Shrouded in the darkness of early morning, two men and one woman hiked down a logging road in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
Every few minutes, Brian Connolly, 31, signaled his friends to halt. With furrowed brows, they listened for loggers. Except for the breeze whistling through the trees, Ramsey Gulch was quiet.
After 45 minutes, they cut through the woods and stopped before a massive redwood stump. It was all that was left of a tree they had once called "Esperanza," Spanish for "hope."
The three picked through the tangle of limbs next to it, fishing out a piece of plywood and a length of climbing rope -- the only clues to the tragedy that had occurred there a month before.
They gathered for a moment atop the stump. No one spoke.
"Environmental activism," Connolly said later, "is about temporary victories and permanent losses."
They just never expected this kind of loss.
Ramsey Gulch is tucked away in southeastern Santa Cruz County, about 20 miles south of San Jose. Two miles long, with slopes that drop 800 feet to a creek, it has some of the steepest terrain in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
Anchoring the slopes are coastal redwoods, the world's tallest living things. Redwoods can exceed 300 feet, their trunks up to 15 feet in diameter.
Loggers cleared the majestic old-growth forest in Ramsey Gulch in the late 1800s. The trees that grew up in the barren land left behind are more than 200 feet tall now.
Timber companies have long coveted redwoods; a tree can fetch as much as $100,000 today. Less than 5% of the 1.6 million acres of virgin redwood that once existed remains, most of it preserved in state and national parklands. The second-growth forest in Ramsey Gulch, privately held, has no protection.
Three years ago, Redwood Empire, a San Jose-based company, began making preparations to log Ramsey Gulch again. Clear-cutting is prohibited in Santa Cruz, so the company proposed to "thin" the forest. .
It seemed like a good compromise. Unlike a clear-cut, a thinned forest looks like a forest. Big trees shade the forest floor. Yellowing needles cover the stumps. From above, it's hard to tell the difference. Foresters didn't expect much opposition.
But a small band of activists took to the woods to stop them.
Environmental activism covers a spectrum. The moderate end includes groups such as the Sierra Club, which lobby Congress and pursue legal action. The radical end includes groups such as Connolly's -- part of a movement known as Earth First!
Founded in Arizona two decades ago, Earth First! has local chapters that operate autonomously, eschewing membership rolls and hierarchy. Their logo, a raised fist superimposed on the sun, speaks to their approach.
The Santa Cruz chapter was founded in 1982 by Dennis Davie, then a graduate student, antiwar activist and aspiring park ranger. Davie, now 54 and a software engineer in Silicon Valley, remains the putative leader.
The chapter dwindled in the 1990s as protesters flocked to Humboldt County's Headwaters Forest, site of an all-out war over the last large tract of privately held old-growth redwood forest.
But Davie's group believed that they should make a stand in Ramsey Gulch. These weren't thousand-year-old giants, but they represented hope for the future. The group also feared logging would cause erosion and harm wildlife.
So Davie put out a call for help. From Oregon, Connolly and three others responded.
A Georgetown University graduate, Connolly had wandered through a series of odd jobs before becoming active in environmentalism in Oregon, spending four blustery winter months as a tree-sitter.
Tree-sitting came into vogue in the 1990s. Protesters become human shields. Sometimes it saves the tree, sometimes not.
In April 2000, Connolly and three others hiked into Ramsey Gulch. With a crossbow, they shot a line up the biggest tree. Soon, they were building a platform 105 feet in the air.
Connolly helped create a network of interconnected trees, roped together by traverse-lines, covering 1 1/2acres. If loggers approached any of them, he could clamber over to protect it. Local activists rotated in to relieve him. They dismantled their platforms a year later after loggers moved on, leaving two small groves of uncut forest behind.
Connolly took a part-time job within sight of the gulch, and rented a one-room shack up the road. The group pressed on with more tree-sits.
Loggers usually worked around the activists, but encounters sometimes turned nasty. One protester claimed that a logger shot at him; several tree-sitters reported death threats. For their part, loggers endured a stream of insults from overhead.
In August 2001, a 20-year-old sitter fell 30 feet from a tree and hit her head. Although she recovered, her fall caused the group to pay more attention to safety. But it was hard staying ahead of the chain saws. The tension in the woods took its toll, and the group dwindled.
Connolly resorted to soliciting wanderers who camped out in parks and on streets. Training was haphazard, with first-timers often taught the basics at the base of a tree, in the dark.
As Redwood Empire prepared to log another portion of Ramsey Gulch in August, the group scrambled into the woods once again. Connolly hiked in at night, carrying materials for a platform. Built 125 feet up in a 200-foot-high tree, it consisted of two 3-by-6-foot planks, hung on opposite sides of the trunk by safety lines. Reinforcing boards kept them from sagging. They christened the tree "Esperanza."
