Last line of defense

Civil disobedience and protest slowdown 'lawless logging'

  • Under arrest for civil disobedience in Umpqua National Forest

    Kurt Jensen
  • Protestors at Warner Creek manned this road block nearly a year ago

    Kurt Jensen
  • Group from Eugene, Ore., tours Warner Creek which survived fire

    Kurt Jensen

Note: this article is part of a feature package on civil disobedience and logging; the other feature article is Cove-Mallard: 'I'm just trying to right what I feel is wrong'.

WARNER CREEK, Ore. - For the timber industry, this summer was to have been a return to the good old days.

The salvage logging rider, signed by President Clinton a year ago, had released thousands of timber sales on public lands from endless appeals and lawsuits. At last, loggers would have unfettered access to the national forests of the Pacific Northwest and the intermountain West, much as they had a decade ago.

But by late summer, with time running out on the logging rider, a vastly different scenario had unfolded. The Forest Service still had not offered hundreds of salvage sales identified by activists and scientists as potentially damaging to wildlife and water quality. Timber industry officials were bellowing at the Clinton administration for canceling sales and "micromanaging" the forests. And President Clinton seemed to be campaigning on a platform that called for saving trees.

Public opinion and the media had turned nastily against the Forest Service, the timber industry and the Congress. Everywhere, it seemed, people ranging from New Agers to Earth First!ers to businessmen and "little old ladies' were sitting in roads, waving signs at television cameras and generally gumming things up.

What happened? Although the answer is as complex as a forest ecosystem, one part of it could be found at Warner Creek, Ore., where in late July two dozen activists huddled under a blue tarp as a light rain fell.

For 343 days, these people, taking names such as Madrone, Otter, Birch and Spring, blockaded a logging road leading to a 14-acre timber sale on the Willamette National Forest. They dug 15-foot-deep by 10-foot-wide trenches in the road and buried steel barrels and cement blocks in the ground. They built a fort from logs left behind by loggers.

Warner Creek was the longest blockade of a forest road in history. The activists even weathered a soggy, cold winter in the Cascades. Yet, early on the morning of Aug. 16, the blockade fell with ease, just as several others had in Oregon, Washington and Idaho. Forest Service law enforcement officers moved in and arrested seven. By the end of the day, bulldozers had pushed the mile-and-a-half long jumble of stuff off the road.

But it didn't matter. Just before the Forest Service moved in, the Clinton administration "saved" Warner Creek and more than 150 other controversial sales around the West from logging. It promised to buy out the small, 14-acre sale near the blockade, and it delayed another future sale of 206 acres until after the salvage rider expires Dec. 31. Then the sale would be open to court challenges and appeals, the kind the salvage rider had barred.

"Warner Creek was the pivot point of resistance to salvage logging, and I believe it will be the Waterloo of salvage logging," said Tim Ingalsbee, a Eugene activist soon to be an assistant professor of political ecology at Humboldt State University. "There was nothing stopping the chain saws but this nonviolent citizen resistance of bodies on the line."

The battle is joined

It was a startling reversal. For months after the passage of the salvage rider in summer 1995, everything had gone the timber industry's way. It prevailed in several key court cases that expanded the salvage rider's scope to allow cutting of more old-growth timber than most observers had anticipated. Industry allies in Congress stalled the efforts of Democrats to repeal or modify the rider, and President Clinton seemed uninterested in the fight.

Then the big trees started falling, and activists kicked into gear. Under names such as Cascadia Forest Defenders and Witnesses Against Lawless Logging (WALL), they held "action camps' to train activists in the arts of tree-climbing and blockades. Coordinating via e-mail, they quickly learned of new sales and bombarded the Clinton administration with letters and phone calls every time another controversial sale approached.

And they literally took to the hills. There was Sugarloaf in southern Oregon's Siskiyou National Forest, Enola Hill in the Mount Hood National Forest near Portland, the First and Last sales in southern Oregon's Umpqua National Forest near Roseburg, and the Red 90 sale about an hour's drive east of Salem on the Willamette National Forest.

