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Saving the Mama Tree: Seventy Feet Up an Ancient Redwood

Mendocino redwoods. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

Greasy Pete, his “tree-sitter” name, went up the “Mamma Tree” on the eighth of this month; Bugs followed, climbing the next closest big tree on the eleventh. Today, they sit on platforms 75 feet up a 200 foot-tall redwood tree, well-equipped to survive indefinitely.

The expectation was that there would be a confrontation on the morning of twelfth – the date set for the Anderson Logging Company of Fort Bragg to begin cutting. Several dozen supporters joined the tree sitters early that morning, prepared to form a human chain to cross the logging road and stop the trucks. It didn’t happen. This delay has provided some breathing space for Greasy and Bugs, but no one doubts that the confrontation is coming.

The tree-sit is on the far western edge of the Jackson State Forest, 48,000 acres of publically owned redwood forest in Mendocino County in Northern California. The sit is intended to stop the first of several timber harvest plans (THPs) now in the works for the forest, all of which will involve logging within two or three miles of the county’s famed coastline, not to mention its villages and coastal neighborhoods – Caspar on the coast is literally a stone’s throw away from this one.

CalFire, the massive state bureaucracy which has managed Jackson State since it was purchased in 1948, does no logging itself. This bit of its business, though, Jackson State, has always been about logging, which in “good” times makes millions. Rather CalFire contracts out, in this case to Anderson Logging. CalFire has a budget of some $2.3 billion. It employs 10,000 people in a variety of capacities, chiefly related to fire fighting, but also managing California’s eight demonstration forests, of which Jackson State is easily the largest. It also relies on 3,500 inmates; young men, mostly black and brown, identifiable in their orange jump suits. Governor Gavin Newsom appointed CalFire’s current Director, Thom Porter, whose background is chiefly in fire fighting, but also includes a BA in forestry from the University of California Berkeley. Anderson Logging is a garden variety logging outfit; it can be judged with the many other bandits that have been cutting in these woods for 150 years. There is virtually no old growth in Jackson State; there will be no second or third growth if these loggers have their way.

So Greasy and Bugs and their supporters are up against it. Still, they are not the first to stand up to the loggers. In 1946, the liberal US Representative Helen Gahagan Douglas proposed to nationalize the entire redwood forest. The back-to-the-landers of Albion Ridge have been a thorn in the logger’s side since the 1970s. Mendocino County was the late Judi Berry’s base for Redwood Summer in the 1990s. Tree-sitters have been the pride of Humboldt, the county north of here, though Julia Butterfly Hill, the best-known there, was also widely known and highly regarded here. In this century, the Campaign to Save Jackson State Forest slowed the lumbermen down. Now EPIC, the Environmental Protection Information Center of Humboldt County has entered the fray, as have the Mendocino Trail Stewards, Redwood Nation Earth First, and of a host of local groups, most important, surely, the tribes.

Mendocino County is the heart of what ironically is still referred to as the Redwood Empire. Once, one of the great natural wonders of the world, Redwood trees were the dominate flora on the coast from the Oregon border south as far as Big Sur. It was (and what’s left of it is) a band of woodland 450 miles in length, usually no more than twenty miles from the sea. Since the time of dinosaurs, it has flourished through wet winters, cool ocean winds and the fog of summer. These trees, some 2500 years old or more, grew to 350 feet, making them, with the Sequoia of the Sierra’s, the largest creatures on earth.

The first peoples of this coast lived with the forests; that’s another story, but to our great benefit we now increasingly hear their voices, in spite of a history of grotesque pillage and plunder by settlers past and the racists of today. Commercial loggers first came to Mendocino with the Gold Rush; lumber was needed for the mines and railroads, also California’s fast growing cities. The mills in Mendocino were established in the 1860s. The loggers attacked the coastal forests first; timber was taken out by ship. The steep, rugged coastal mountains were insurmountable barriers to inland alternatives. By the end of the century there was a mill in virtually every estuary and cove along this rocky coast, Satanic Mills by any standard, belching fire and smoke, surrounded by instant slums, a coastal necklace of oozing sores. By the end of the century, 40% of the old growth was gone. The devastation left behind was clear for all to see. The land, wrote a founder of the Save-the-Redwoods League in 1919, was devastated; it reminded him of the “war ravaged districts of France.” US Highway 101, the “Redwood Highway,” also built in part with convict labor, opened the rest of the forest from the inland valleys; chainsaws, bull dozers and trucks took out the trees of every last nook and cranny of the forest. Today one is as likely to see a big tree in Berkeley as here in Mendocino County. Less than 3% of the entire forest is old growth.

