In September young people all over the world took to the streets, striking, rallying, and demanding that politicians acknowledge and address the climate catastrophe that we are facing. And their demands are real: yes, we need those in power to make change – but they aren’t moving fast enough, and meanwhile species are going extinct every day. What do we do in the meantime? We go to the climate frontlines. And the frontlines are everywhere: there are pipeline and forest struggles going on right now all over Amerikkka. One such frontline exists in Northern California, where the notorious timber wars of the 90s are flaring up once again. Here, on the Lost Coast, a chance encounter brought me into an environmental struggle that has since become central in my life.
I was groggy, still tangled in my sleeping bag, when I heard my comrade Embers’ shout. “They sent up a climber!” We woke everyone in camp and hurried north, towards phone reception. At first, we thought our comrade Rook, who had been aloft in a tree sit for seven days, was being extracted. But instead, the climber, armed with a chainsaw, cut down the buckets and jugs that held Rook’s water, food and gear, dropping heavy items just past their head and then leaving them without enough supplies to survive. Humboldt Redwood Company (HRC), the corporation that had taken over the timberlands of the notorious Pacific Lumber after PL’s bankruptcy, was trying to save face. They wanted Rook down, but instead of doing it by force, they were trying to manipulate them down through hunger and thirst.
For 20 years, forest defenders have put their bodies on the line to protect the Mattole watershed place, the ancestral home of the people now known as the Mattole and one of the last remaining areas of unlogged, mixed hardwood and Douglas fir forest in the bioregion.
The Mattole river winds through some of the most rugged terrain on the west coast, meeting the Pacific Ocean just south of Cape Mendocino, the westernmost point in California. Just offshore lies the convergence of three tectonic plates, making the area incredibly geologically unstable. Landslides dot the steep hillsides, and the crests of the ridges are painted with natural open prairies, a legacy of traditional fire management.
The state water board lists this as an impaired watershed, attributing the Mattole’s heightened temperatures and sediment loads to logging and road building upstream. Four decades ago, Mattole Valley residents recognized the declining salmon populations and began salmon monitoring and habitat restoration, and now, salmon populations are finally growing. Since HRC took over PL’s holdings in 2006, the forested ridges of the Mattole headwaters have seen four summers of aerial road blockades, tree sits, lockdowns and work disruption in opposition to HRC’s logging and herbiciding.
In 2014, when HRC began logging in the first of two contentious timber harvest plans (THPs) on Long Ridge, forest rebels began a several-month-long road blockade that prevented them from working there for the rest of the year. In response to broad local opposition to the plans, HRC cancelled hundreds of acres slated to be cut. Hell yeah!
In 2017, forest defenders discovered that HRC was killing native tanoaks and madrones with herbicides on Long Ridge, and blockaded the road again, preventing access for the rest of the dry season. HRC had to file extensions on their logging plans, admitting that the resistance had kept them from getting work done.
During the fall of 2017, with only two years left to complete work under their plan, HRC got desperate. They submitted a plan to build a new road – literally just to get around the blockade site. The road would have destroyed a sensitive wetland and beautiful grove of ancient Bay laurel trees, but a flurry of public comments and the threat of direct action forced them to cancel the road proposal in the spring.
The summer of 2018 saw a third blockade, and this time HRC escalated. They sent in private security guards from Mendocino county-based Lear Asset Management, who raided the blockade, threatening forest defenders with tasers, harassing blockaders and messing with aerial lifelines. Three folks were arrested. Curiously, HRC didn’t begin logging after the blockade was down, instead paying the security guards to sit around on the ridge for several months doing nothing. Avoiding the goons proved to be an entertaining diversion for forest defenders scouting during that period.
In November, the guards finally packed up and left, and promptly afterward, Sierra Pacific Industries (SPI), another multi-death corporation, showed up to log their slice of the pie, clear cutting dozens of acres that they “own” on the north side of Long Ridge. Forest defenders scrambled to respond, setting a tree sit and slash piles, and engaging with workers on the ground. They were able to stall SPI contractors, who fled the coming rain, leaving marketable logs behind.
This spring, forest defenders discovered the security guards had returned, once again desecrating a historic indigenous village site on Rainbow Ridge by parking their camper trailers, port-a-potties, and ATVs there. Then, on June 6, 2019, HRC contractors started falling trees. Because HRC and CalFire have repeatedly failed to publish necessary documents on time, the community only knew that work had begun because of forest rebels’ diligent monitoring.
