There is a great forest, that stands on the ridges to the north of Petrolia, California. These mountains are the source of the Mattole River’s largest and formerly most bountiful tributaries, the North Forks. Their branches are so steep, their weather so wild that not even the rapacious MAXXAM corporation, which owned it from 1986 to 2008, could destroy this forest completely. And so, it has survived into the modern era.
These forests are now the property of Humboldt Redwood Company, which plans to log them. HRC brings with it a new paradigm for timber harvest: certified sustainable logging. This system, which contains appealing features for the public, such as protection for old growth trees, ban on clearcuts, and consultation with the wishes of neighboring communities, was initially greeted with enthusiasm by elements who fought MAXXAM tooth and nail. However, certification is gradually defining itself as just another mechanism, adjusted to dwindling resources, to continue what former Cal Fire director Richard Wilson has called liquidation logging.
Where MAXXAM was the lion, ravaging the virgin redwood forest, HRC is the jackal, gnawing the last scraps off the bones.
And so, just as the timber wars of the nineties, with their martyrs and heroines such as Julia Butterfly and Judi Bari, made their way into international news, so in this new setting the same issues, which now have planetary importance, are percolating through into national headlines. From a standpoint of natural resource extraction, we are living in a different world than the one in which MAXXAM operated. Climate catastrophes are upon us now, together with the imminent disappearance of 1 million species, according to the just-published UN Biodiversity Report.
Our children are alarmed for their futures. Twenty-one of them brought a lawsuit against the government for violation of their rights. Julia Olsen, lawyer for the “Our Children’s Trust” lawsuit, in her closing statement before the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, reflected that
“If we look back on the 20th century, we can see that the rights of women and people of different races were the Constitutional questions of that era. And when our greatgrandchildren look back on the 21st century they will see that government sanctioned climate change was the Constitutional issue of the 21st century”.
Indeed, it is a civil rights issue in which our children and future generations are victims of discrimination, deprived of their right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Young people have of course been aware of this for a long time and fought to save their heritage. The Mattole was one of the most violent theaters of action during the MAXXAM/Pacific Lumber years. Forest defenders lived in the woods and pleaded with timber fallers to spare the trees. They spent the entire winter of 2000 in this forest, on Rainbow Ridge. Older residents blockaded the gates to the property every day at five o’clock in the morning. There were tree-sits, connected with ropes and nets to make up entire arboreal communities. Many people were thrown in jail.
Goons lit truck tires under the trees of young climbers. Others were wrapped in duct tape and lowered hundreds of feet headfirst. Many young people, earnestly desiring a better world for themselves and their children, were severely traumatized in these Mattole timber wars. Some of them cannot forget the blood spilled here, and are continuing to defend these same forests twenty years later.
Resistance was not confined to direct action. Beginning in 1990, Mattole residents challenged every single MAXXAM timber harvest plan in court. Issues concerning the public trust were brought before the Board of Forestry. However, when in 2007 MAXXAM declared bankruptcy as they had planned all along, only the 3500-acre Headwaters Forest, of MAXXAM’s 210,000 acres, was offered any permanent protection.
Looking back, it is curious that the Mattole was so passionately defended during the timber wars. It is not glamorous, like Headwaters Forest. But, unlike redwood lands, which are rather sterile, mixed fir and hardwood forests can support a marvelous variety of life, including many species which are on the decline and need places to live. For the original indigenous inhabitants of the Mattole, these mountains must have been spiritually associated with salmon, so prodigious were their salmon runs. Early colonists used to say that you couldn’t get a horse to cross the lower North Fork because of the flashing tails.
The ardor to defend the Mattole may also have arisen from recognition that already so much vital energy had been dedicated to the river’s restoration. Although the name Mattole means “clear water” it is presently categorized as a degraded stream, for turbidity, temperature and sediment. This was caused by logging followed by the floods of ‘55 and ’64. Mattole dwellers, recognizing this catastrophe, have been trying to restore habitat and bring back the salmon ever since the late 70s. The notion that local communities could manage their own environment and resources was initially considered radical, and met with strong government agency resistance. However, community insistence eventually prevailed, and we now have the Mattole Salmon Group, the Mattole Restoration Council, Sanctuary Forest International, the Lost Coast League and the Middle Mattole Conservancy, all of which are dedicated to the restoration of the watershed. These groups employ large numbers of people and have acquired investments totaling millions of dollars in restoring it.
But they have never had access to the North Forks. That is why, when Pacific Lumber declared bankruptcy as it had planned, and HRC took possession of their Mattole forests, everyone breathed a sigh of relief. There was general delight when HRC’s Mike Jani climbed up Noonan Creek to thank a tree sitter for saving an ancient tree named Spooner. HRC, we thought, was different. It would recognize that these forests were exhausted and depleted, that 97% of the old growth forest was gone and that the soils needed time for recovery. Its owners the Fisher family, were enlightened billionaires who would take a long view in regard to profits, an ethical position about outsourcing environmental impacts, and a fraternal interest in cooperating with communities they had suddenly moved into. They would recognize the importance of the tanoak as the tree of life from worm to eagle. Who knew, they might, like philanthropists before them, create a Fisher forest beside the Rockefeller forest, and create a wildlife corridor for martens and fishers to traverse in response to seasonal and climate changes! After all, Robert Fisher sat on the cabinet level California Strategic Growth Council, which had state responsibility to curb greenhouse gas emissions. They might allow the UC Natural Reserve System in for important studies. They were doubtless aware that their forests could attain the highest carbon densities of any ecosystem in the world, and that they were capable of making a real difference. They would grieve over the reality that there was no longer a single intact landscape in North America, and seize the challenge of restoration.