All this has brought with it new perspectives on the forest. The Save-the-Redwood League once focused entirely on old growth, now it champions preservation of second and even third growth. Greasy and Bugs are in second growth trees, big trees themselves in a forest dominated by small and smaller trees. They inhabit a lovely grove well-worth saving, but one typically surrounded by thick undergrowth, and the slash of past logging.

Still there is the magic: “no thoughtful person,” wrote Reed Noss, “could stand beneath one of these immense trees, gaze up into its canopy, and not help but think that here is a remarkable organism – so much more than all the board feet of lumber that men might cleave from it.” Conservationists as well as ordinary visitors have long been overwhelmed by the sheer beauty of these groves, as well as, less tangibly, the inspiration gained from walking amongst them. We are not alone in thinking this. In our age of Covid, Japanese therapists recommend “shinrin-yoku,” or forest bathing, as having psychological benefits in the face of the pandemic. Good advice. Of course there are the more mundane pleasures of these woodlands for those who live in our coastal neighborhoods; the hikers and dog walkers, bird watchers and mushroom hunters, the trail bikers; many are now in the lead of this fight.

We live today, however, in an age of extinction – what is to become of our lions and bears and bobcats and deer, of the owls and other birds and of all the creatures that we cannot see yet make up this extraordinary ecology? Surely, habitat restoration is called for, not more destruction, lest this silent slaughter continue.

Then, there is climate change. Our political leaders seem to be all in on this. Carbon sequestration is the key to the changing climate. They say they have the science on their side. And why not? My friend Will Russell, Professor of Environment at San Jose State University and the foremost proponent of natural restoration, puts it this way: “The essential story here, is that coast redwood forests are the best terrestrial carbon sinks on Earth, approximately twice that of their nearest competitors.  Using redwood for timber products, rather that carbon storage, is a gross misuse of this vital resource.”

And there’s more than that: “The expansive Amazon tropical rainforest of South America is one of the world’s largest carbon sinks. But on a per-acre basis, the Amazon is not nearly as efficient at absorbing carbon as the coastal temperate rainforest. The Douglas fir forests of Oregon and the hemlock and cedar forests of Alaska store about twice as much carbon per acre as the Amazon. The giant redwoods of Northern California, which store seven times as much, are regarded as the most carbon dense forests in the world.”

So the response is easy, save these trees. But in truth huge challenges remain: corporate greed, private profit and compliant politicians. Almost all of the forest land of Mendocino County is in private, corporate hands; the Mendocino Redwood Corporation (owned by San Francisco’s Fisher family) alone owns 228,000 acres. And, alas, CalFire, a public institution, acts like a corporation. With redwood timber now selling at an all time high there are millions to be made from just one harvest of Jackson State’s yield. Nevermind that California remains awash in cash and CalFire, in the aftermath of the wildfires, is the darling of the state, and can get as much of that as it wants. There is never enough when it comes to cash. Anyway, why let the Mendocino Redwood Company run away with all the money? These then are powerful opponents with powerful impulses. Common sense aside, the forest remains contested terrain, irrationality endures and as of now the loggers rule.

Nevertheless, people are changing, and the old guard here is giving way to a new generation. “We need these trees,” Greasy told me, “for my generation, for our future. I hope our action here will inspire others, future generations.”

So, here’s to Greasy and Bugs, courageous and farsighted, faces of the future today.

Notes.

1.) From my vantage Greasy and Bugs are kids, all the more heroic.

Messages of support can be sent to mama.tree.mendo@gmail.com

Cal Winslow is the author of Radical Seattle: the General Strike of 1919. He can be reached at cwinslow@mcn.org

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