Headline: Death and anguish in the redwood wars
OF THE EXAMINER STAFF
March 14, 1999
©1999 San Francisco Examiner
Subhead: The tragedy of a logging protester crushed by a felled tree haunts
the man who wielded the saw
Hours before he cut the redwood tree that killed a young environmentalist,
Pacific Lumber logger Arlington Earl "A.E." Ammons became enraged and
chased the protesters through the woods with a stick, vowing to beat them.
"I started cussin' and screamin' . . . I chased them up the mountain. Last
time I was dead serious . . . if I'd a caught one of them I would have beat
them," he admitted, according to a sheriff's report obtained by The
Examiner that gives the fullest public account to date of the incident last
fall near the Headwaters Forest.
By turns tearful and self-righteous, Ammons recalled how, moments after the
towering tree fell with a shudder and a shower of duff, he discovered the
crumpled body of David Chain.
"I looked down, I could see him . . . all curled up, feet under him,"
Ammons said. "And I jumped off the log to go to him and I could (see) that
great big hole in his head."
Chain's Sept. 17 death, and its aftermath, are part of the long-running
forest-floor fight between environmentalists and logging companies for the
future of Northern California's woodlands. Although the government's $480
million purchase this month of the Headwaters Forest from Pacific Lumber
Co. protects one of the world's last large groves of ancient redwoods, the
timber battle continues in other parts of the woods.
Ammons told a sheriff's investigator he repeatedly bellowed warnings that
he was felling the tree and believed the activists had left the area. Based
on the sheriff's probe, the Humboldt County district attorney in December
decided not to file charges, concluding Ammons did not knowingly aim a tree
at the protesters.
But the logger's account conflicts with official statements from forest
activists on key points, including the duration between his last exchange
with them and Chain's death, whether he gave adequate warning, and whether
he intentionally aimed trees at them.
Cindy Allsbrooks, Chain's mother, contends the sheriff's inquiry was tilted
to exonerate Ammons and Pacific Lumber, a charge the sheriff's and district
attorney's offices deny. "There was no criminal conduct that could be
proven. He just didn't know that they were there," said District Attorney
Allsbrooks hired lawyer Steven Schectman to file a civil suit against
Ammons, Pacific Lumber and its parent company, Maxxam Inc. of Houston,
alleging they were reckless and responsible for Chain's death. (Although a
criminal allegation must be proved beyond a reasonable doubt, a civil suit
must be proved only by a preponderance of the evidence.)
"The main culprit in this case is Pacific Lumber for fostering a corporate
environment in which violence against protesters was officially ignored,"
He recently moved his practice to Eureka from San Francisco to focus
exclusively on suing Maxxam for allegedly irresponsible business practices.
Maxxam has denied those allegations.
Schectman claimed that Ammons should have stopped cutting after
encountering the protesters, checked whether the activists had left the
area, and contacted his supervisor. A company policy states loggers must
not cut trees within two tree-lengths of fellow workers, he noted.
Ammons' statement to the sheriff's department appears to describe him
engaging in conduct at odds with a written company rule saying workers must
avoid confrontations with protesters. It is among 625 pages of witness
interviews and other sheriff's records reviewed by the district attorney's
office and obtained by The Examiner.
Ammons said in a brief phone interview that he had followed company policy
that fateful day, and his helper told authorities the same.
William Bragg, of Eureka, Ammons' lawyer, said he had not seen the
sheriff's report, but maintained that the activists assumed the risk of
their actions and that Ammons had no liability for Chain's death.
"He thought the demonstrators were out of the area," Bragg said.
Pacific Lumber President John Campbell also denied Schectman's claims and
said his firm had an outstanding safety record and that Ammons did nothing
"Our own investigation found that he was following safety procedures," he
said, calling it "a very unfortunate accident."
David Nathan Chain, 24, first came to Humboldt County from Coldspring,
Texas, a year earlier on a road trip with his girlfriend. He'd worked as a
cook back home, had tattoos of the sun and an American Indian, and was,
said friends, a "gentle spirit."
"Nathan always loved the outdoors and adventure," said his mother, a
business consultant in Coldspring. "He couldn't stop talking about the
beauty of the redwoods."
Chain returned to Humboldt County in early September 1998, one of thousands
of young people who in the past decade have converged on the area to defend
the trees. He became loosely affiliated with Earth First, which was known
for nonviolent civil-disobedience tactics in which activists locked
themselves together on Pacific Lumber land.
The day Chain died began like many others behind the redwood curtain, the
forest area north of Ukiah, according to sheriff's records.
As the morning sun filtered through the towering trees, he and seven other
forest activists hiked past Grizzly Creek Redwoods State Park to a steep
slope on Pacific Lumber property.
