Longtime foes practice ritual combat in an Idaho forest

  • Earth First! protester on his perch

    Drawing by Malcolm Wells
  • Timber truck pulling harvested logs

    Drawing by Malcolm Wells

Last fall, I traveled to a war in central Idaho. For six years, in the longest-standing Earth First! demonstration in the country, environmentalists have laid pipe, cement, trees and themselves in front of logging trucks at the Cove-Mallard timber sale, 80 miles southeast of Lewiston, Idaho, in the Nez Perce National Forest. And though this is a nonviolent movement, not directed at people, machinery or property, it has cost thousands of dollars in police enforcement and equipment rental and has delayed logging for over a year.

I waited to meet with the Earth First! demonstrators at a red box on a dirt logging road in late September. I waited quietly, listening to occasional woodpeckers and kicking piles of duff underneath pines.

After an hour without seeing anyone, I drove to nearby Dixie, Idaho, to use the phone. I stopped at a cafe with pay phones outside and called a woman, code-named Frog, who organized the demonstration from Boise. She told me that the demonstrators would surely be at the box in about an hour, at 5 or 6 that evening.

I hung up and went inside the cafe for a cup of coffee. On the door hung a cardboard sign scrawled with black markers: "This is private property! That means NO EARTH FIRSTERS!"

I passed some black tables and went to a yellow stool at the counter.

"What can I getcha?" asked a waitress.

"A cuppa coffee, please." I hunched over the coffee when it came and drank it down fast. Then I put a dollar down on the counter, got up and went back to the door.

As I was leaving, a hunter stopped me. He was sitting with others in orange and camouflage, and they all had trucks outside, with gun racks and ATVs in the back.

"Are you one of 'em Earth Firsters?" he asked out of the side of his mouth.

"No," I said. "I'm a writer." I looked at him and smiled. Except for this table, the cafe was quiet and empty. A TV buzzed with Oprah Winfrey in the kitchen.

"Have a seat," he said, pulling out a chair at the table. I sat down.

"Now I ain't seen you here before, but I want you to stay away from them Earth Firsters," he said. "None of us here want to see this country torn up or raped - we all hunt and fish and raise our kids here. But the other day I saw one Earth First girl, hell she must'n been 17, who had cut off most of her hair, 'cause 'a mites. Pretty 'n blonde hair, too. I talked to her a bit and she was just full of shit. She said she was fightin' fer old growth, but she's camped up there in 150-year-old lodgepole. And then she says we shouldn't be cuttin' down trees, but what the hell is she going to do with that wooden gee-tar she carries around? And what the hell does she wipe her ass with? Dirt?"

He pointed his finger at me. "Now you're new to this place, and I suggest you stay away from them lazy, dirty, good-for-nothins."

I looked at the hunters. "Thanks," I said after a pause, then got up and left.

When I drove back to the box, there were a couple of cars parked on the side of the road and men carrying boxes of fruit and vegetables up into the woods.

I parked and stopped one of the men. "Are you with the protesters?" I asked.

"No," he said.

"Do you know where the protesters are?" I asked.

"No, I've just heard that they're up here somewhere," he said.

"Well," I said, thinking of the woman in Boise. "Frog sent me to find them."

He looked at me. "Come on." He introduced himself as Grumple and was one of the older protesters, probably in his early 30s. He wore rumpled hair, a beard full of twigs and soil, and a T-shirt that quoted Shakespeare: "Pardon me, thou bleeding piece of earth, that I am meek and gentle with these butchers."

We came to camp, which was just over a hill. Tarps were strung together over a fire pit, which had a collection of old blankets on one side and food boxes on the other. I met a few people in camp, and by evening I had met all of the protesters: Huckleberry, Echo, Peanut, Mango and Sara-Sara. I called myself "Santiago."

For dinner, Huckleberry and I cooked a tomato-pepper stirfry for the other campers. Over the warm food, I answered questions about where I was from, where I had gone to school and why I was here. The conversation faded, and I went looking for a flat spot to put down my sleeping bag. Leaving the campfire, I saw headlights jagging up a side road that led up the hill to camp.

A white U.S. Forest Service truck stopped by a tree barrier in front of camp. A man and a woman, in uniform and each with a clipboard, got out of the cab and walked up to us. They walked with crisp, military steps.

