Protester starts her sentence

  On Jan. 5, a former teacher began serving a 30-day sentence for refusing to part from a 400-year-old Engelmann spruce she was trying to protect from loggers.

Joni Clark's sentence of 30 days is the stiffest penalty yet for a tree-sitter in Colorado. She was found guilty of violating the Forest Service's Special Closure Order in January 1994. Citing the First Amendment, Clark appealed the verdict.

"The tree sit was completely legal until the fifth day," she says, noting that the forest was closed only after a Denver Post photo journalist paid a visit. Under normal circumstances, a person can sit in a tree or anywhere else in a national forest for 14 days at a time.

Clark perched on a platform 50 feet up the trunk of the ancient spruce tree during the summer of 1993. She and other supporters of the group Ancient Forest Rescue were protesting the Red Mountain Timber Sale in the San Juan Mountains. Clark climbed the tree, she says, because it was in the way of a planned six-mile logging road.

On the morning of the fifth day, Forest Service officers showed up with armed special agents, Clark recalls. Other protesters were 100 yards down the road. That left her alone in the tree.

For the next eight hours, as Clark climbed higher, Special Agent Charlie Burd followed, reaching the platform she'd rigged. She then traversed the tree's canopy along a zipline connected to nearby trees. After Burd removed her platform and returned to the ground, Clark was left literally out on a limb.

When officers threatened to cut her ropes, Clark, by then exhausted and dehydrated, says she decided it was time to come down. She was shackled in leg irons and wrist manacles, put in the back of a Forest Service paddy wagon, and hauled to a jail in Colorado Springs.

Clark was released on bail the next afternoon, on condition she not return to the Rio Grande National Forest. Since her arrest, she has moved to the ski resort of Crested Butte, where she runs an environmental group. Meanwhile, Stone Forest Industries has completed its timber harvest after building 11 miles of road.

Clark is spending 30 nights in a Colorado Springs halfway house and paying $25 a day for her board. Was her civil disobedience worth it? Clark quotes a line from writer Edward Abbey: "Wilderness doesn't need any defense; only more defenders."

* Shara Rutberg