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Photo Courtesy of wesavetrees.org

Hug a Tree: An activist makes her way up to her perch high in the Freshwater Creek redwoods.

Out on a Limb

Tree-sitting activists weather high winds and strong controversy

By Patrick Sullivan

The three men in the video are huddled so closely together that a casual observer could mistake them for friends having a chat. But that impression doesn't last long. A closer look reveals that one of the trio--a bearded guy with long hair--is sitting with his arms buried deep inside a metal pipe. Later it will turn out that this guy calls himself Jungle. Right now, it's just clear that he has used this length of pipe to lock himself to a gigantic tree.

Standing beside Jungle in the tree is a bearded man in a yellow jacket. Suddenly, sparks start to fly. The yellow-jacketed man is using a power tool to cut open the pipe locked around Jungle's arms. The third man stands beside a rope that's been tied around Jungle's knee and pulled so tight that his leg is sticking out to the side. The other end of the rope is tied off to a branch.

One of the standing men abruptly stomps down on that rope, eliciting a cry from Jungle. At another point, one of the men pushes his boot into Jungle's ribs.

When the camera pulls back, anyone watching the video suddenly realizes that this strange conflict is playing out more than 100 feet above the ground, about two-thirds of the way up a towering redwood. The confrontation, which is taking place on a rainy April day near Freshwater Creek in Humboldt County, is being filmed from the branches of a neighboring tree by one of Jungle's friends.

Before long, Jungle's tree sit is over. He is cut out of his pipe and lowered to the ground, where he is handcuffed and arrested by waiting Humboldt County sheriff's deputies. Then a lumberjack goes to work on the tree itself. The camera in the nearby tree keeps rolling, following the old redwood as it shivers, sways, and topples to the ground with a crunch.

Dramatic? Sure. Extraordinary? Not really. It's just another skirmish in one of the most persistent social conflicts in Northern California: the nearly two-decades-old war over the fate of Humboldt County's remaining old-growth redwoods.

Into the Forest

By now, most people know the players and the issues--or think they do. On one side is the Pacific Lumber Company, the biggest private employer in Humboldt County. The company, based in the town of Scotia and owned by the Houston-based Maxxam Corporation, has a fairly simply point of view. They own the trees. They want to cut them down. So they do.

On the other side are activists like Jungle. Where Pacific Lumber sees profits and jobs, these environmentalists see the casual sacrifice of ancient trees and the degradation of the fragile Freshwater Creek watershed.

These activists were disappointed by the 1998 Headwaters deal, in which the state and federal government paid $490 million in cash and land to Pacific Lumber to create the 7,500-acre Headwaters Reserve in Humboldt County. The Headwaters deal protected too few trees at too high a cost, say some activists. They doubt that politicians and judges will save the forests.

So Jungle and those like him take a more direct approach: They climb trees targeted for logging and then stay up there for days, weeks, months, and even years.

But tree sitting has been going on long enough to become more than just a tactic. It has graduated to the status of a subculture. It has its own celebrities, like Julia "Butterfly" Hill, whose two-year sit atop a redwood in Humboldt County generated international media attention and made Hill a celebrity. It has its own lingo: Know what "freshies" are? How about a "platform princess"?

And like most subcultures, tree sitting has its critics. Pacific Lumber calls the tactic illegal, dangerous, and irrational, and the company does press trespassing charges against tree sitters. "We're very distressed that people are putting themselves in these dangerous situations," says company spokesman Jim Branham. "But we're on track to remove them as quickly and safely as possible."

Even some observers unconnected to the logging industry question the safety of tree sitting. These critics point to two fatal accidents that took place in 2002, far from Humboldt County. Last April, Santa Rosa activist Beth O'Brien died after falling from an Oregon tree sit. Six months later, Robert Bryan was killed in a fall from a tree sit in Santa Cruz County.

