Renewed conflict troubles residents
Many hoped worst was over in logging dispute
Oct. 9, 1998
By MIKE GENIELLA
Press Democrat Staff Writer
Humboldt County is watching with apprehension as radical activists and a
tough-minded sheriff raise the ante in a high-stakes environmental
confrontation without parallel in the West.
Escalating tactics of Earth First! followers and the controversial reaction
of local law enforcement are rekindling old fears in a region wracked by 10
years of turmoil surrounding corporate logging practices.
"I think most people were hopeful when the Headwaters Forest deal was
finally reached several weeks ago. We thought it was the beginning of the
end,'' said Judy Hodgson, publisher of the weekly North Coast Journal
But Hodgson, who describes herself as a "raging moderate,'' echoed
sentiments of other Humboldt residents who said they're troubled by this
week's renewed confrontation between activists and local law enforcement.
"I guess we were naive to think the activists would back off. And a lot of
us were surprised that the sheriff would decide to use pepper spray again
after last year's controversy,'' Hodgson said.
Humboldt authorities last fall found themselves at the center of a national
uproar after they became the first to authorize use of pepper spray against
peaceful protesters who refused officers' orders to vacate private property
and could not be easily removed because of various devices they were using
to secure themselves at the scene.
Said Hodgson: "It just seems like none of this will ever end.''
When it comes to environmental confrontations, the North Coast is known
throughout the West as the hotbed of dissent. Few places have experienced
such an intense level of ritual combat, according to a wide range of
national experts on environmental issues.
"What is occurring there is unique,'' said Ed Marston of the High Country
Times, a Colorado weekly that's earned a national reputation for coverage
of environmental issues.
Lacey Phillabaum of the Earth First! Journal, a Eugene, Ore.-based
publication, said, "Many of our new subscribers first learned of Earth
First! because of the Headwaters Forest issue.''
Phillabaum said interest in North Coast issues is so high among its 8,000
readers that the Journal next month plans a special four-page insert on the
controversy that's erupted since the Sept. 17 death of Earth First!
follower David Chain at a disputed Pacific Lumber Co. logging operation.
Chain's death, the first fatality in a decade of anti-logging protests,
occurred just two days before Gov. Pete Wilson signed legislation funding
the purchase of Headwaters Forest, the largest tract of ancient redwoods
left in private ownership.
Chain was killed by a falling redwood after he and other activists tried to
disrupt a logging operation on a steep mountainside. Ever since, both sides
in the controversy have worked overtime to place blame on one another.
When local law enforcement Wednesday made a surprise raid on an Earth
First! blockade at the disputed logging site, their use of pepper spray on
two women protesters rekindled a public debate about its use. But the
contraptions officers encountered as they reclaimed the private property
underscored their concerns about the tactics embraced by activists.
Among the discoveries was a "bipod,'' a device consisting of two towering
poles lashed together and placed across a logging road with an activist
suspended on a platform from its center. Had authorities tried to
disassemble the device, it was designed to put the activist at serious risk
Defense of spray
"No one has the right to endanger people's lives like that. It's wrong,''
Sheriff Dennis Lewis said in defense of the use of pepper spray on
protesters who resisted arrest.
Such practices have been used by Earth First! followers elsewhere, but none
to the level or intensity as on the North Coast. Veterans of environmental
struggles around the West agree Humboldt County is unique.
Joe Keating, a coordinator with the Portland, Ore.-based Witnesses Against
Lawless Logging, has organized logging protests throughout the Pacific
Northwest and Northern California.
"Humboldt is in a continual boil,'' Keating said.
He said a lot of the rationale of why such protests take place is to have
people ask the question, "Why are they doing that?'' It's how activists
scheme to bring their issues to public attention, he said.
Since the 1980s, when Earth First! emerged as a renegade force to be
reckoned with in North Coast timber politics, the organization's array of
protest tactics have steadily expanded.
In 1990, unfurling banners from the Golden Gate Bridge and sitting in trees
targeted for harvest were considered daring. But nearly a decade later
those tactics seem tame.
Besides employing "bipods,'' activists have developed devices called "Black
Bears,'' which are V-shaped metal sleeves within which activists chain
themselves to each other. The sleeves prevent authorities from easily
cutting through the chains.
Activists have used the Black Bears to chain themselves to logging
equipment, guard rails, tree stumps and other stationary objects. At times,
they have even encased the sleeves in barrels of concrete.
Authorities continue to rely on metal grinders to cut through the Black
Bears, but they say they fear serious injuries as the practice
Other tactics used by protesters include digging holes in dirt roads so
they can lock themselves with chains into underground drainage culverts.
Regulators "too lax'
Earth First! organizers say too much attention is being placed on their
tactics and not enough on the "greater environmental crimes'' committed by
timber companies, and state and federal regulators they contend are too lax
in enforcing environmental safeguards.
Naomi Wagner, a spokeswoman for Earth First!, said activists will continue
staging similar protests until an investigation into Chain's death is
complete and Pacific Lumber ceases "illegal logging.''
Wagner contends Pacific Lumber is violating state and federal guidelines
designed to protect the endangered marbled murrelet seabird, coho salmon
and other wildlife habitat. Activists insist they need to occupy the site
of Chain's death until an independent investigation is conducted.
"Basically, this young man died doing the regulators' work,'' Wagner said.
"We really want to say: Jail Hurwitz, not us.'' Texas financier Charles
Hurwitz' Maxxam Inc. owns Pacific Lumber Co.
National experts in environmental conflicts suggest answers to the North
Coast conflict will remain elusive unless combatants scale back their
Bert Krages, a Portland-based expert in environmental dispute resolutions,
said to remain locked in such intense combat is to doom the region to
"People have to be willing to submit the issues to mediation, or even
binding arbitration. It takes a communitywide effort,'' he said.
To persist in current practices is to guarantee a prolonged environmental
war that can't be won, he said.
"All we have to do is look to the political and ethnic turmoil in the
Middle East or Bosnia to understand the forces that are at play,'' he said.
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