial forestry.

Just before the historic Redwood Summer campaign of 1990 got underway, Judi and fellow activist Darryl Cherney were bombed as they drove through Oakland, California. The bomb, placed under the driver's seat of Judi's car, was meant to kill her, and almost succeeded. Instead of investigating the bombing, local law enforcement and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) arrested Judi and Darryl, accusing them of having bombed themselves! The FBI's smear campaign against Earth First! represented another shameful milestone in this state-sponsored terrorist organization's years-long effort to discredit, disrupt and destroy movements that challenge corporate hegemony. Judi was crippled by the bombing, but chose to answer with a renewed commitment to non-violence; she and Darryl also initiated a major lawsuit against the FBI which has revealed very clearly that Earth First!ers are the targets, not the initiators, of terrorism (for information about the lawsuit, contact Redwood Summer Justice Project, PO Box 14720, Santa Rosa, California 95402, USA).

The philosophy behind non-violent direct action is based on non-violence as a way of life. Non-violence is not simply an absence of violence, but a positive force and source of considerable power in a violent world. Economic relations in this society are guaranteed by violence, both state-sponsored and corporate-controlled. Corporations and the police have infinitely stronger means to violence at their disposal than do our movements for justice and change. If we challenge them on their own playing field, the field of violence, we will lose.

Our campaigns also differ from revolutionary struggles like the one in Chiapas, Mexico, where indigenous people are fighting extermination by a ruthless colonial regime. We are fighting for our lives here, but in a much less direct way. We have far more to lose by adopting violent methods than we have to gain. The principle behind a community-based movement for change is that local people must work to understand each other and create the power necessary to determine their own collective future together. Our common enemies are the corporations and their governmental allies. They are impoverishing our communities, devastating our region and controlling our lives, and we need to find ways to build power collectively rather than further widen rifts that support the corporate divide-and-conquer mentality.

For the most part, non-violence works beautifully on the front lines. By refusing to damage equipment or harass loggers, we have reached a fragile, unspoken state of affairs where very few activists are hurt - except by the cops. Local law enforcement is very fond of a low-grade form of torture called "pain compliance," which involves pinching, holding and twisting parts of a protester's body in such a manner that extreme pain - and presumably "compliance" with police - results. Many of us have suffered nerve damage and even broken bones at the hands of overzealous pigs. Local judges have held non-violent activists in jail on bogus charges (including conspiracy) which they have no intention of pursuing through the courts. The average stay in jail for an Earth First!er ( before even being charged ) was about a week to ten days during last fall's campaign.

This mistreatment makes some people wonder why we continue to negotiate with the cops in order to hold our large public demonstrations, such as the two massive rallies in Carlotta. We have in Headwaters Forest an issue that resonates with people of all political persuasions and backgrounds, and the towering coast redwoods are a powerful national symbol for many Americans. Also, many children, elders and disabled people feel strongly about the issue and wish to demonstrate their support. Thus we have many allies who may be either philosophically reluctant or physically unable to engage in deep woods direct action, equipment lockdowns or road blockades.

Earth First! therefore works in coalition with other, more mainstream organizations in order to organize large public rallies that all can attend. Safety is an issue at these rallies, so we meet with the police beforehand to try to ensure that we can hold the rally in a safe location that also holds political significance for the issue.

We don't compromise at these meetings. In fact, we frighten law enforcement into giving us what we want by our large numbers and our refusal to compromise. Last year, with unknown thousands expected to arrive for a demonstration which had no legal site, the cops held out until the day before the rally, when they finally cracked and offered us a strip of county land across from Pacific Lumber's Carlotta mill. The people who accuse rally organizers of complicity or compromise never attended any of those meetings: picture more than 20 cops from every conceivable jurisdiction, a dozen other government officials, and a few Earth First!ers staring them all down until we win.

Some critics have also ridiculed the practice of mass civil disobedience, which also requires a level of coordination with law enforcement. Civil disobedience has a long and glorious tradition in the US, and many individuals feel that they can make a stronger statement by getting arrested at a rally than by merely showing up. Furthermore, whenever large numbers of people assemble to voice their outrage at the pillage of the Earth, it is wise to provide a peaceful outlet for action so that participants don't simply run amok, provoking violence on the part of cops and possibly even protesters. A mass trespass action channels this energy into a powerful collective statement.

