While most fall ballot battles are being fought with salvos of 30-second TV spots, the fight over the future of the state’s forests has been waged this summer in a tense form of hand-to-hand campaign combat.
With potentially drastic reforms of state logging regulations going before voters in Proposition 130, timber companies felled trees as quickly as their controversial harvest plans were approved by state officials.
A small band of students, retirees and full-time environmental activists organized by the radical Earth First! movement responded by trying to inhibit the harvest by using civil disobedience, backwoods confrontation and conventional protest.
Together, the activities were known as “Redwood Summer,” in honor of the “Freedom Summer” civil rights movement of the early 1960s.
With equal measures of guerrilla theater and guerrilla war, Redwood Summer saw as few as one and as many as 1,500 activists dress as owls and sing protest songs, chain themselves to heavy equipment and block logging roads, suspend themselves by wires above state highways and stand between angry tree fallers and ancient redwoods.
As Redwood Summer draws to a close this weekend with a two-day rally and “Redwoodstock” concert along the Eel River south of Eureka, the early dreams of stopping the timber industry clearly failed to materialize.
But participants believe they slowed the rate of harvest, drew attention to timber issues in vote-rich Southern California--and even swayed some local loggers to support reforms that would ban the current practice of “mining forests” by cutting down old trees as much as twice as fast as new ones can take their place.
“The actual small number of trees that we saved by standing in front of them is not significant,” said activist Paul Chapman, 21, of New York. “It’s nice and sentimental, but I don’t think in the long run it is as important as what we’ve done to raise the issue” in the minds of Southern Californians, whose numerous votes ultimately will decide Proposition 130.
“For a hundred or something years, logging went unnoticed and unchecked, and they cut down 95% of the ancient redwoods,” said Chapman, who earned academic credit at Antioch College in Ohio for participating in the protests. “Now this process is not going to go unnoticed. . . . The whole country knows at least some of what is going on here.”
Industry representatives respond that the demonstrators themselves don’t know what is going on.
“We’re tired of being told how to care for a forest environment by individuals and groups who have no training nor understanding of modern forestry,” said Mary A. Bullwinkel of the Pacific Lumber Co., a target of protesters because it is the largest private owner of old-growth redwoods and one of the most vigorous harvesters.
“Most of us have lived on the North Coast for a number of years,” she said in a written statement. “The summer protesters chose to invade our home and tell us how to run our lives. We don’t like that and are resentful.”
The activists, who have come from as far as Wisconsin and Ohio, frequently cite a report from the California Department of Forestry that, in the 1980s, old trees were cut down in Humboldt and Mendocino counties--the prime redwood counties--at a rate two to three times as fast as new trees could grow to replace them.
The logging industry claims that recent concern over protecting rare and endangered species, like the northern spotted owl, has slowed the harvest and thrown hundreds of people out of work. But the evidence is mixed.
Harvests dipped slightly in 1989, but still were the third-highest level in history, according to the Western Wood Products Assn. California timber tax revenue, collected on the number of trees felled, increased by about 6.5% during the most recent 12-month period for which figures are available.
The forestry department also reports that 95% of the estimated original 2 million acres of virgin redwoods have been cut down; of the 100,000 acres that remain, 80,000 acres are protected in parks and the remainder is in private hands and available for harvest.
Much of the area cut has sprouted vigorous new redwoods, but biologists disagree about the value of this “second growth” as habitat for such rare and endangered species like the northern spotted owl, marbled murrelet and red tree vole.
Many of the Redwood Summer actions have focused on saving what old-growth redwoods remain along the North Coast. With the exception of a small stand in the hills along the Mendocino coast, cutting generally has been delayed only a few days by the demonstrators.
Stephanie Lasko, 20, a UC Irvine drama student from Monrovia, said she was “very disappointed” to learn that shortly after she was arrested for trespassing and briefly jailed, loggers cut a grove of trees she and others had spent three days hiking into the woods to try to save.
“I had to ask myself, ‘Was it worth arrest?’ ” she said after a brief swim in Madden Creek to escape the blazing late-summer heat that has afflicted the demonstrators’ makeshift camp. “I didn’t want to do a symbolic arrest. I wanted to stop the cutting. . . . But they cut anyway. They don’t care.”
She said her disappointment was especially bitter because the tree fallers she encountered in the forest were sympathetic to her cause, even as they disagreed with her tactics.
But not all workers were so friendly. Redwood Summer activists said some workers threw eggs, spat upon and verbally threatened them. During one action in the woods, they said some workers threw rocks at them and hit one activist with an ax handle.
Activists have filed charges with police in several such incidents, but no arrests have been made.
Timber company representatives and local politicians accuse the activists of spiking trees, spreading nails on logging roads and sabotaging heavy equipment. The activists, who required special nonviolence training for all participants, deny the allegations.
However, there has been dissent in the movement. Two members quit when activists disrupted a meeting between industry leaders and Humboldt State University staff. When allowed to speak, activists tried to make a citizen’s arrest of a timber company president. As he fled, Redwood Summer demonstrators rocked and jumped on his car; when he drove off anyway, they accused him of trying to run them down.
Of the 146 Redwood Summer-related arrests made in Humboldt County, most were for trespassing and other nonviolent misdemeanors, the Sheriff’s Department said. Other arrests have been made in Mendocino and in Marin County, where the Pacific Lumber Co. headquarters is located.
Chris Balz was one of those arrested in Mendocino County. A Michigan native and Stanford graduate, Balz, 21, joined Redwood Summer because he said regular protests and political action were not working fast enough to save the remaining virgin redwoods.
“I was sick of just demonstrating. I wanted to try direct action,” said Balz, who delayed taking a job at an organic farm to join the anti-logging actions. “When you feel about this the way we do, it’s not enough to say, ‘This is my big political act, holding a sign and getting spat on.’ You want to stand in front of the chain saws.”