Four years ago, it seemed that one of the fiercest battles over West Coast timber had ended with the public's purchase of the 7,000-acre Headwaters redwood forest in Northern California.
But those trees continue to fuel controversy, this time
over whether people should be allowed into the cathedral-like
ancient groves located some 200 miles north of San Francisco.
The story illuminates one of the environmental movement's
biggest blind spots: its failure to paint people into their image
of nature. Treating people as damaging invaders becomes
self-fulfilling prophecy that alienates the public from protecting
Since the land entered public ownership at a
cost of $380 million in federal and state funds, the federal Bureau
of Land Management has kept the ancient forest closed to the
public, allowing visitors only into the younger stands that
surround the central groves.
The agency floated a plan
last year that would permit visitors to hike along the edges of two
ancient stands, but that proposal has drawn fire from the very
environmental groups that spearheaded the drive to protect the
"If I had my druthers, the place would be
entirely off-limits to human beings," says Karen Pickett of the Bay
Area Coalition for Headwaters. "The footprint of a well-intentioned
person sinks just as deeply as anyone else's."
It is true
that hikers make noise, spooking animals and keeping them away from
habitat alongside trails. Visitors drop food scraps, which attract
jays and ravens, which in turn eat the eggs and fledglings of an
endangered sea bird, the marbled murrelet.
"This is more
of a reserve than a recreation area," says the BLM's Lynda Roush,
who will issue a final decision this summer.
activists, a deep distrust of people and their effect on the wild
lies behind the biological arguments. "One of the ideas I had in
helping to save Headwaters was that it would be untouched," says
Josh Brown, a former Earth First! organizer.
hikers we're talking about, not snowmobiles in Yellowstone National
Park. The activists' view represents a striking pessimism about our
species: a belief that the very presence of human beings is
damaging to nature. It implies that we can never evolve beyond our
current role as despoilers.
Ironically, the activists
themselves have visited Headwaters, Brown about two dozen times. At
first, I wondered how they could try to prevent others from doing
exactly what they have done. But then I ventured to the groves
myself, and understood a key point: They'd been changed by the
experience. Paradoxically, they can't trust others to be similarly
On a ranger-led hike to the edge of Headwaters,
I was joined by musician Francine Allen, who had hiked into the
groves several times while they were still in timber company hands,
helping Earth First! to reconnoiter the area.
detection, she said , she'd had to hike four miles up a steep
gravel road by night and duck into the deep woods at the first
opportunity. This time, we rode in a government van and sauntered
along in broad daylight.
"It's weird to walk along
talking so loud," Allen observed. "We used to talk like this," she
said, lowering her voice to a whisper. "We revered the forest. Now
it's too easy, too simple to get here."
The difficulty of
sneaking into Headwaters Forest while it was still privately owned
made people behave as though the forest were sacred as well as
dangerous. They could travel only at night, scouting ahead to make
sure the timber company's security guards weren't awaiting them.
It was a place of awe and humility. Two ingredients in
that experience were the hikers' careful preparation for the
journey, and the knowledge that there was something in the forest
-- guards -- probably fiercer than they were. In effect, they
weren't the top species in the food chain; they were one species
Few of us care to trespass on private
property for the sake of developing that reverence. It can come
instead from the knowledge that grizzly bears, cougars, or simply
the unpredictable elements of nature may lie around the next bend
in the trail
But the only way we will be changed by those
greater powers is to immerse ourselves in them. Banning people from
the place where that transformation could occur will leave us
unreconstructed, and as base as the misanthropes assume us to be.