As the year wore on, the controversial sales - and protests against them - spread into Idaho, Montana, Colorado and New Mexico. But the salvage logging proposed at Oregon's Warner Creek proved to be the top draw, attracting visiting schoolkids from New Jersey and activists from all over the country.

Warner Creek was as noticeable for what had been cut as for what hadn't. The blockaded road lay in an area that has endured logging on an almost unbelievable scale. Clearcuts and second-growth stands derided by activists as tree farms dominate the steep hills and valleys.

But portions of the Warner Creek drainage had never been cut, and because of the presence of the endangered northern spotted owl, they might have quietly stayed that way - if it hadn't been for fire. In 1991, an arsonist torched 9,000 acres of old-growth Douglas fir, sparking a debate over salvage logging.

Some places burned crisp as toast, leaving the blackened skeletons of ancient trees; others browned lightly, and the big trees survived; here and there the fire missed trees altogether. Most of the owls survived, returning to raise young the following year. In places, a thick carpet of Douglas fir seedlings sprang up on the forest floor.

"The patchwork in this area hits you in the heart," said Birch, a 20-year-old University of Oregon student who first visited Warner Creek last February. "I'd come here for one week, (then) got a job down there, but I couldn't leave."

Environmentalists wanted to preserve Warner Creek as a living laboratory for the study of post-fire ecology. Logging would devastate the natural recovery process, they said. And though there was no evidence that the unknown arsonist had any connection with the timber industry, they worried that allowing logging would send the message that arson pays.

The conjunction of arson, old trees, salvage logging and civil disobedience made Warner Creek a natural magnet for the media. Coverage of the battle extended far beyond the region in forums such as the New York Times and television's 60 Minutes.

If the activists' strategy was to attract the media into the woods by staging protests, the Forest Service's was to keep everyone but loggers out of the forests altogether.

As the cutting started, forest officials closed off surrounding areas to the public in the name of protecting loggers and officials from "disruption" by activists. At the Red 90 timber sale near the town of Detroit, Ore., for instance, the agency first closed 14 square miles, an area 10 times the size of the timber sale, then scaled back the closure to 3.5 square miles as the sale was gradually cut.

"We knew the sale was controversial. We were fearful of unlawful activity disrupting logging and other activity," said Bill Funk, the agency's district ranger in Detroit.

At Red 90, 28 protesters crossed the closure lines, singing "This Land is Your Land" and chanting "The whole world is watching" as police picked them off the ground and hauled them into vans. The arrested protesters argued that the closures violated First Amendment rights and kept people from seeing the huge trees fall. Their court cases and numerous others in the Northwest are still pending, although a federal judge has thrown out one closure on the Olympic National Forest in Washington as excessively broad.

By mid-August, more than 600 people had been arrested in the region and forest officials had spent half a billion dollars corralling protesters.

"We haven't seen protests this big since the Vietnam war," said Andy Stahl, executive director of the Association for Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics, based in Eugene.

Turning the tables

The protests, along with letter-writing, phone calls, faxes, direct lobbying, media coverage and some limited lawsuits, began making headway as the summer approached. In May, protesters of a timber sale on the Umpqua National Forest convinced the Clinton administration to initiate a land swap to protect an ancient grove of trees. In June, the administration, backed by environmental groups, secured a federal court injunction halting logging of 200 million board-feet of timber in the Coast Range, home to the threatened marbled murrelet.

At the same time, Congress' support for the salvage-logging program began to crumble. By a razor-thin margin of 211-209, the House fought off an attempt to repeal the rider in June, with many Republicans crossing the aisle. A bill by Idaho Sen. Larry Craig, R, which would put in place a permanent emergency salvage program, was taken off the fast track.

Backpedaling continued in July, when Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman issued an order restricting some salvage sales under the rider, including those in roadless areas, to make sure that "emergency" sales were truly emergency. Though the order did not outright kill any sales, it forced the Forest Service to immediately back off on more than 150 sales and send them through regular channels, where citizens could challenge them on their merits. That brought cheers from environmentalists in Idaho and Montana, where the Forest Service was planning to log dozens of roadless areas.

"For the first time in history, we got the White House to tell the Forest Service how to cut trees," said Rick Johnson, executive director of the Idaho Conservation League.