Of course, Earth First! continues to focus primarily on stopping the destruction at the point of production. Activists lock themselves to gates and heavy equipment, forcing law enforcement to cut them loose and stopping work for hours. Tree-sitters perch high in the ancient redwoods, risking their lives to defend these threatened giants. Road blockades using tripods and other ingenious methods keep the machines of destruction from reaching the forest.

On September 16, 1996, a coordinated and simultaneous series of actions shut down every road leading into Headwaters Forest, while deep woods crews occupied all six ancient groves. [The photo on the left is from one of the blockades.] A "tree village" composed of dozens of tree-sitters and a shrimp net holding activists slowed a clearcut plan near Owl Creek Grove for over two weeks. Actions lasted until the winter rains began, culminating in a large rally on November 15. At that rally, police went wild, charging into the crowd and arresting organizers, videographers and even journalists.

Even in the face of this blatant attempt to provoke violence, rally participants remained calm, refusing to take the bait and averting tragedy. All of our experience here in the redwood region points to the fact that non-violent direct action works, and that its principles are an excellent guide for a community-based, grassroots movement focused on social as well as ecological justice.


The Headwaters deal announced by the Clinton administration, which could spell devastation for most of Headwaters Forest, continues to be negotiated. The process of developing the long-range plans mandated by the deal is expected to take until February 1998. Although this process is only cosmetically open to public input, our coalition mobilized well over 5,000 people to comment on the deal, both through the mail and at public hearings held in January.

The main issue is a Habitat Conservation Plan, or HCP, a document that allows landowners to get around legal prohibitions on killing endangered species. HCPs, invented during Ronald Reagan's reign largely for the purpose of weakening the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA), have resulted in destruction of critical endangered species habitat from coast to coast. The Clinton deal calls for an HCP which would creatively "redistribute" the endangered species living in these ancient groves, according to the most manipulable science money can buy, so that Pacific Lumber can clearcut everything that the public won't be allowed to purchase.

PL's HCP fits into a wider political context, namely the sleazy attempt by Clinton and his corporate friends to line the pockets of the ruling class at the expense of whatever or whomever stands in their way. Legislation is already moving through congress this year that would further institutionalize deadly compromises like the HCP, and supporters of this legislation are hoping to use the Headwaters agreement as public relations cover for their attempt to gut the ESA. Clinton has proved over and over again that his interests lie with further enriching large landowners and corporate resource barons, not with preserving biodiversity or working toward a future in which we can all survive.

Fortunately, the process allows for some public input, and environmentalists are currently preparing a "citizen's alternative" to the deal. This proposal, based on the principles of conservation biology, watershed restoration and sustainable forestry, would protect biologically critical areas (including all remaining old growth forest), allow for recovery of endangered species, and hire local timber workers to restore the watersheds their former employers so ruthlessly ravaged. We already have considerable support for the proposal, even among government employees working on implementation of the deal.

Numerous pitfalls, as well as opportunities, remain on the horizon. The government will likely try to find some unprincipled environmental group to back a bogus compromise, selling out both grassroots activists and ecological integrity. Such groups already exist, and some seem to be demonstrating a willingness to compromise. The Clinton administration will also likely pressure decent people working in federal agencies to take a weak stand on the issues so as to avoid angering corporate interests. Finally, property rights groups ( which already have a sympathetic presidential ear ) will continue their battle in the courts to prove that environmental laws should not be enforced on private lands without compensation. Although many such groups claim to represent small landowners, ranchers and farmers, most of these organizations are well-funded fronts for large corporate interests.

These coming months will witness the culmination of our 11-year struggle to save Headwaters Forest. Nobody can predict what the final outcome will be, but one thing remains certain: wherever ancient forests are threatened, wherever corporations bulldoze and ravage the land, wherever the interests of big money run rampant over people and nature alike, Earth First! will be there. No Compromise!

For information contact:

Earth First!
c/o Mendocino Environmental Center
106 West Standley
California 95482

Environmental Protection Information Center (EPIC)
PO Box 397
California 95542

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