They would recognize the animate existence, the vital force, of the place. The pledge they had made, when they became certified, meant that their love of the forests would be consonant with the rapidly changing conditions of life on this earth, and resonate with what was our life project!
It was not to be. Other than containing a set-aside, a “representative sample area”, of some 200 acres temporarily safe from harvest, and eliminating clear cuts, they were little different from MAXXAM. They hacked-and-squirted unentered forests with imazepyr, a pesticide banned in Europe since 2003, following it up with the infamous glyphosate. They haggled over the definition of an old tree. They approached their new possession through the calculus of short-term profit. There was no vision of managing for 300-year-old trees and abundant wildlife: logging cycles would merely be extended from 40 to 60 years. The definition of sustainability would be held to a bare minimum of survival.
The Lost Coast League therefore brought a grievance to SCS, the organization which monitors the adherence to principles of sustainability of the certified timber companies. Our grievance was found to have merit. HRC was ordered to rewrite their herbicide policies, about which there had already been outcry, in neighboring Mendocino County where the Fishers own Mendocino Redwood Company.
They were ordered to look at their forests again to identify “high conservation value” forest, which though not necessarily containing trees which had existed before 1800, the running definition of “old growth”, but which had characteristics of old forests, with undisturbed soil, moisture retention, multilayered canopy closure, habitat for a variety of species, and features of vegetative organization such as mosses, snags, and decadent logs.
Although the FSC certification requirements require consultation with affected communities when accomplishing these directives, HRC neither completed their obligation to SCS nor contacted the Lost Coast League, and on June 5th they began logging.
HRC’s forests have been patrolled for almost a year by Lear Assets Management, a security company whose personnel usually have military backgrounds, wear camouflage with military insignia and are fully armed. Their job is to catch the forest defenders, who have been living in the Rainbow forests almost steadily since 2014, when HRC first tried to log. The forest defenders have been able to construct two blockades, the effectiveness of which depends on someone being suspended in such a way that any effort to take down the blockade would result in that person’s death. They were effective for awhile, but are now gone,, and Lear has been successful in preventing a new one from being erected.
They were, however, not able to prevent a climber, Rook, from setting up a tree-sit, in an old growth tree, marked for logging because it was in the path of a road HRC planned to build. Rook had been working on this tree-sit all winter, dragging supplies little by little up the tree, out of sight of Lear security.
Two days after the logging began, four members of the Lost Coast League, all in their late seventies, appeared at Monument Gate at four AM, and placed themselves in the path of loggers on their way to work. They were immediately handcuffed by the Lear security men, and taken to the county jail.
The private security hitmen did not arrive in time two days later, however, to prevent a team of forest defenders from erecting a 14 foot ladder, held with guy wires to the gate and adjacent trees with a climber named Isabel poised perilously on top of it. Dismantling this contraption, to which a cherry picker had to be brought, lasted for several hours, while the sun rose over the fog flowing down the Eel river far below.
In the forest, HRC sent a masked climber up Rook’s tree. He cut off all the branches around her. He cut down her food and water supplies. A six gallon jug almost hit her in the head. Since then Rook has been without supplies,
hugging the tree through strong winds and even a 5.6 earthquake. The Lear private security force has alternately harassed the forest defender with loud music and lights all night, jibes, starvation and even water deprivation.
A excavator has been knocking over trees perilously close to Rook’s tree, and a laughing driver hit her with a branch. In response to this, the very next day a lockdown on the culprit excavator was achieved in spite of the private security guards. There were more blockades and lockdowns at the gates.
Meanwhile, two red tree voles, a state-listed species of special concern due to their increasing scarcity, have joined Rook in the tree sit. A short distance away , as if in solidarity, a Northern Spotted Owl, a threatened species on both federal and state lists, has started a tree sit of its own, eloquently identifying “high conservation value”
critical habitat, since the company was too ignorant or negligent to have identified it for themselves.
Rook’s response to all this had all the solemnity of Greta Thunberg, combined with the terrible sadness of Chief Seattle:
“Whatever their intentions, the men who guard this tree, who hunt us in the woods, who escort the loggers to work each morning, are doing their part to create the future their descendants will inherit- one of famine, climate migration, global poverty. They are enabling the global collapse. They are making me watch the destruction of a place I love.”
There are three generations of forest defenders, the oldest of which are in their 70s, the now-grownup kids of twenty years ago, and a whole new generation of passionate young people, who see waves of heat moving northward from the equator, pushing desperate populations along with them, surreal fires and droughts, wars, poverty and famine, and want to save something of what they instinctively love and know is necessary for the survival of the earth as we know it.
The Mattole community is asking HRC not to cut down the forest of the North Forks of the Mattole. There is too much soul hung up in that place already. Their certification standards require them to harmonize their activities with the communities within which they operate, in order to be consonant with the rapidly changing conditions of life on earth. The California Forest Practice Rules are dangerously obsolete, and the FSC rules as well. These forests have a potential destiny superior to being turned into board feet for profit. They are relatively fire-proof and fix enormous amounts of carbon. There are rare agaricon mushrooms. There are fishers and voles and goshawks and eagles and there ought to be more. It needs to be restored to its former splendor. The riparian areas are denuded on many of the tributaries, and must be shored up and replanted. There are scientists from UC who are interested in studying virgin, carbon-rich soils compared with disturbed terrain, and other issues in the Mattole.
In this, we are looking forwards, not backwards. Little towns and city neighborhoods must remain vigilant, and protect the places they live in. We are thinking locally as a small isolated community must, for survival, and we are thinking globally, as we watch the climate become more and more chaotic, with increasing alarm.