For David Chain, preserving old growth forest required the ultimate sacrifice
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 Terry Farmer.
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," Schectman said.
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,
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 wrong.
"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
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 chewed tobacco.
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
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
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
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
"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 anything.
"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
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
"Sometimes he would yell out before a tree fell, sometimes nothing,"
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 hill."
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 away."
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 working on."
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 unsaleable pieces.
Besides, the wind had come up and would help direct the tree uphill,
saving him work.
"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
"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 last contact.
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 investigator.
They split into two groups -- one consisting of Jordan and Chain --
and were about to approach the loggers to "save one more tree,"
"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
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 there screamin'."
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 tells employees:
"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 litigation.
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 "cleared" Ammons.
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
Freeman asked: "Would you have fell the tree had you known (people
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
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