A 21-year-old woman from Georgia, known as "Ayla," went up first. Loggers who spotted her a few days later cut down the trees around her. A week later, the group built another platform half a mile down the road in a tree they called "Fresco." Two platforms were ambitious, but Connolly thought that he could keep them staffed.
The night of Oct. 8, Ayla showed up in tears. It was her turn to go up, but she was tired and near burnout. Could Connolly find someone else? He drove to town, but he knew the odds of finding someone at 10:30 p.m. were slim.
A fit-looking man with a knit cap volunteered. At 6-2, Robert Bryan, 24, looked like an athlete. Once a high school swimming standout in Utah, he'd been a water polo coach and part of the underground music scene in Salt Lake City. In July, Bryan left. He arrived in Santa Cruz in August and was sleeping on the streets.
He'd never sat in a tree before, he said, but he'd like to try. He had rock-climbing experience.
Soon, the pair was in a car headed toward Ramsey Gulch. Connolly was elated. Bryan, who used the forest name "Naya," could give his team time to regroup.
Ayla guided Bryan though the forest, a 2 1/2-hour climb. The plan was for Bryan to climb Fresco, replacing David "Just" Collinet. The platform was lower, just 75 feet -- safer for a rookie. Collinet would move to Esperanza. When they arrived at Fresco at 3 a.m., Ayla called for Collinet to pass down his headlamp, but as he tried to lower it, it caught in a snag. He suited up to rappel down, but hesitated at the edge.
This was taking too long, Ayla decided. The loggers would be showing up at dawn.
They headed for Esperanza. Maya "Quiksilver" Ramnath, 29, a UC Santa Cruz PhD student, was waiting. Ramnath had been in the tree for three days, but she had class that morning.
Bryan climbed the tree in 20 minutes, fast for a beginner. (Tree-sitters climb with the aid of a harness and ropes.) Ramnath showed him around quickly and asked if he had questions.
"I think I'm cool," Bryan said.
Then he thought of one. Should he leave his harness on even while sleeping?
"Never take it off," she said before rappelling down. After one last check, she called up: "We love you, Naya," and took off.
At night, a tree-sitter has little sense of how high he is. But at first light, Bryan would have found himself high in the forest canopy, a maze of branches and greenery, silent except for the drum of woodpeckers.
Tree-sitters say the first peek over the edge of the platform is gut-wrenching.
Around noon, Mel Reynolds and a group of loggers were having lunch about 40 feet from Esperanza when a voice called down:
"Why are you murdering the trees?"
We aren't murdering anything, Reynolds replied. We're like farmers, harvesting certain trees and letting others grow.
Reynolds, who later described the debate as friendly, asked Bryan what he did. Bryan told him that he bucked the system.At 6 p.m., a logger tying off his last load of the night heard a crashing through the brush and then a thud. He paused to listen but heard nothing more.
Half an hour later, Juan Mosqueda pulled up in his truck and shut off his engine. He heard a soft cry:
Mosqueda found Bryan on his back, one leg bent backward, his nose bloody. He pulled out his cell phone and called 911.
From their camp up the road, Reynolds and two other loggers rushed to help. As they waited for paramedics, Reynolds brushed Bryan's long hair out of his face and told him not to move.
He thought that he was "doing the right thing," Bryan told them, but now he just wanted to go home. He drifted in and out of consciousness.
It was 45 minutes before paramedics struggled up the dirt road.
The members of Earth First! were at their weekly meeting in town when a reporter called, asking about "the tree-sitter who fell." That was how they got the news.
Ayla and Ramnath set out to search the hospitals, even though they didn't know Bryan's real name. At Valley Medical Center in San Jose, a nurse remembered him. He died in the emergency room, she said.
The day after Bryan died, a Redwood Empire climber, accompanied by a sheriff's investigator, dismantled the platform. He found several climbing harnesses and Bryan's backpack.
Authorities matched the name on the pack with a missing-persons report that had been filed by Bryan's mother in Utah.
Two days later, Collinet came down from Fresco. That ended the stand in Ramsey Gulch.
Earth First! organized a memorial service. The flier invited people to celebrate the life of a man who "died in defense of the redwoods." Sharon Bryan, in town to retrieve her son's body, declined to come.
The group called a halt to the tree-sits and dwelled on the tragedy. More than a month later, the group remained in a funk, even as fellow Earth First! activists in Humboldt County made plans to continue 15 tree-sits through the winter.
In the midst of their mourning, the group got word that Redwood Empire had gone back to log the trees left behind in the first Ramsey Gulch campaign.
Connolly went out to check during a fierce November squall. Through the driving rain, he saw the stumps.
A week later, Connolly, Ramnath and Collinet headed back to the woods to visit the place where Bryan fell and to see if Esperanza had been cut.
They gathered on top of the stump. A marijuana pipe was passed around. This one's for Naya, Connolly declared, and they each took a puff.