Frontlines in the Forest

By Olea

My boots sink a few inches into soft snow with each step as I make my way along a narrow path behind my comrade. We try to avoid leaving prints by walking on the bare patches of soil, but in this spot, the snow has blanketed the ground. On our left the hillside falls steeply beneath towering old growth Douglas fir, tanoak, madrone, and bay trees. The forest floor is cloaked in moss and ferns and dotted with fallen branches and logs. Above us is a gravel road, and on either side there are rows of close-planted tree farm fir. Suddenly, my comrade whips around, motioning to me silently and pointing up the hill. A truck is passing  just 20 feet above us on the road. We freeze, silent until it passes, exchanging sighs of relief that we were not spotted. We are deep in timberlands owned by Humboldt Redwood Company on Northern California’s lost coast – behind enemy lines in a battle that many thought ended years ago.

I had come to Humboldt county with only a pedestrian grasp of the history of California’s timber wars. I had, completely on accident, walked into a meeting of activists defending old growth forest in the Mattole watershed. I had always assumed direct action campaigns were completely underground affairs carried out by experienced activists in tight knit affinity groups. But they needed hands in the woods, and I just happened to be there. That’s how I found myself in the backseat of a sedan rushing south on Highway 101 with tinny Grateful Dead in my ears and pot smoke wafting past my nose.

We were dropped off and began the several-hours-long hike up logging roads to reach our destination: Rainbow Ridge, the 3000-foot spine separating the Bear River watershed to the northeast from the Mattole River watershed to the southwest. Beyond the Mattole’s verdant ravines, only the forested King Range lay between us and the Pacific ocean, 10 miles west as the crow flies. That first night, trekking in the darkness up a steep gravel road, I wasn’t entirely sure I’d make it. After a month of hiking Rainbow Ridge, though, I came to know each turn and landmark. I felt the comfort of homecoming when I reached the familiar meadow marking the summit of the hike. I called out to the cows grazing in the ranchers’ meadows; I imagined that their responding moos were proclamations of solidarity with our forest defense efforts. I could look across the valley and distinguish the uniform green blocks of planted Doug fir from the old-growth mixed stands with their rich, heterogenous colors and textures.

The history of forest defense in Humboldt County is long and rich. The seeds were planted in the late 70s when activists first used non violent direct action tactics to resist logging near the Sinkyone wilderness, but forest defense efforts didn’t garner widespread attention until the late 80s. In 1985, Texan venture capitalist Charles Hurwitz orchestrated a hostile takeover of the Humboldt county timber company Pacific Lumber (PL) and began liquidating their assets – clearcutting at a breakneck speed forests that PL had been cutting slowly for over a century. Resistance mounted all over the county against the timber harvest plans of PL and other logging companies. One campaign coalesced around the headwaters of the Elk River, a 20,000-acre forest southeast of Eureka owned by PL that included several pristine groves of old growth mixed forest.

The battle over the Headwaters wore on for over a decade – in the forest with blockades and tree sits, in the community with demonstrations and public actions, and in the courts with suits over PL’s destruction of endangered species habitat and blatant disregard for forestry regulations. In 1999, the Headwaters Deal was signed, in which 7500 acres of timberland in the Elk River watershed, including 3000 acres of old growth, were bought out from PL in exchange for $480 million in taxpayer money and the green light to log other PL holdings.

The Mattole is often referred to as the orphan of the Headwaters Deal because activists proposed that protections for the Mattole be included in the Deal, but none were granted, leaving the area vulnerable to continued logging. In 2007 PL declared bankruptcy, an inevitable conclusion after two decades of mismanagement which prioritized immediate gains over environmental and fiscal sustainability. PL’s assets, including over 200,000 acres of timberlands and the company mill in Scotia, were reorganized into Humboldt Redwood Company (HRC) with general support from the community, largely because HRC promised not to log old growth. The majority shareholders in HRC and its sister company, Mendocino Redwood Company (MRC), are the Fisher family, San Francisco real estate giants and owners of the Gap clothing brand and the Oakland A’s. Between HRC and MRC, the Fishers possess 440,000 acres of forest, which makes them the single largest landholder of coastal Redwood forest. If you suspect that the 1% have their nasty fingers in literally everything evil, and then wonder if thinking that makes you a conspiracy theorist, you’re not tripping – it’s fucking real!

The Headwaters Reserve and most of the other former timberlands that have been granted protection as a result of the timber wars are low elevation, mixed forest dominated by coast Redwood. 97% of California’s old growth coast Redwood forest were logged, and most of the remaining groves are now protected. The Mattole is unique in that it is dominated by Douglas fir and tanoak rather than Redwood. Coast Redwoods only grow up to about 2,000 ft above sea level, and being at about 3,000 ft, Rainbow Ridge’s only Redwood trees are a short row of young saplings planted as an experiment by the company.

Douglas fir is the only “marketable” species on the ridge, and HRC has been intent on converting the diverse mixed forest into a monocropped Doug fir plantation for maximum board foot output. To this end, HRC and MRC both employ a barbaric herbicide technique known as “hack and squirt” to kill “unmarketable” hardwood trees (which on Rainbow includes tanoak, live oak, madrone, and bay laurel), which they have the audacity to call restoration. Notches are cut into the trunks of the hardwoods, and then injected with Imazapyr, an herbicide that is an ingredient in Roundup and that is water soluble and can travel to parts of the landscape where it wasn’t sprayed. We walked through a unit on Rainbow Ridge that had been treated with herbicides, and it gave me the chills. The hardwoods are left standing dead, and the remaining forests feel like spooky, dry brown graveyards with lonely surviving Doug fir mingled throughout. There is a severe fire risk posed by forests filled with standing dead fuel, and in 2016 Mendocino county voters passed a measure, aimed specifically at MRC, to limit hack and squirt on the basis of fire safety. But enforcement has been lax, and MRC continues to herbicide hardwoods. HRC faces no such limitations.

