Tearing limbs from limbs

Special to The Times

Peer through the lens of the minicam mounted on Eric Schatz's climbing helmet, up through the spindly canopy of an ancient redwood at a young woman out on a slick, brittle limb — in socks — one wobble from a 200-foot free fall through the coastal Northern California fog.

Schatz is parked on the massive trunk three stories down, recording the scene. He pleads with her:

"Do you understand what you're doing? If you go farther out on that tree limb, you won't have a future."

She yells back something, but the words drift away on the wind — out over the blunt stumps and the lanky Douglas firs springing up amid deadwood and into a thick wall of untouched forest. Far below, along the winding road that cuts through private land, Schatz's lens captures points of color where police are corralling protesters eager to cheer the young woman on.

Tree-sitters and their supporters view Schatz as Enemy No. 2, just behind the company, Pacific Lumber, that hires him to forcibly extract redwood squatters. His arrival with harness and rope incites the final chaotic scene in a standoff that the activists rarely win. Once Schatz and his crew clear out the sitters, loggers with chain saws go to work de-limbing or topping or felling giant trees. Yet the 46-year-old climber, who developed a passion for trees early and still spends much of his life deep in the woods, takes no great pleasure in a job well done.

"A kid loves to climb trees," he says. "I was no different."

In this way, Schatz is just like the people he lassos. But they unequivocally despise him. They have branded him on the Internet as a "corporate thug," a "tree butcher" — and far worse — and compelled him to document his every move in the trees.

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The platform The fight over forests that smolders in public hearings and courtrooms throughout the Pacific Northwest flares in the old-growth treetops of Humboldt County. Volunteers who describe themselves as "forest defenders" hang out in places such as the co-op in Arcata, where they beam from behind a collection jar, pass out newsletters and strategize. During lulls, with dreadlocks jostling, they kick around Hacky Sacks. They adopt pacifist rhetoric and "forest names," and give trees names too: Kristi Sanchez evolves into "Mystikque," for example, while a redwood anthropomorphizes into "Jerry."

When Pacific Lumber submits a timber harvest plan to the state, making it a public document, the activists mobilize. They descend on the targeted area and establish plywood platforms, which suspend from ropes tied to the trees' upper branches. Traverse lines connect platforms in neighboring trees to create the redwood version of Ewok villages.

To move around safely, a tree-sitter steps into a harness that is hooked into a rope secured to branches above the platform. She can then rappel and climb back up in a quad-busting, stair-stepping motion using a pair of short ropes tied into the main rope. Many sitters abandon shoes, explaining that their feet do less harm to the bark, and go without gloves. Colleagues deliver food.

The success of Julia Butterfly Hill emboldens the sitters. In the late '90s, she dwelt in a redwood dubbed Luna for two well-televised years — long enough to prove the effectiveness of squatting. By March 2003 as many as 20 sitters occupied trees on Pacific Lumber land. With $100,000 or more per tree at stake, the company turned to Schatz, an expert climber and longtime tree service pro with search and rescue safety certifications.

Schatz and his crew not only work in trees but train and play in them. "We go out and spend time in the trees just as something fun to do," he says.

When he sees the activists climb, though, their inexperience and equipment — often either the wrong gear or the right gear in poor condition — worries Schatz. Although he's paid under a Pacific Lumber contract, and lives behind a new redwood fence in a logging county, Schatz insists his only motivation is saving lives.

"I'd just as soon run out of a job than have these kids coming up here," he says.

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The tree As Highway 101 cuts into the Humboldt Bay shoreline through Eureka, residential roads branch off, heading inland through meadows, farmland and forest. On one branch there's a left turn at a roadside market and then another left. Soon the broken yellow line fades and trees close in, exhaling their organic musk. The last of the houses disappear. Suddenly, the tunnel ends where tall redwoods give way to stumps. Light stabs the pavement.

Where the road bends into a horseshoe around a ridge, a dirt pullout appears. Down a muddy hill, the sitters' stuff litters a clearing. A weathered CD player perches on a stump. Climbing harnesses and ropes twist on the ground. Ahead is the redwood, 15 feet thick and 180 feet tall, named for a famously laid-back musician: Jerry.

Out on one of its upper limbs, with nothing between her and Humboldt Bay except gray sky, stands the young woman in socks.

"I need to get you out of there, for your own good," Schatz yells from his spot on the trunk below.

His helmet cam scans the canopy, then pivots toward the cluster of people on the road. A drum thumps. Screams pierce the mist as protesters urge "Mystikque" to get away and wail for the climbers to leave her alone.

She doesn't budge.

For the next half an hour, Schatz consults with two of his crew. Equipped with their standard gear — extra rope, helmet, harnesses and jingling carabiners — they discuss their limited options for bringing her down.

