Currently threatened by the twin forces of logging and development, the tree sitters of Eureka’s McKay tract have been struggling to protect this unique watershed in Humboldt, California for the past 3 years. I joined the sitters for a tree-top chat to talk strategy, envision campaign victory, and elaborate on what it’s like living 100 feet off the ground.
Where is the McKay tract?
This is ancestral land of the Wiyot people who were massacred by white settlers around the time of the 1860s California Gold Rush. These 7000 acres of redwood were logged at the turn of the century the old fashioned way, with teams of oxen and roads made with logs. Then the residual old-growth was logged again about 50 years ago. The western edge of the McKay abuts a large suburb, which developers are planning to expand on top of the world’s most fertile territory for growing redwood. This land has regrown from being cut over, with several groves over 60 and the grove we’re occupying over 100 years old. This grove is already showing signs of old growth biodiversity, which is why we’re sitting here.
What sort of habitat is it?
Pileated woodpeckers have come back, which is a good sign that this forest is developing habitat complexity. Once the woodpeckers build nests in the snags of the larger trees, other species start to move in. There are foxes, deer, ospreys, hawks, black bears spotted owls, and flying squirrels that live in this forest. There’s a diverse mix of alder, various pines and spruces, ferns, lichens and mushrooms as well. It’s also a wildlife corridor to the Headwaters Preserve, one of the last remaining stands of old-growth redwood in the entire world. If this area becomes protected it could vastly expand the worlds’ reserve of old-growth in the long run.
What makes this area so special?
Redwoods grow faster here than anywhere else in their natural range. This place has a high potential for regenerating back into old-growth forest. Creating a community forest in Eureka with recreational camping, hiking and biking, and limited selective logging could generate far more local economic activity than a new housing development would. You can cut about 30% of a forests’ growth of a given year sustainably. But the older groves need to be left alone, probably with no trails to let it recover from the past years of use.
Wait, you’re saying there are logging operations that Humboldt Earth First! is not opposed to?
Our 4 demands are: 1) stop clearcutting, 2) stop aerial spray of herbicides, 3) no logging unstable slopes (landslides ruin water quality) and 4) protect endangered species habitat.
Perhaps more so than other timber companies, Green Diamond [which owns the Mckay tract] is experimenting with selection logging/sustainable forestry on other parcels, but so far they continue to reserve the right to clearcut. One part of the amoeba is going in the direction of sustainability, the other is going towards clearcutting. It’s our job to push that amoeba in the right direction.
Redwood certainly is a hot commodity. What do they use the wood for?
Redwood is largely a luxury item. It’s mostly affluent people who buy it. The lesser quality stuff is used for pallets and fruit boxes. The higher end second-growth becomes decking, roofing, and hot tubs.
Don’t you have anything better to do? I mean, you must sit around and smoke a lot of pot.
It’s fun, but we don’t occupy trees because it’s fun. We do it because we’re part of a larger movement to protect the biodiversity of the natural world for future generations. Even if we can’t stop every form of exploitation and destruction, it’s worth fighting to improve the world we live in and give humans the best possible odds for survival.
You’re saying there’s global significance for protecting this forest?
The Pacific Northwest is essential to the world’s bank of sequestered carbon. Currently, the Amazon actually emits carbon because of climate change and clearcutting the land. So it’s absolutely vital for the Pacific Northwests’ temperate rainforest to continue doing what it does best–sinking the carbon in the ground and keeping it out of the atmosphere. Old-growth redwood forest has the most biomass per capita of any ecosystem in the world, making it the ideal candidate for reducing the impact of massive CO2 emissions. They also create their own fog and precipitation, bringing and storing much-needed water.
What are your plans for the future?
We want to build a Forest Defense University for folks coming from other bioregions, to trade skills and transfer those back to their own local struggles. Like an activist exchange program. Issues are popping up everywhere, and there’s not as many skilled climb trainers as there should be. By inviting people to learn here and go back, it strengthens the network of Earth First!ers using direct action as the first line of defense against destruction in their neck of the woods.
What do you do all day?