There was frequent resistance to PL timber operations in the Mattole prior to HRC’s acquisition of the land. In 1997 Mattole valley residents sued PL over destruction of habitat for endangered coho salmon and staged demonstrations. In 2001 forest defenders blockaded a narrow section of road just above the Upper North Fork of the Mattole River. The spot they chose is strategic — blockading this single point prevents access to 18,000 acres of forest. This gravelly section of road has seen a lot of action since then. In 2014 HRC filed 2 timber harvest plans (THPs) for Rainbow Ridge and activists responded with a four month blockade, which halted logging on that side of the ridge.

In 2016, in response to community pressure,  HRC cancelled their plans for helicopter logging on Rainbow, but retained 2 cable yarding THPs. In 2017 company officials told the community they wouldn’t log until summertime, but activists discovered company contractors had herbicided over 180 acres in the spring. Again, a blockade was set up, and HRC was unable to log all season. HRC renewed their two active THPs in the area in September of 2017, claiming there were no significant changes in the units. In fact, a massive landslide had occurred directly adjacent to a unit, a clear indication of the instability of the steep, rocky hillsides that characterize the ridge — and a certainly a reason not to risk additional logging the area. Activists dismantled the blockade at the end of the logging season in the fall but have maintained a close eye on HRC’s movements on the ridge over the winter.

The newest development is that HRC has filed a road proposal for a completely redundant road which would serve the sole purpose of circumventing the bottleneck spot that activists have successfully blockaded for nearly 2 decades. Constructing the road would require destroying a sensitive marsh area, removing a beautiful grove of old growth bay laurel trees, and quarrying a huge rock outcrop. California Department of Forestry (CDF), the regulatory body responsible for the final stamp of approval, is notorious for approving virtually every timber company scheme that lands on their desks, but this road proposal has faced half a dozen delays as HRC struggles to comply with CDF’s meager requirements for new logging roads. Forest defenders are poised and ready to make sure this pointless and destructive road is not built. At the same time, the logging season is upon us, and with two active THPs on the ridge HRC could start work in the units any day. There is also a second road proposal, already approved, farther down the ridge that would open up access to unentered old growth.

Nonviolent direct action tactics like blockades and tree sits cannot protect the forest forever, but in the past 35 years they have proven to be a crucial stalling technique, slowing or stopping logging during the long months or years it takes for aboveground routes to be navigated – which often ultimately looks like buying the land and designating it a preserve, but can include legal strategies such as suing the timber companies over noncompliance and legislating tighter restrictions on timber operations. Forest defenders hope for full protection in perpetuity for the remaining 1,100 acres of unentered old growth on Rainbow Ridge.

There are a multitude of tangible, locally relevant reasons to oppose logging in this region – protecting habitat for native endangered species, including salmon; preserving wildlands for the next generation to enjoy; and preventing direct impacts on local residents, such as exposure to toxic herbicides, or the landslides and floods that come after heavy logging, just to name a few.

But what makes the Mattole worth fighting for if these issues don’t affect you personally? The temperate rainforest of the Pacific Northwest is actually the most efficient carbon sink of any ecosystem on Spaceship Earth – more effective at sequestering carbon per acre than the Amazon. With climate change quickly surpassing conservative estimates, the importance of the carbon sequestration value of forests, as well as their role as climactic regulators in the water cycle, increases every day. Scientists are scrambling to design carbon sinks – it is ludicrous to destroy the natural carbon sinks Earth herself has gifted us with. Forests the world over will go through major changes in the coming centuries as climate change progresses. Karen Coulter of the Blue Mountains Biodiversity Project says that it is imperative that we create protected areas where ecosystems can have the freedom to adapt to climate change without human intervention. We must realize that examples of ecocide such as the logging and herbiciding of Rainbow Ridge are not merely little individual tragedies. They are appendages, small in appearance, but connected to a many-limbed beast of industrial destruction that is fueled by consumption and piloted by the cold logic of capital. To resist this, our struggles for ecology cannot manifest as isolated efforts to address a single issue. Our campaigns must be rooted in a broad intention to address ecological devastation on all fronts across the globe.

The forest defense movement is wide-ranging and is made up of people of many walks of life participating in different ways. There are lawyers and nonprofit directors who work behind the scenes to file suits and get the land permanently protected. There are rascals on the ground building blockades and climbing trees. And there are a multitude of things to be done to support a forest defense campaign – supplies to be hiked in, food to be dumpstered, calls to be made, big trees to be measured, articles to be written, benefit shows to be played, collective dysfunctions to be addressed. This work is never easy, but it is unequivocally important, and deeply meaningful.

Climate chaos is fully upon us now, and working to address it and adapt to it requires all of our attention and focus. We can no longer afford to carry on focusing on jobs, school, or family as if things are as they’ve always been. We are facing something unprecedented, and protecting forests is crucial in mitigating ecological collapse.

All my respect and love goes out to those engaged in eco-defense around the world. I call on those who are not engaged yet to reach out to your local campaigns against ecological devastation. Organize in your community, or come to Humboldt County and join us here. The forest is waiting for you to call it home.

Upcoming action camp will be held May 24th – May 27th near the Mattole River watershed in Southern Humboldt county.  Trainings and hands on workshops will be held on nonviolent direct action, tripod blockade rigging, tree climbing, herbal first aid, backwoods medic skills, logging monitoring, groundtruthing and more!  Come prepared and self-sufficient for all weather conditions, and for those interested, come ready to play in the woods after camp! For further details and directions contact mattoleactioncamp@riseup.net or 707-336-2231