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George Atiyeh, Opal Creek Champion 

Photo: Hillary Clements.

“George Atiyeh is the Hayduke of the Ancient Forests. If he went up with the forest he defended all his life, it’s the way he would have chosen to go, like Harry Truman at Mt. St. Helens. But I have the sense he’s out there somewhere, perhaps floating down the Santiam on a big fat Douglas-fir log, cursing the timber industry and the Forest Service, like one of the Stampers from Sometimes a Great Notion.”

~ Jeffrey St. Clair

Opal Creek Ancient Forest. Photo: Michael Donnelly.

George has been missing since the Sept. 8th Wildfire that roared down Opal Creek, burning down the Opal Creek Ancient Forest Education Center at Jawbone Flats, the old mining camp that he and pals restored starting the 1970s. As I write this no contact has been made since that fateful day.

The Early Years

Atiyeh grew up Summers at Jawbone Flats, an old mountain mining camp in the Willamette National Forest. It was run by family members.

As he tells it, when he was eight, he hiked up Opal Creek by himself and returned to late to dinner and was sent to bed hungry. But, that adventure led to his life-long love for the majestic low-elevation forest and the crystal-clear creek that met Battle Ax Creek in the mining camp and became the Little North Fork Santiam River, an Oregon Wild and Scenic River – so designated by George’s Uncle, Oregon Governor Vic Atiyeh.

Years later, after college and time in the Reserves, George and his life-long pal Tom Hirons moved their young families to the mining camp and George became the vice-president of Shiny Rock Mining. The company, long run by Oregon original Grandpa Hewitt, was now owned by The Persis Corporation in Hawaii. As long as rock was brought out of the mines every year, conditions of the Leases with the Forest Service were met. Of the many old mines, George chose one that had a treacherous collapse in the tunnel. So, he set to work running a new tunnel around the cave-in. Unfortunately, it came into a cave/void with bus-sized rocks hanging high above.

At one time, the Forest Service and a State Trooper came into Jawbone Flats intent on burning down the dilapidated camp. The Forest Service was on a weird rampage and did this to mining camps and many look-outs, eliminating a lot of history.

George and Indian Billy, a life-long pal of Grandpa Hewitt were the sole ones in camp. They got the drop on the intruders and disarmed them and sent them on their way! A couple of days later into to the camp comes a jeep with police sirens and lights flashing. Out steps George’s Boy Scout Leader. He talks them into surrendering, as a SWAT team is deploying. They eventually were acquitted because they were, as the judge said while chastising the Forest Service, “defending their homes.”

No matter, that the face of the ore was never reached, George eventually succeeded in gaining Patents on the claims and for Jawbone Flats – 195-acres in total became the private property of the Persis Corporation (all but 15 acres at Jawbone Flats were returned to the Forest Service as part of the successful Wilderness designation effort George led). But before that, the Forest Service laid out plans to clear-cut 1700 acres of Ancient Forest and build 11 miles of roads in the 4.2-mile long watershed. They even got so far as to staple Clear-Cut Boundary Timber Sale makers to the trees in 1981, which George and his allies quickly removed once the Appeal field by George, Dave Hunt and Mike Swaim (later, a Salem Mayor) stopped the sale in 1983.

Photo: David Hunt.

The sale was stopped with a series of Appeals and threatened lawsuits. In 1984, 9000 acres were added to the Bull-of-the-Woods Wilderness Area just adjacent to Jawbone Flats to the North. But, again Opal Creek was left out and threatened by logging. (Those 9000 acres are now part of the Opal Creek Wilderness.)

Plenty has been written about the successful effort to save Opal Creek. Here is something I wrote at the time. Even a book, Showdown at Opal Creek, was written by TIME-editor David Seideman.