Activists blast the climbers as reckless company goons who endanger lives by manhandling people in the trees. "Eric [Schatz] is a class-A abuser," says Jeny Card, a tree-sitter also known as "Remedy." "He does a lot of sweet-talking, Mr. Nice Guy, Mr. Safety, until he's using pain compliance on you."

Pain compliance involves applying escalating levels of physical pressure to subdue a hostile sitter, and Schatz bristles at the mention of the technique. "We have not used pain compliance," he says. "We treat them as gently as they'll allow." In one case, Schatz explains, a sitter free-climbed too close to the climbers' ropes. His team had no choice but to pin him down.

Sitters argue that the climbers go out of their way to rough them up and point to the video clip in which the pin-down occurred. The clip, which depicts a climber standing on a sitter's chest, circulated widely among the activists after the sitter's attorney acquired Schatz's complete video of the removal during the sitter's prosecution for trespassing. "They changed the context of it so my team looks heinously bloodthirsty with no concern for safety," Schatz complains.

The vigil For sitters in Humboldt County and elsewhere, the chance to save a single tree trumps both the danger of falling and the certainty of arrest and prosecution for trespassing. In Jerry's case, the sitters feel particularly righteous because of their opposition: Texas-based Maxxam Inc., which bought Pacific Lumber in 1985 and increased the harvest rate. Logging has devastated watersheds, say scientists, environmentalists and local residents, causing floods that have swamped homes and swept sediment into rivers inhabited by endangered salmon.

In 1998, the California Department of Forestry suspended Pacific Lumber's license after the company was cited for more than 100 violations of state regulations over three years. It has since improved, says CDF spokeswoman Karen Terrill. "It's my understanding they have been in pretty good compliance the last few years," she says.

Pacific Lumber defends its environmental commitment, noting that it has sold or donated more than 28,000 acres of old-growth redwood forest to parks and other public lands such as the Headwaters Forest Reserve. The company's habitat conservation plan, although deemed meaningless by environmentalists, outlines species protections on 211,000 acres.

Meanwhile, the Humboldt County district attorney, Paul Gallegos, is suing Pacific Lumber, alleging use of fraudulent data to justify cuts. Citing his record, the company led a failed recall drive against Gallegos, contributing $229,000 and allowing employees time off to campaign.

In lawsuits and appeals, the courts and the state have agreed with environmentalists, mandating more regulation. But judges and bureaucrats have also been unwilling to halt ongoing logging, particularly in areas already promised to Pacific Lumber by contract.

So activists sit in trees marked for the chain saw. With each non-decision, they grow more determined to make treetops a turning point.

In fact, Schatz had matched wits and skills before with a sitter in Jerry. Around this time last year, he got the call to remove Card, who was four days from celebrating her one-year anniversary in the tree. Schatz retrieved her, but he got a late start, and the company ran out of light to saw down the redwood. That night, a former San Diego gas station attendant, Sanchez, moved onto a platform 150 feet up.

When Schatz and his team returned three days later, she free-climbed to the top of the tree, fleeing without shoes, ropes or harness — trusting her life to a few weeks of climbing practice and a slippery Jerry.

The extraction Schatz begins to climb. His helmet cam stares at bark and leaves as he ascends. Breath sounds come quick and loud. Twigs and leaves snap and fall away.

From the ground, someone shouts: "We love you!"

Sanchez hollers: "Jerry loves all of you!"

When he pulls level with her, Schatz stops. He tells her he won't do anything sudden to surprise her. Then, he starts to cry. Voice choking, he says that he's scared. He asks if she has ever fallen from a tree. Twenty years ago, he fell 60 feet and broke three vertebrae, his pelvis and heel. He's lucky to be alive. He doesn't want that for her.

"You don't have any up, you don't have any down," he says. "There's no way out of this unless you let me get you. Unless you walk out there and kill yourself."

Schatz keeps talking, questioning Sanchez about her family and telling her about his climbing experiences. He doesn't mention it, but he recently cleared a swath of his property on the outskirts of Eureka to make room for a deck and a small fish pond. He plans to perfect his fly-casting after work.

The screams from below intensify. Minutes pass. He explains that he wants to try to get a rope around her. Head down, words almost lost in the thick jacket hood surrounding her face, Sanchez mumbles: "Do what you have to do."

Swinging the rope like a lasso, Schatz tosses and misses. Tosses and misses. On the third try, the rope lands around her waist. "I guess I'm caught," Sanchez says, and lifts her arms to the outside.

A sitter in a neighboring tree yells, "What's happening?"

"I'm sorry you guys," she yells, "I tried!"

With her reluctant cooperation, Schatz gets her into a harness, then clips the harness into a rope that he has tied to a limb. Crew members on the ground grab the rope to help Sanchez down.

Resigned to capture now, she makes a request that Schatz orders his crew to honor: belay her slowly so she can get one long last look at Jerry before going to jail.

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