Freshwater activists acknowledge that tree sitting can be dangerous. But they say that tree sitters in Humboldt County understand the risks and receive extensive training before they go up. And they argue that Pacific Lumber's contract climbers are behaving irresponsibly by using inhumane tactics like pain-compliance holds to forcibly remove activists from their high perches. "They didn't seriously injure me, but they easily could have," says Jungle, who is 44, speaking a few days after his extraction.

This controversy has not slowed the migration up the trees. Indeed, the struggle's latest hot spot--a stretch of Pacific Lumber-owned hillside in the Freshwater area northeast of Eureka--has become home to what may be the largest tree-sit community ever. The exact numbers change frequently, but as many as 16 Freshwater trees have been simultaneously occupied by activists.

And more tree sitters keep coming. The Freshwater sit, now about a year old, has attracted participants ranging from Humboldt County locals to Santa Rosa activists to people from as far away as Florida.

But a move from Orlando to Arcata isn't the biggest change in store for these visitors. When activists go up the trees--whether it's for a few days or a few months--they enter a world that's nearly incomprehensible to anyone stuck on the ground.

Tall Order

Want to know--really know--how high an old-growth redwood really is? Standing at the bottom and looking up won't do the trick. The only way to truly appreciate how tall these trees really are is to climb up one. But even barring accidents, such a climb is no joke--especially for the soft of hands and the out of shape.

The first difficulty is convincing your skeptical mind that the climbing harness will take your weight. You've seen it work for other people, you know it won't let you fall, but you still have profound doubts. The person helping you checks and rechecks the straps as you look at the trunk that rises up before you. From this vantage point, you can't even see the small wooden platform you're aiming for near the top.

Then there's the climbing itself. Remember those Batman movies? The Caped Crusader would shoot a grappling gun at the top of a building, set the hook, and then relax and enjoy the view as the cable pulled him effortlessly to the top.

Tree climbing doesn't work that way. Not even close. Every foot of altitude you gain, you gain through the effort of your own muscles and the sweat of your own brow.

You put a foot into a special strap, push the weight of your body up until you're standing, and grapple frantically with the rope to stay erect as you move a special safety knot up the rope with your hands. If you manage to advance the knot, you also advance your body a couple feet. But sometimes you can't hold on, so you surrender and sink back into the harness to rest. Then you step again--and again and again.

After five minutes, you're breathing hard and covered with sweat. And you're only about 25 feet off the ground. After 10 minutes, the muscles in your right leg are burning. After 20 minutes, you realize that accepting those gloves you were offered would have been a really fine idea, because the climbing rope you're wrestling with is starting to peel the skin off your fingers.

As you pause to rest yet again, you look up the tree and see that you're not even halfway to the platform. Then you look down and realize you're a whole lot higher off the ground than you'd like to be.

With your muscles on fire and your breath coming in pants, you start to consider giving up.

About this time, someone already up in the platform starts shouting down to you. Squinting upward, you can see only a vague shape with beard and long hair. But the words are clear: "Hey man, are you a smoker or something?" And then, more encouragingly, "Hey man, it takes a lot of heart to climb a tree. It really does."

Maybe the strategy is to motivate you with condescension. If so, it works. You start to move again. Slowly at first. Then a little more quickly, but still pretty damn turtlelike considering you've recently seen someone make this same trip with barely a pause for rest.

This whole time, you're not admiring the view--the rolling hills, the green forests, the ocean in the distance. You're not even seeing these things, really. What dominates your vision is the trunk of this massive tree. Its solid bulk is your only connection to the ground, and it doesn't take long for you to start to regard it with enormous affection. In your painful climb, it's not you against the redwood. It's you and the redwood.

Finally, after almost an hour of effort, you haul yourself up onto the wooden platform, which lies on top of a couple of branches and is lashed to the trunk. There, under a tent made of brown, plastic tarps, you savor your victory--or at least your avoidance of total defeat.

Then you look down. How high is this tree? Answer: amazingly high, 200 feet or more. And the view, now that you can sit comfortably and focus on something other than the tree trunk, is mind-blowing.