Though the order did not apply to old-growth sales allowed by the rider on the west side of the Cascades, it did apply to one salvage sale there: the burned timber in still-roadless Warner Creek.

The upshot: By late July, the Forest Service had sold barely a fifth of the billion board-feet of timber that it had planned to sell in the Pacific Northwest in the rider's first year. While the pace of timber sales typically picks up towards the end of the fiscal year (Sept. 30), timber industry spokesmen were still buttonholing congressmen back in Washington to complain about what they saw as Forest Service foot-dragging in carrying out the law.

At a hearing in early August, Sen. Craig grilled Glickman about some cancelled sales, charging the secretary with currying favor in an election year with "national environmental group leaders who oppose all timber harvesting on federal lands."

"This secretary's not in anyone's hip pocket," Glickman fired back. The secretary told the panel of Western senators that his order was necessary to restore some level of trust between the public and the Forest Service, a trust which the rider had helped destroy.

The administration's actions, however, were not doing much to restore public confidence. As Glickman announced his intentions to buy back the timber at Warner Creek, Forest Service lawyers were arguing successfully in court that the rider should apply to the Warner Creek sales. And though in mid-August environmentalists were still fairly optimistic that the administration would deliver on the buyout at Warner Creek - it announced a $475 million settlement with Thomas Creek Lumber Aug. 23 - they were bothered by its fickleness.

"One week they are on the timber industry's side, and the next they're on ours," said Doug Heiken of the Oregon Natural Resources Council. "That's the way it's been all year."

The split between the administration and Forest Service didn't surprise one long-time observer. "No administration has ever been able to control the Forest Service," said Andy Stahl. "It's the most independent agency in the government, and it doesn't like to listen to the Department of Agriculture."

The timber industry had less ambivalent feelings about the logging rider. It was enraged by the administration's meddling.

"It would have been unbelievable 10 or 15 years ago, or even five years ago, to imagine the White House would be pulling strings on tiny, tiny 10-acre sales in the Pacific Northwest," said Mike Beard, communications director of the Northwest Forestry Industries Association in Portland. "Those are sales that back then the district ranger wouldn't even bother with."

"It was election-year grandstanding, as far as I'm concerned," said Tim Hirons, president of the logging company that was to cut the dead, burned trees at Warner Creek. "The timber sale program on federal lands has been reduced by 90 percent in the past seven years, but that's not enough for some people."

Environmentalists were left speculating on how they'd managed to slow the salvage logging train. Some believed they'd tapped the distrust the American people have for government. Others credited the general environmental leanings of the public. Still others cited political expediency: Clinton needs to win Oregon, California and Washington in November.

But behind all the explanations lay one inexorable fact: A relatively small group of people confronted timber-cutting in the woods, injecting drama and immediacy into the political battle.

"Direct action has helped communicate to the public what this terrible law is all about," said Jim Jontz, the former Indiana congressman who directs the Western Ancient Forest Campaign. "It has put a human face on the issue." Last spring, a suit-clad Jontz protested the Sugarloaf sale and was arrested for blocking a national forest road (HCN, 2/5/96).

Doug Heiken, who has been embroiled in Oregon's logging protests all year long, believed citizen resistance to the rider reverberated far beyond the forests. It gave the 104th Congress' pet legislative tactic - the anti-environmental rider - an ugly name, he said. With the evidence of the rider's effects in his face every day, Clinton found the courage to reject dozens of industry-sponsored riders: everything from drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to giving cement kilns an exemption from pollution laws.

"We sacrificed our national forests to stop these other horrible riders," Heiken said.

"This Congress lost all sense of reality. It listened only to its contributors and their lobbyists," said Rick Johnson of the Idaho Conservation League. "You can only push people so far before they take to the streets."

Tony Davis works in Salem, Oregon, for the Statesman-Journal. Paul Larmer, HCN associate editor, contributed to this story.

The following sidebar articles accompany this feature story:

- What a difference a year makes

- When the crackdown came

- Earth First! The Next Generation

- Big trees in Oregon continue to topple

- Forests worth fighting for


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