"How are you all?" the man asked, once he got closer. His tag read Dan Hawkes, U.S. Forest Service Enforcement Officer, and he had a constant look of seriousness.

"Fine," we responded.

"Now, I know we don't agree about everything," he said. "But I want to make sure you all stay safe in the national forest, and that no one from town harasses you."

"We're doing just fine," said Grumple, staring at the camp fire.

"This here's Deborah Matthews," Hawkes said. "She's from a district in Utah and she'll be helping me make sure our sales here go smoothly, after all the trouble we had a couple weeks ago." Two weeks ago, the Forest Service had to tear through a 20-foot-long blockade the protesters had set up.

"There are a lot more cars down there than you have people up here," Matthews said. "Are you guys planning something?"

No one said anything.

"Well, good night, then," said Hawkes, and he and Matthews got back into the truck. He jotted notes from the conversation on his clipboard, then drove down the road.

In the morning, I looked past the road leading to camp. In the distance stood land with trees less than ankle-high. Huckleberry that part of the forest had been clearcut in the 1960s. "That place motivates me every time I see it," he said. "We gotta turn over this whole white-trash, military-industrial buffoonery."

Huckleberry and I walked out to the logging site on Jack Road. It took an hour to hike to the site, though a couple of times we stopped to pick chanterelle mushrooms or to look at orange peel fungus. Huckleberry told me he was 22 years old and had just quit a job in a wildlife biology lab in Missoula. "This country is so damn beautiful," he said. "I'm just glad I'm out here, doing all I can to save it." Cove-Mallard consists of 20,000 roadless acres connected with the Gospel-Hump and Frank Church-River of No Return wilderness areas, making it part of the largest roadless area in the West.

We finally got to the logging. We saw loggers delimb trees at the landing and cut them into merchantable size. Even though we were right up close, their saws still sounded far away, like insects - bbbbaaaazzzzzzz, bbbbaaaazzzzzz. We watched the clipper collapse trees, sometimes hitting them against one another, and the diesel skidders stop, clank trees together, then move again. The skidder and clipper looked awkward - ripping and tearing over trees and soil. The machines grumbled and spit and chewed.

A logger came up to us. "It's hard to make something like this look any uglier, ain't it, boys?" We were quiet.

Then I started talking with him. "You been sawin' long?"

"About 16 years," he replied.

"What do you think of that 'feller-buncher'?" I asked.

"It's a lot faster than a saw, but it's a no-brainer; you just reach out and grab stuff and that's all there is to it," he said. "You don't feel much inside that thing."

He started to leave, then Huckleberry offered him some mushrooms. "Here are some chanterelles. They're good if you fry them up with butter and basil."

"Do they make you loony like pot?" he asked, biting off a piece.

"No, they're good," assured Huckleberry. The logger took a handful of the wrinkly yellow mushrooms and left us alone by a cache of Valvoline canisters.

The activists are protesting the Forest Service's environmental analyses under the Clean Water Act. Both major drainages in the area - Big and Little Mallard Creek - are already high in sediment, according to the Idaho Department of Water Quality, and environmentalists worry that sediment from timber harvesting will ruin the endangered chinook salmon and bull trout. "Last year," Frog said, "the Forest Service lost over $200 million in timber sales according to the government's own estimates. There's no reason for us to pay the government to go into the roadless areas, take away our trees and fill up our streams with dirt."

Ihor Mereszczak, a staff officer at Nez Perce National Forest, says the Forest Service has already relocated roads away from streams and adjusted cutting units to dry and flat areas to protect fish. He admitted that the Forest Service could log in second growth, where roads are already established, instead of going into roadless areas. "But there's no sense in that," he said, "because our harvests are doing good things for the ecosystem, like providing a diversity of landscape structures and mimicking historic fires."

Old growth has the greatest diversity, countered Frog, and fires don't leave stumps and roads.

Out in the forest, the protest was all body and nerve, and there was no talk of endangered species, historic fires or species diversity.