Tree sitting is a misnomer because there’s always something to do–setting traverses, platforms, hauling things, missions. There’s a lot of stuff you need to be good at for tree-sitting (or tree-steading as we’ve come to call it)–how to track, build trails and structures, stay warm. It’s all the intensity of wilderness survival, plus you’re in a tree 100 feet off the ground.
How do you become a tree sitter?
Anybody can get in touch with us and arrange plans to stay in the tree village. You need to have an orientation and climb training before tree sitting. We prefer at least 1 week commitment to justify taking the time to train, unless you have prior experience. We will be occupying for the next year for sure, so come out.
It’s like a big house, spread out over 40 rooms. And we’re looking for housemates. If you’re serious about defending the Earth, here’s your chance to dig in and get your hands dirty on the front line. Get in touch at efhumboldt.org
Or set up your own tree-sit to defend an area where you’re from. Living in trees is a complex affair, but the basics you’ll need are food, water, LOTS OF ROPE, and people in town to organize ground support. You should know the most common life-safe knots and be comfortable with heights.
What’s the plan if logging begins?
Keep your eyes peeled for a call to action. If logging started we would want as many eyes on this place as possible. If you’re trained already or have gear and climbing experience, get here now.
So once a particular part of the forest is clearcut, the topsoil erodes and it’s completely fucked, right?
Not really. Your habitat for a diversity of species is lost, but the potential is still there. Humans have only been logging this way for about 100 years, a blink of an eye in redwood time. Considering there are so many factors–species resilience, soil quality, climate change, I can’t say I know how a given area would regrow. But these species are tenacious–given time left alone, they will come back. A forest is always growing, changing, evolving.
Do you see any room for human intervention that could aid regeneration of these clearcuts?
There’s lots of room for restoration forestry on GD land. Much of the forest in the McKay tract is overgrown, meaning a large fuel load and increased risk of wild fire. Cutting in these areas would actually help the forest, but it needs to be done sustainably.
Why is GD destroying spotted owl habitat? Isn’t it federally protected?
GD was the first timber company to obtain an “incidental take permit”–essentially, a permit to harass, harm, and kill up to 80 endangered spotted owls. The company self-monitors how many owls they kill, and then re-files for more permits if they run out or didn’t kill enough in time.
It must be so surreal to be constantly hovering on the edge of abyss. What is being a forest defender like on an emotional level?
I’m an adrenaline junkie. It’s a wide range–fun, terrifying, surreal. It can go from nice to intense in about 1 second. A lot of the climbing and adventuring we’re doing is fun, but we’re not doing this because it’s fun. Especially when logging is going on around you. You go to the ground world and everyone’s driving around like it’s a normal day, while the woods behind them are getting slammed. People in cities often have a hard time relating to the ecosystems that give them food, timber, recreation. That’s a huge reason why having these spaces to encounter wildlife is so essential in the modern age–we lack the sense of connection it takes to stop fucking up the planet.
What’s the climate difference between the forest and the clearcut?
When you’re in the forest it’s shaded and cool, moist even. You can hear birdsong all around you. Walking to the clearcut, you notice how much hotter and drier it is. There is far less biodiversity.
What does victory mean in this campaign?
Green Diamond would have to change to entirely sustainable forestry. On a day-to-day level, they haven’t logged in the watershed in the 3 years we’ve been tree-sitting, so I definitely see that as 3 years of success. They get better loans from the bank to rezone from timber use to commercial, so there’s a financial incentive for them to develop.
Would you come down if this area was put into land trust and turned into a publicly-run community forest?
If community forest meant actual restoration and sustainable forestry, Earth First! would support it. If they wanted to log the oldest trees as part of the plan then of course we’re against it. I would be into them taking 1/3 of the growth per given year if they left the oldest trees.
The timber industry is always complaining about jobs, but what they don’t realize is that while restoration forestry may take longer than conventional methods, their net standing timber would increase. Meanwhile workers get paid, and their lumber is a higher grade upon harvest.
How do you plan to get the money for all this?
It’s not our job to negotiate the specifics of a land transfer. We’re here in the woods as the first line of defense. Environmental lawyers and larger conservation groups that have the financial and political capital should be the ones to figure out the details of an official deal.
How does living in the tree change your relationship with the place?
I would say it heightens your awareness, alertness, and sensitivity to your surrounding environment.