The lessons of Redwood Summer, thirty years later

A summer of protest ultimately marked a turning point in environmental activism.

 

Reckoning with History is an ongoing series that seeks to understand the legacies of the past and to put the West’s present moment in perspective.

Thirty years ago, thousands of environmentalists answered a call to converge on California’s North Coast — a landscape characterized by towering trees nurtured by the coastline’s fog and rain — for a summer of resistance. They blocked roads, sat in trees and chained themselves to logging equipment to halt old-growth cutting in what came to be known as “Redwood Summer.” 

At first, the activists seemed to have failed: Their coalition unraveled, and the timber companies continued their logging plans. Yet in the long run, Redwood Summer marked a turning point in environmental activism — one that ultimately helped alter forest management. The episode was part of a multi-pronged challenge to industrial logging that also included more mundane approaches, such as lawsuits and legislation. In the end, it was this combination that brought lasting change. 

Redwood Summer protestors peacefully crowded the streets of Fort Bragg on Saturday, July 21, 1990 in Fort Bragg to protest the over cutting of forest.
AP Photo/Sarah Fawcett

Much of Redwood Summer targeted a private company, Pacific Lumber, and its vast holdings, including the Headwaters Forest, some 60,000 acres of redwoods near Fortuna, California. Until the 1980s, Pacific Lumber had a reputation for harvesting its forests conservatively, as well as for taking care of its employees, offering them benefits and bonuses. That changed in 1985, when financier Charles Hurwitz used high-risk financing to purchase the company, intending to liquidate the ancient redwoods to pay off debts. The project became an immediate target for environmental activists.  

The radical group Earth First! issued the invitation to Redwood Summer. Its blockades, tree-sits and rallies grew in frequency and intensity over the summer of 1990, as did the accompanying shoving matches, screaming confrontations and fistfights between activists and timber workers. The incidents drew public attention to both the conflict and the destructive logging practices. Still, Pacific Lumber pressed forward, logging until legal injunctions stopped them.

Meanwhile, Earth First! faced internal turmoil. One of the group’s leading organizers, Judy Bari, had a history of labor organizing and attempted to build solidarity with the loggers, believing they were exploited by the corporation. To support loggers, Bari disavowed tree-spiking, a controversial tactic in which activists drove metal spikes into trees, thereby forcing timber companies to either halt cutting or risk damaging saws and injuring workers. Bari’s actions alienated many activists, who thought an alliance with loggers betrayed Earth First! principles.

One of those principles was a deep philosophical argument for biocentrism — the idea that humans and the non-human world hold equivalent moral value, as historian Keith Makoto Woodhouse explains in The Ecocentrists. At the end of Redwood Summer, Dave Foreman, one of Earth First!’s founders, left the organization because he felt that social justice should not be part of its mission, writing in the Earth First! Journal, “We are biocentrists, not humanists.” Bari pushed back: “Earth First! is not just a conservation movement, it is also a social change movement.” Such fissures over the proper focus of activism echo in today’s debates over the Green New Deal, whose critics regard issues such as “repairing historic oppression,” education and health care access as out of place in climate legislation.

As radical Earth First!ers quarreled, local environmentalists also tried to stop the company’s ramped-up logging. They launched a statewide campaign for a ballot initiative, nicknamed Forests Forever, meant to sustain both forests and the logging industry. The law would have protected some mill jobs by banning raw log exports, provided funds to retrain loggers for different jobs and restructured the state Board of Forestry, which the timber industry had dominated for decades. But it failed to pass in November 1990, gaining only 48% of the vote.

In the subsequent decade, however, activists and policymakers transformed the North Coast anyway. The activists behind the ballot measure studied Pacific Lumber’s harvest plans and filed lawsuits when the company violated state conservation laws. Routinely, Pacific Lumber filed timber harvest plans with inadequate environmental assessments — failing, for example, to survey potentially endangered species. When the state Board of Forestry approved the plans anyway, courts stepped in and halted the logging. Eventually, the company grew tired of the relentless protests and lawsuits and, in 1996, it agreed to sell the most contested section of the Headwaters Forest to California and the federal government. Meanwhile, court rulings strengthened state laws, such as the California Environmental Quality Act and the Forest Practice Act, that required stronger environmental and species protections and further weakened the corporate cast of the state’s Board of Forestry. 

Redwood Summer was part of a complex set of political and legal strategies that gradually helped transform forestry across the West.

Still, assessing Redwood Summer’s impact after three decades is complicated. In Defending Giants: The Redwood Wars and the Transformation of American Environmental Politics, historian Darren Frederick Speece concluded that Redwood Summer further polarized the timber industry and environmentalists, a legacy that lingers today. The failure to find common cause with workers helped fracture Earth First! and now frequently characterizes environmental politics across industries. But Redwood Summer was also part of a complex set of political and legal strategies that gradually helped transform forestry in California and across the West, especially on private land. Ideology moved radicals, while it took lawsuits and persistent citizen action to move companies and legislatures.

Adam M. Sowards is an environmental historian, professor and writer. He lives in Pullman, Washington. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

Note: This story has been updated to clarify that Pacific Lumber agreed to sell part of the Headwaters Forest in 1996, rather than completing the sale that year. 

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