Are tree-sitters felons?


Recently, civil disobedience has been making a comeback. From 2011’s scruffy Occupy movement to the Sierra Club’s coat-and-tie White House protest of the Keystone XL pipeline last month, risking arrest to make a statement hasn’t been this high profile in a long time.

In Oregon, environmentalists have a long history of getting arrested and putting their bodies in the way of logging operations, most recently in Elliott State Forest. But the consequences of timber protests could get a lot higher if a bill in front of Oregon’s House Judiciary Committee becomes law.

Introduced by Rep. Wayne Kreiger, a tree farmer and retired state policeman from rural southwestern Oregon, HB 2595 would create a new felony charge: interference with state forest management. The penalty? Maximum five years in prison, a $125,000 fine, or both. A sister bill, HB 2596, would give loggers up to six years to sue protesters for lost income plus an additional $10,000.

"There's been a 30-year reign of terror by these people having no respect for the rights of others," Krieger told The Associated Press. "If they want to do civil disobedience, they can do that. It's part of the Oregon constitution, and the federal. But when they go beyond that and start chaining themselves to trees, locking themselves to equipment, and laying down in the road, and in any way they impede access, then they have gone over the line." (Krieger did not return a request for comment).

Kreiger’s bill is a direct response to 2009 and 2011 protests of a timber sale in Elliott State Forest, when people perched high in tree canopies and barricaded roads until police removed them. Others chained themselves together and refused to leave an Oregon Department of Forestry office. Police charged protesters with a variety of misdemeanors, including criminal mischief and criminal trespass.

The protests were reminiscent of the widespread civil disobedience that took place in the Northwest in the mid-1990s after Congress passed the “salvage rider.” Tacked onto a disaster relief bill, it expedited the sale of fallen and damaged trees by exempting those timber sales from most environmental laws, public participation and court appeals. Protesters took to the forests, blocking logging roads, going on hunger strikes and hiding out in trees.

The difference is the latest protests have taken place on state, not national, forests. Following a summer of arrests, and ignoring a crowd of protestors who gathered to show their disapproval of the event, in October 2011 the Oregon Land Board approved a management plan for Elliott State Forest that increased logging and clear-cutting, the proceeds of which will benefit Oregon’s public schools. According to The Oregonian, as officials left the meeting, protesters chanted, “we’ll see you in the forest.” But in May 2012, protestors got what they wanted when the state suspended logging in Elliott after environmental groups filed a lawsuit alleging the sales would harm the endangered marbled murrelet. Despite the unlikelihood of further protest, Krieger introduced his bill in January 2013.

Cascadia Forest Defenders, which participated in the Elliott protests and lawsuit, described HB 2595 as a “repressive response to effective public pressure that has halted destructive logging in the Elliot State Forest” and urged people to call Jeff Barker, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, to complain.

The Oregon chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union has also gotten involved. The group's legislative director, Betsy Straus, gave testimony at the bill’s public hearing in early March, criticizing it as unnecessary and vague for not making clear what types of activities would be considered felonies. Straus also worried the bill would give “unbridled discretion” to police officers to arrest people they disagreed with. She cited a 2000 law (later struck down as unconstitutional) criminalizing “interference with agricultural operations” under which 87 of the 88 people arrested were forest protesters.

The bill seems unlikely to pass out of committee soon, since chairman Barker said there would be no vote on the bill until it’s rewritten. "There seem to be some pretty clear constitutional violations in it," Barker told The Associated Press. "I asked (Krieger) to try to rework that to make some sense out of it."

The bill may not even have Krieger's desired effect, says Jason Gonzales of Cascadia Forest Defenders, who testified at the bill’s public hearing. It “won’t stop us from fighting these projects, but it will change the way we have to fight them,” he told the committee. “My very genuine concern is that it will force large sections of our movement to take their actions further underground. Indeed, instead of stopping us, it may encourage us to accomplish more when risking so much.”

Emily Guerin is the assistant online editor at High Country News.

Photo courtesy Flickr user F.Eatherington.

High Country News Classifieds