I first met George when he helped us on the restoration efforts at nearby Breitenbush Hot Springs. Both Jawbone Flats and Breitenbush had small hydro-electric plants and he was an expert on them. It was the start of a decades-long collaboration. George was an Alpha male who felt the best way to get things done was to ally with other Alphas (See: Mick Jagger/Keith Richards). And George could really get ‘er done! He was skilled at all sorts of machine operations. He was a logger, builder, mechanic, a pilot and a miner, well before he became an iconic conservationist. I was one of those allies. Sure, we butted heads on all sorts of things, but we never lost sight of the goal and we got ‘er done.

Life as a Hometown Pariah

At first, George did not welcome all the attention he got. He already was a pariah in the Mill City area for stopping the original timber sale. Long-time friends disowned him. He’d go to watch his sons play football and would have a whole bleacher to himself, as everyone would move away. Worse yet, were the death threats, the harassment of his young daughter, the attempts to drive his sons and he off the road, etc.

His pal Tom Hirons, who became a logging contractor, never wavered. Even though Tom started a grassroots pro-timber group, the two maintained their friendship. At one of the Hearings over Opal Creek at the State Capitol, Tom rescued George from an attack by pro-logging supporters. Tom Hirons (RIP) was our most honorable opponent. He was quite a history expert. We had many sessions hashing it out between us. We all even had some parlays with Mill Owners at George’s place at his Gates Airport.

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George and Tom in the truck George restored and loved. Photo: Michael Donnelly.

Getting Serious

A bunch of us had a meeting at the spectacular Lodge he and friends built. The meeting was to divide up the many tasks we had ahead of us in our protection effort. George was to be the media face. I was to write Op-eds and organize the trail building, Mark Ottenad was the superb researcher who provided George and me with the necessary audio/visual aides we needed, as we talked to tens of thousands at all sorts of venues (from Earth First! gatherings to Kiwanis Clubs to New Age conferences to the Masons) and for the many Lobbying Trips George, James Monteith and I made to DC. Tryve Steen provided the photos. Chuck Bennett (current Salem mayor) was our official lobbyist. Susan Gordon and Michael Carrigan set up the many presentations, Gretchen Carnaby-Hall, Calvin Hecocta and Sherry Louvre organized a board of Directors…and a bunch of Bears built a trail so the Public could come and see what was at risk.

'The Trail Bears (John, Bart, me, Julio, Devin, Martin) resting beneath some giants after roughing in the trail'

“The Bears” Photo: Julio Viamonte.

The rest of the protection story can be found in the links above.

After the Crash

George had a serious plane crash a few years ago. He recovered, with the saintly help of his ex Hillary Clements and family and friends, enough that he could return home and have a decent life, mostly spent in his shop on various on-going projects. A lot of friends pitched in and have helped care for him, as he broke a lot of bones, his ankle was shot and he had trouble getting around. He couldn’t get a Driver’s License.

It did cause a serious Brain Injury, as well. He had a hard time recalling things but was smart enough to collect others’ remembrances. He had some wild fantasies going, including one where he and I fought together in the Korean War, no matter how many times I’d tell him “We were young kids then, George.”

Onward

Many of the people I mentioned are no longer with us. As I write this, George is still “missing.” Search and recovery crews are still looking.

All of us who ever knew George know that he would go down fighting for what he loved. I kinda like that and hope he never is found. He’s a legendary figure and what a legend that ending would be – George still out there in Opal Creek caring for the land and the species that live there. And, like Jeff, I can see him like a Stamper, on that log on the river, middle finger extended to the skies, cursing Big Timber, shouting, “You never salvage logged Opal Creek.” Just as I witnessed him telling various Mill Owners to their faces, “You’ll never log Opal Creek” back in the day. That’s my fantasy. Hayduke George Lives!

Wherever you are, my friend, thanks for everything. We’ll carry on and fight any efforts to “salvage” log your beloved forest.

MICHAEL DONNELLY has been an environmental activist since before that first Earth Day. He was in the thick of the Pacific Northwest Ancient Forest Campaign; garnering some collective victories and lamenting numerous defeats. He can be reached at pahtoo@aol.com

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