Their mission was "worker outreach." They believed (incorrectly, it turned
out) that the company was illegally cutting trees that shelter the marbled
murrelet, an endangered brown and white seabird about a robin's size. They
hoped to persuade the loggers not to cut until state forestry officials
inspected the area.
The group followed the buzz of chain saws until about 10 a.m., when they
spotted Ammons and his helper. They stopped, formed a circle and prayed for
"strength and clarity and peace" before approaching the loggers.
By then, Ammons had been sawing trees for a few hours.
Ammons, 52, has been a logger for 30 years. He is a native of Virginia and
the son of chicken ranchers. He is 5 feet 7 inches tall and 170 pounds.
On this day, he wore a mustache with his white T-shirt and hard hat and
He was not pleased.
"It pissed me off instantly," he told sheriff's investigator Juan Freeman.
"The minute I see them, it was spontaneous pissed. And I started cussin'
and screamin' and tellin' them to get the flock out of there."
Ammons was especially upset because a group on a similar mission approached
him at about 1:30 p.m. the day before, as he was cutting his way out of the
brush. "What the . . . (do) you guys want?" he angrily demanded.
The group, which did not include Chain, explained its murrelet concerns.
Ammons assured them he was logging legally and, finding the activists
"pretty doggone nice," wound up talking with them for three hours.
The rough-hewn logger was drawn to Carey Lea Jordan, 26, a registered nurse
from Maine who had dedicated herself to environmental work.
"I fell in love with her. She's a sweetheart," he told the investigator.
But he kept his edge.
"She asked me, if she was in a tree, would I fall it? And I said, "Yes, I
would.' She said, "You'd kill me?' I go, "No, you'd be killing yourself
because of the simple fact that you'd had ample time to get out of the damn
tree. You didn't belong there in the first place.'
"Right there she thought I was a murderer," he told the investigator,
adding, "Ya know, I wouldn't fall a tree with them in it. But I sure like
to tell them that. I just get lippy. I get fired up . . . you tell them
"I thought I got it through their head (sic) that they didn't need to be
there," he said, noting he warned them that logging areas were dangerous.
But the next morning Jordan reappeared with Chain and others. In a flash,
Ammons became enraged. According to one activist, he threw down his chain saw.
"They just kept comin' towards us and talkin', and I just tweaked," Ammons
told the sheriff's office.
"I took off after them. If I could of (sic) caught one of them I probably
would of touched (him or her) a time or two.
"I looked for sticks . . . rocks to throw at them, I couldn't get ahold of
nothin'," he said.
Ammons cussed them out, said he wished he had his gun and vowed to aim a
tree at them, saying, "I'll make sure I got a tree comin' this way,"
according to a video of that initial confrontation.
The activists regrouped in the dense brush. They heard the loggers fell two
or three trees toward them, Jordan said. Ammons seemed to be making good on
his threat, several activists told the sheriff's investigator.
"Sometimes he would yell out before a tree fell, sometimes nothing," Jordan
After a short time they again approached Ammons, Jordan told the
investigator, but the logger rebuffed them.
"I chased them up the mountain," Ammons said. "Last time I was dead
serious. I did find a limb . . . and if I'd a caught one of them I would
have beat them. But . . . they went way off and I started falling timber up
The environmentalists yelled at him to save the forest. He yelled back,
"Hey, I'm just out here to make a livin', you know?"
"They don't give up," he told the investigator. "I chased 'em . . . I'd say
a miminal (sic) of five times. But they were all pretty catty and they got
He cut two to five more trees, he said, and considered calling it a day.
"I was gonna quit because it was getting to me," he said. "My, I was
rattled from them. The stress of thinkin' about people bein' out there and
the piece of gravel we were working on anyway, it's just . . . horrible
steep ground. That's a real stressful piece of real estate that we're
But then, he figured, "I'm gonna fall this one more tree."
The redwood was more than 100 years old, about three feet thick at its base
and 135 feet tall.
It had "humongous" limbs, he said.
Ammons decided to cut it so it fell up the hill, because redwood is brittle
and felling it the farther distance down hill could shatter it into
Besides, the wind had come up and would help direct the tree uphill, saving
"I thought . . . I won't have to beat the wedges so hard," he said.
Ammons had neither seen nor heard the protesters for a while, he told the
"In fact, I'd almost forgot about them. Ya know, I figured that the last
time I chased them off . . . they were out of there."
But the wind got "really severe," and Ammons had trouble with the tree, he
said. His saw got stuck in the trunk, he had to pound extra wedges into it
and make more cuts.
Finally, said his helper, Rhett Reback, "it was just hangin' on by a hair."
