The coronavirus has shut down most of Humboldt County, as it has the rest of the state, but some traditions of northwest California endure: Loggers keep felling redwoods, and eco-activists keep putting their bodies on the limbs to stop them.
Thirty miles north of Eureka, in a coastal forest just east of Highway 101, a generation-old battle between tree sitters and loggers enters a new chapter, even after local sawmills have closed.
Just off the highway in the town of Trinidad sits an old logging trail on property now owned by the Green Diamond Resource Co., a forest products firm.
From the trailhead, after a 20-minute hike through the dark, lush forest, one encounters a 13.5-acre clearing where hundreds of felled redwoods, firs and pine trees litter the ground. Tree stumps, broken branches, and a few sun-blotched, withered ferns poke through the debris.
It’s here, at the eastern edge of the clearing, that a group of young, masked activists are engaged in a different form of social distancing. They are taking turns sleeping in the upper reaches of a giant redwood tree. They are environmental activists working with an organization known as the Redwood Forest Defenders. And they are trying to stop Green Diamond from felling any more trees on this roughly 18-acre tract.
On Wednesday morning, one of the young activists, Walter — who is gender nonbinary and would only provide a Times reporting team with a pseudonym — sat 70 feet above the forest floor on a small, roughly twin-bed-size wooden platform. It’s where they eat, sleep, read and occasionally relieve themselves when they are on sit-in duty.
Walter is a 22-year-old UCLA student who was sent to shelter at home in Los Feliz during the pandemic.
“That was the trigger,” said Walter. “I was feeling a lot of guilt about my carbon footprint, and I felt I needed to do something radical. I just couldn’t go along with life as it was.”
Walter is now part of a small rotation of Redwood Defender activists who sleep in the tree. They take turns, spelling one another every couple of days.
They say they are not worried about falling out, even when they get buzzed by the occasional nocturnal flying squirrel, or startled by mice searching for food.
“I’m strapped in, just like a climber,” Walter yelled down to a visitor, pointing at the ropes and harness clipped and anchored to the tree trunk.
Walter and fellow activists began this particular tree-sit roughly two weeks ago, soon after the logging company’s contractor, Lord of Light, began clearing the tract.
It’s in an area the organization successfully defended before, between 2012 and 2017. But, in February, the company was given the green light to start again.
Three weeks ago, according to Walter and two other activists who identified themselves as Lupine and Birdhouse, the Lords of Light, a Green Diamond contractor, went in and started cutting.
That’s when the defenders went in, and Green Diamond stopped.
“We immediately ceased operations for safety purposes.” said Gary Rynearson, Green Diamond spokesman. He said by the time the activists appeared, 75% of the trees on the tract had already been felled.
“I don’t know why they’d come in during this period, when everybody else is shut down and people are struggling to make a living,” he said, noting his frustration at having to put the contractors out of work.
He said Green Diamond works hard to cut timber sustainably, and supports state and federal protections for vulnerable species in the area, such as spotted owls, a variety of salamanders and frogs and the Humboldt marten, a cat-sized carnivore.
California has declared the timber industry, like farming and municipal waterworks, an essential business during the COVID-19 outbreak. Although construction is down and several sawmills are shuttered, loggers continue felling trees.
In Scotia, 50 miles south on Highway 101, tens of thousands of tree trunks are neatly stacked in empty lots near Humboldt Redwood Co,’s sawmill.
According to Steve Isherwood, a board feeder at the mill, the wood keeps piling up even though the mill’s been closed for almost three weeks.
“It just didn’t make sense to keep the place running if there was no place to send the lumber,” he said, standing on his lawn, which is located across the street from the vacant mill.
John Andersen, director of forest policy for Humboldt Redwood, said the mill has stopped buying new logs, although it continues to store trees from the company’s own lands.
Isherwood is furloughed indefinitely, he said, and has applied for unemployment — he’s one of 2.7 million Californians who have done so in the last month. And while he’s concerned about the economic outlook, he said there are some upsides to the mill being closed: For the first time since he moved into his house seven years ago, he can hear the sounds of frogs that live along the nearby Eel River, and the air is clear of smoke and ash.
“It’s pretty nice,” he said of the quiet, comparing it to the deafening ruckus of the nearby power plant, the clanging of loading trucks, and the grinding of the saws that run nearly 24 hours a day during normal mill operations.
Rich Gordon, president and chairman of the California Forestry Assn., the state’s timber industry trade group, said many sawmills across the state have shut down, or have severely curtailed production.
“Some of them are getting to the point where they have too much lumber, with construction being stopped in several counties,” he said, noting the halt in construction is not statewide.
Green Diamond’s Rynearson said that, while all three of the state’s redwood mills have shut down, Douglas fir mills are still operating. That wood is generally sent out on ships from Eureka’s harbor, up the coast to Washington and British Columbia, where it’s turned into products such as toilet paper.
As for the tree sitters, Rynearson said there’s not much to do. The company will retrieve the logs it has felled in the area, but they aren’t going to do anything to escalate the the conflict.
Gordon agreed that was the right call.
“Historically, there have been efforts to have the sheriff go in and arrest protesters like these,” he said. “But, given the coronavirus pandemic, and what everyone else is dealing with these days, going in to arrest someone for trespassing is probably not a high priority.”
Los Angeles Times reporter Susanne Rust and photographer Carolyn Cole are embarking on a road journey throughout California. They aim to give voice to those in remote parts of California as they grapple with the worst health and economic calamity of our lifetimes.
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