But as you turn to gaze around this tiny shelter, you think very hard about what it would be like to live up here for a few months. You wonder how long you'd stay sane.

Question of Trust

Some people hold up well. And a few can't get enough. "It's like being a kid," explains a tree sitter who calls himself Trust. "You live up in a tree fort and have fun, and you also get to stand up for something good."

Still, despite Trust's professed enthusiasm for the lonely life of a tree sitter, he does seem pleased to have visitors. And as he descends on a line to talk to the small crowd gathered beside his tree on a sunny Sunday afternoon, he's clearly happy to be getting new supplies. "Freshies!" he crows when he opens a bag of donated goods and pulls out a clean pair of socks.

Like most tree sitters, Trust won't divulge his real name. He will say that he is originally from Florida and that he just turned 26. He celebrated that birthday on a plywood platform in a redwood that's some 200 feet tall. He has been living up there for more than a month.

When tree sitters occupy a tree, they name it. Trust calls his redwood Everstein. Pacific Lumber calls it "9," according to the numeral spray-painted in orange on the trunk. Whatever the tree is called, the company would like very much to chop it down. That distresses Trust.

"Some of these trees have been here since before my grandparents were born," Trust says. "We've tried using the legal system to save them, and it hasn't worked. This seems like the only thing left to do."

For Trust, climbing Everstein didn't require any agonizing reflection. He had been out in California for about five months, and he'd received extensive climbing training from experienced activists. Finally, on a clear night with a full moon, Trust decided it was time. "It was just like, 'I've got to go up the tree, 'cause the [lumber company] climbers are coming tomorrow,'" he recalls.

He hasn't regretted the decision--and not just because of the obvious benefit to the tree. From his perch, Trust looks out over a lush green valley and watches eagles and hawks flying below him. On clear days, he can see waves breaking out on the ocean. "I heard a cougar the other night," he says.

But he has to know his sit can only end one way. Trust was close enough to hear Jungle screaming as he was extracted and arrested. Eventually, Pacific Lumber's climbers will make their way up to Trust. He says he's prepared.

"I hope they come," he says. "Because I'm ready to face them. I'm ready to save this tree. And I'm ready to go to jail for however long."

It's hard to predict how long that stint in the slammer might be. The Humboldt County district attorney has pledged to prosecute tree sitters to the full extent of the law. But Remedy, the first activist extracted from a Freshwater tree by Pacific Lumber, had yet to be formally charged weeks after her arrest. She's not sure when that will happen.

Remedy, 28, is certain of one thing: She wishes she were back in her tree. It's been more than a month since climbers removed her from a redwood that activists had named Jerry (after the lead singer of the Grateful Dead, of course). She was extracted from her 130-foot-high platform just a few days shy of her one-year anniversary.

"I miss the tree very much," Remedy says. "I miss being in the middle of it all, being right there when Pacific Lumber is doing their terrible deeds. To do a tree sit is to dedicate every second of your life to standing up to a giant corporation. It's kind of a tough act to follow."

Remedy's recent history illustrates the way forest activism can radically change lives. Before she was a defender of ancient redwoods, Remedy was a bookstore clerk in Olympia, Wash. In 2001 she took nine days off work to visit activists in Humboldt County. She was supposed to return home on Sept. 11. That didn't happen. Instead, she plunged into forest-protection work.

"Sept. 11 really was a huge sign that the world was going to hell," she explains. "And I had to face the fact that I wasn't doing much to help. I'm young, I'm healthy, I don't have kids. And I didn't have any excuses."

Nuts and Bolts

But tree sitting is not simply the result of spontaneous decisions. It takes a surprising amount of work and planning. One of the key organizers for the sits in Freshwater is a slender, intense young activist named Lodgepole.

Lodgepole grew up in Idaho, but he's lived in Humboldt County for about five years now. In tree-sitter slang, he's one of the Freshwater campaign's "bottom liners," and he takes that responsibility seriously enough to express some frustration with fellow activists who are less focused.