At 2:30 a.m., we started gathering long pieces of lodgepole and putting them up into a tripod. We lashed together the tops, hung a platform, and Huckleberry climbed a rope up to it. Two protesters I didn't know lay down in a hammock going across to the platform. Mango and Grumple climbed 40 or 50 feet up nearby trees to tie supportive lines. Together we raised the tripod so it straddled the road and no one could drive down without hitting one of the lodgepole legs, throwing to the ground Huckleberry and the two other protesters.

When we finished, we were still in darkness, and each odd reflection of light from the rocks or road made me suspicious. My arms shook and my heart thrummed in my chest and made my throat thick.

Minutes later, the night patrol came down the road, only an hour after their last passing. The sheriff's dark blue truck and Hawkes' Forest Service truck both spun to a stop in front of our construction.

"We're trying to protect thousands of acres of wilderness in Idaho," Mango yelled, running up into the forest with us. "No more cutting here!'

By dawn, three logging trucks stood in front of the tripod, amping their engines.

Two weeks earlier, protesters had set up a blockade with steel pipe and cement, then a series of bipods and tripods, with a slash pile out front. One of the protesters dreamed that the logging machines had tried to break through the blockade, but the trucks came undone, metal pieces of them twisting off and springing apart in a crinkly mess.

But, really, it was the other way around. In one day, jackhammers, cherry-pickers, diamond-cutters and chainsaws tore through the blockade.

Mid-morning, two weeks later, and the law enforcement trucks idle around a tripod that crosses the road. The loggers and protesters have begun shouting at one another. "You candy-asses need to get that guy off there so some of us can get to work."

"Sure, get to work killin' trees."

"Someone's gotta work with you guys just lazyin' around."

"Buddy, you don't know shit about what we do."

At 11:30 a.m., a cherry-picker truck chugged up the road, having come from McCall, over 60 miles away. A smokejumper with spiked boots climbed one of the trees to lower the hammock.

Hawkes walked up to us, cordoned together behind police tape 100 feet uphill from the tripod. He warned us that we would be arrested if any of us crossed the police tape, then he explained his plans for lowering the hammock and tripod.

"I respect your dedication to your cause," Hawkes said. "But my job is to make sure that no one stands in the way of the laws and legal contracts in this forest. So, we're going to slowly take down that tripod and make sure that no one gets hurt."

Hawkes gave the smokejumper a thumbs-up sign, and the smokejumper nailed a pulley high up in the tree, then ran a rope through, with one end down and the other tied to the hammock rope. He cut the webbing that kept the hammock tied to the tree, and loggers below pulled tension, then lowered the hammock slowly through the pulley.

"You better be careful," Sara-Sara yelled to the smokejumper, "because two lives are in your hands if you screw up."

Two deputies took the pair out of the hammock, handcuffed them, and dragged them to the sheriff's truck. They would be charged with obstructing justice, a misdemeanor for a first offense, involving a night in jail, a court appearance and a few-hundred-dollar fine that an environmental organization would cover.

Meanwhile, the metal arm of the cherry picker went up to the tripod with an operator and sheriff. The men grabbed Huckleberry, pulled his lower body into the metal basket, then sawed off the tripod top to set his hands free. People below steadied the structure. Sara-Sara sang: "Give fire to his spirit, air to his breath, water to his blood and earth to his body. Oh please lend fire to his spirit, air to his breath, water to his blood and earth to his body." She cried as they took him down.

By noon, loggers were driving their jittery equipment, their winches and grapples, up the road in one direction. Activists were walking the other way, carrying sleeping bags and backpacks, mugs and stoves and pots.

I stood there, around pieces of lodgepole and plywood from the tripod and a tattered Earth First! banner that the loggers would probably burn later. I was tired. Would loggers ever understand the activists - their young and hot blood, their belief that forests are as sacred as churches? Would protesters ever understand loggers - their urgency to keep jobs they have built a family around, their view of forests as places to work?

Everything will continue next summer as it has for the last seven years. This fall, the Forest Service plans to sell 10 million board-feet of timber from Lone Park in Cove-Mallard - that's twice as much timber as they sold at Jack Creek, enough timber, the loggers says, to build 10,000 houses, and enough trees, the protesters say, to make 700 acres of forest.

Bryan Foster, who earned a master's degree from the Yale University School of Forestry, is a former High Country News intern. He lives in Colorado where he is writing a book on sustainable forestry.

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