And HRC was disregarding stakeholder concerns outright. During the summer of 2018, a year prior, Mattole valley residents had filed a grievance with the “sustainable” timber certifiers Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), contesting HRC’s FSC certification, and HRC had yet to address the demands required by that grievance process. The community was outraged, and the next Monday morning, security guards showed up to the main gate before dawn to find four septuagenarian residents of the Mattole valley, the same folks who had filed the FSC grievance the year before, blocking the gate with their bodies – and an accordion! They refused to stand down and were arrested.
Meanwhile, in the backwoods, a plucky forest defender, Rook, had climbed into the canopy on Long Ridge, weaving a net between the branches of an ancient Douglas fir slated to be cut as part of a road construction project. The guards immediately set up camp under the massive fir, watching Rook at all hours. It was only a week into the tree sit when the guards sent their climber up to steal Rook’s supplies. When we heard, we stormed HRC’s office.
The following Monday, we were ready. Again, before dawn, forest defenders had arrived, and the goons found a 30 foot ladder blocking the main gate, with a forest defender dangling at the top. This must have been a bit much for them, because they called the Humboldt County Sheriff. The sheriffs showed up and immediately ordered those on the ground to move, contradicting the property lines that the goons had pointed out. When folks started to move, the two deputies lunged at and arrested three folks, the first two of which had cameras and were documenting the action. The deputies fractured one person’s rib and bloodied their face.
Rook remained aloft for two months all in all, witnessing from the canopy as the road building crew worked right up to their tree, then constructed the road around them and continued down the hill. They watched the trees downhill from them get hauled out. A Sonoma red tree vole, a tiny rodent that is an indicator species for old growth Douglas fir, moved into their bedding. They watched the goons, who maintained a 24 hour presence under the tree. On two separate occasions, forest rebels brought food and water, and the security guards chased them, arresting one, to prevent resupply. Finally, one rascal was able to sneak past guards and deliver supplies and a tarp just before rain. Eventually, because of mounting community pressure, HRC told their goons to give Rook small amounts of processed food and water.
While all this was going on, another forest rebel, Pascal, climbed a threatened ancient Douglas fir on the other side of the ridge. Pascal endured similar treatment – goons harassing them and keeping a close watch to prevent ground support from coming close, and chasing and arresting them when they finally did descend.
Over the course of the summer, four forest defenders were arrested in the woods, nine in town, and three received citations during roughly two dozen actions. Forest defenders ranging in age from 24 to 87 locked their bodies to cattle grates, to gates, to bicycles and to each other. A forest defender locked themselves to the machinery being used to build the road around Rook’s tree. Elders, veterans of the Headwaters struggle, came out and put their bodies on the line, turning away log trucks. Forest defenders disrupted work in the woods. Many dozens of people rallied at gates into the area, performing theatre, playing music, and speaking out. Folks took over CalFire’s office, stormed HRC’s office on multiple occasions and kept returning to block the road to the Long Ridge timberlands and the entrance into HRC’s sawmill.
When Rook descended on August 5, HRC execs mentioned that the tree they had occupied would remain – until HRC’s next round of logging in the area. At this time, the beautiful grove that Pascal defended also stands. In early September, HRC filed completion on their THPs, meaning that no more work will happen within these plans. But they have already pushed the next THP through the approval process – this one in the headwaters of the upper north forks of the Mattole. Meanwhile, on the neighboring Monument and Bear River ridges, a greenwashed company is pushing a massive wind farm that will threaten wildlife habitat and sacred sites of the indigenous Wiyot people. This is yet another false solution to climate change, and Wiyot officials, local residents, and environmental groups have already come out in opposition to the project.
Recently a veteran forest defender mused to me that in this work, all our victories are temporary and our losses are permanent. That certainly feels to be the case on Long Ridge, where the entire south side of the ridge is marred by fresh slash piles, skid trails and stumps, still fragrant with the sap the Doug firs exude to heal their wounds. Mattole defenders are mourning as we gather ourselves for the next battle. As we humbly continue this struggle now in its third generation, continuing to fight for what was left out of the 1998 Headwaters Agreement, we have to recognize that this is a different time.
People all over the world are rising up to call attention to this climate crisis. The science dictates our priorities: the carbon sequestration value and biodiversity of late seral forests makes their protection an imperative. At the same time, the emotionality of it – to fall in love with a ridge and a river so deeply that you are compelled to put yourself in the path of those who seek to destroy it – is powerful. What a joy to be small on a big, beautiful thing called Earth, and to dedicate oneself in service to keeping intact ecosystems whole, and healing those that are broken.
In a little box:
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