The activists, meanwhile, had withdrawn and formed another circle. They
shared a snack of bread, garlic and radish.
Some of them later estimated it was 10 to 30 minutes since they spoke or
had contact with the logger. Reback said an hour had passed since their
Jordan said that for 15 or 20 minutes they didn't talk to the loggers, but
they continued to "make noise and stuff every now and then just to let them
know" they were there.
"We were . . . talking pretty loud," she said. "He knew we were around. He
was talking to his friend like he was talking to us, dropping little
comments and hints . . . like, "I wonder which way I'm gonna fall this . .
.. I hope they got a hard hat on.""
Ammons said the interlopers had been quiet longer.
"I'd say an hour, it could have been a half-an-hour. I don't relate to time
. . . I all but . . . forgot about them 'cause it had been . . . so quiet."
Like Ammons, the activists debated whether to call it quits. But they
concluded that would mean capitulating to his threats, one of them told the
They split into two groups - one consisting of Jordan and Chain - and were
about to approach the loggers to "save one more tree," Jordan said.
"So I plunged out of the bush . . . I look up and . . . the tree is right
there!" she said. "If we'd stayed there (at) lunch another minute it would
have been all of us."
Jordan scrambled up the sharp slope on her hands and knees, she said, but
Chain was "kind of hesitant" and "dreamy."
"I ran down to him, and I'm like . . . "We have to go high now!' I looked
him right in the eye. And then I ran up the hill," she said.
The activists claimed the loggers gave no warning as the giant tree was
about to fall. Ammons and Reback said they repeatedly hollered warnings.
The tree groaned, quivered and its 13 stories swung toward them.
"It went right on the money, right exactly where I wanted it to go," Ammons
said. "I was tickled pink.
"And then when that tree hit the ground, that's when I heard the girl up
Ammons ran to Jordan, yelling, "I didn't know you guys were there!" she said.
Jordan called out, "Where's Jesse? Where's Jesse?"" Ammons said. "And I go,
"Is Jesse your dog?' And she said, "No, Jesse's a human.' That's when I got
nervous . . ."
Ammons ran along the trunk of the fallen redwood and found Chain - whose
nickname was Gypsy - about 5 feet from the end.
"I jumped off the log," he said, "and then I seen his head."
Chain had died instantly.
The logger fell to the ground as if asking for forgiveness, Jordan said,
and she put her arm around him.
The next day at his Fortuna home, the logger tearfully told investigator
Freeman how his buddies had rallied around him.
Freeman reassured him, too. "I don't think anybody's gonna blame you," he said.
"I'd blame me," Ammons replied. "I didn't do it on purpose . . . but I
still blame me.
"I know why I fell that last tree," he said. "I wanted to save that . . .
redwood tree" from splintering down hill. And to save it at that moment was
a lot easier than waitin' the next day when there was no wind . . .. I was
just bein' (a) little bit lazy."
Freeman asked: "So you weren't doing anything out of the ordinary?"
"No, not really," Ammons said. "But . . . I did have a thought that I
should just quit and go talk to somebody."
A Pacific Lumber policy issued by company President John Campbell in 1992
"If you see anyone in the woods that (sic) does not belong, immediately
notify your supervisor.
" . . . do not engage them in confrontation . . . the sheriff's office can
handle their removal.
"In no case should physical force be used to remove the individuals."
The policy adds:
"An individual or his employer . . . can be held liable for assault and /
or battery for threatening or using physical force to remove a trespasser.
Pacific Lumber Company cannot tolerate such liability."
Campbell said in an interview that the policy still stands, and that
"normal procedure would make sure the area was in a safe condition."
But he said he was not familiar with Ammons' statement to the sheriff's
office, and declined to discuss the logger's conduct, citing potential
He added that none of Pacific Lumber's 1,400 employees had been disciplined
for confronting an activist on the firm's 211,000 acres in Humboldt County
in the past eight years.
"We've not had any incident that required reprimand," he said. "We're very
proud of our record."
The firm's logging handbook also warns that "falling timber during periods
of high wind" is among "poor falling practices."
Campbell claimed that the state Occupational Safety and Health Agency had
But a Cal-OSHA official said that though an inspection after Chain's death
found the firm's safety and training records in order, the agency never
investigated Ammons because its jurisdiction covers only worker injuries.
Freeman asked: "Would you have fell the tree had you known (people were
Ammons: "Oh, God no!"
Freeman: "OK. That's what I need to hear from you."
Ammons: "From now on, I will get a limb and I will beat one of them within
a . . . of their live(s) . . .. They'll wish I was fallin' trees.
"But I won't fall another tree, not when there's any people."
©1999 San Francisco Examiner Page A 1
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