As Lodgepole gives a tour of the tree sits that lie just a few feet from Greenwood Heights Road, he explains that safety is a priority in training climbers. He and his partner Annapurna offer related advice and information on the web at www.wesavetrees.org.

"Some people can learn the basics in a few hours," Lodgepole says. "Others never really get it. But anyone who goes up has to learn everything."

And just because you go up doesn't make you useful. Lodgepole speaks disdainfully of "platform princesses," people of either gender who get up in a tree and then won't do any work.

As Lodgepole walks along the shoulder of the road, he periodically waves to passing drivers. A few wave back. Others just stare. One guy in a pickup presents his up-thrust middle finger.

Lodgepole shrugs and goes back to talking about construction. Setting up a tree sit, he says, requires a fair amount of labor and can cost hundreds of dollars. Activists scavenge, scrounge, and dumpster-dive for as much of the materials as possible--especially the wood, which they don't want to buy new for obvious reasons.

There are basically two kinds of tree-sit platforms: little and big. The small ones are pretty simple--just a 4-by-8-foot plywood floor with some reinforcing joists and attachments to the tree. These are home to one tree sitter. The big ones are a cross between a community center and a fortress. They're donut-shaped and completely surround the trunk of a tree, providing space for large gatherings and posing a tough barrier for timber company climbers. As many as a dozen activists can gather on these platforms.

For those up in the trees, food may be the most important organizational issue. Much of it is donated, and the staple is bulk goods, especially creative mixtures of oats and dried fruit. "We call it ORE--Oats Ready to Eat," Lodgepole says with a grin.

He's less pleased about discussing another major question groundlings always have for tree sitters: Where do they find a bathroom up there?

"I mean, I guess we don't mind being asked about it all the time," says Lodgepole, clearly minding. "But I think what we're trying to accomplish out here is more important."

With that caveat, Lodgepole explains how it works. Basically, solid waste goes in a bucket and liquid waste goes in a milk jug. Women use funnels, which are usually made by cutting the top end off a two-liter bottle of soda. The containers are periodically lowered down for disposal by activists on the ground.

Leaving the tree for bathroom breaks is frowned upon. "One sitter came down to take a shit, and the loggers tackled him and then cut down the tree," Lodgepole explains.

Radical Reformers

As a veteran activist, Lodgepole can offer a slew of reasons why he's going to all this trouble to convince Pacific Lumber to stop cutting these trees. But during this tour, he seems most upset by what he sees as waste and poor planning.

He points out one recently felled redwood--a 200-foot plus giant--that was cut on a very steep section of the hill. The tree was so heavy and the fall so great that large sections of the trunk were shattered into what Lodgepole says are unusable fragments. "Look at that," he says with disgust. "They just turned it into toothpicks."

Lodgepole isn't the only critic of these activities. Humboldt County District Attorney Paul Gallegos is suing Pacific Lumber, alleging that the company neglected to reveal information in its environmental impact report that showed how increased logging would result in degraded water quality in places like Freshwater.

Farther up the road, Lodgepole comes across a logging deck, a flat clearing where Pacific Lumber has set up equipment to haul timber out of the valley below. He stands for a minute, quietly contemplating a hillside full of fallen trees.

Suddenly, the door of an old pickup truck opens, and a lumber company security guard emerges. The guard is an older man with a mouth full of bad teeth. At first, he's simply angry. "Get out of here," the guard commands. "You're trespassing."

But Lodgepole just stands by the road and starts talking. In fact, he unleashes a torrent of words.

"Look," he tells the man, "we're not against loggers. We're just trying to protect the environment. You know what's going on out here. You know they're cutting all the trees. You know the streams are getting dirtier. You know there aren't going to be any jobs left at the rate they're going."

The man stares at him.

"We just want reform," Lodgepole continues. Then he offers some pointed criticism of Maxxam CEO Charles Hurwitz.

Finally, the guard cracks a dry smile. "If you can reform Hurwitz," he says, "that'd be a hell of a good thing."

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From the May 8-14, 2003 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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