Penthouse Retrospective

by Christopher Manes Originally Published: May, 1990

Green Rage | 30 Years Ago This Month

Public attention was focused on tree-spiking and the radical environmental movement on May 13, 1987, when a spike shattered a band saw and seriously injured a worker in Louisiana-Pacific’s mill in Cloverdale, California. Seemingly primed for the event, the San Francisco Chronicle printed a front-page headline reading “Tree Sabotage Claims Its First Bloody Victim.” Another paper’s front page read, “Earth First! Blamed for Worker’s Injuries.” At a highly publicized press conference, a Lousiana-Pacific spokesman faulted radical environmental groups “like Earth First!.”

Earth First! representatives replied to the charge by claiming that tree-spikers always inform timber companies when and where a spiking has taken place, the point being not to harm workers but to prevent logging. There had been no notification in the Cloverdale incident, and moreover the spiked tree was a second-growth redwood, not virgin timber of the type Earth First! seeks to protect. Many radical environmentalists suggested that Louisiana-Pacific itself put the spike in the tree to gain public sympathy. If so, the tactic was at least a partial success, since there is rarely any public discussion of radical environmentalism without some reference to this now infamous 60-penny nail. Nevertheless, from his hospital bed, the injured mill worker, George Alexander, unexpectedly expressed his agreement with Earth First!’s demand that Louisiana-Pacific stop clear-cutting redwood forests.

The resource industry has mounted a strident political and legal campaign against tree-spiking. In 1988 the congressional delegations from several northwest timber states under the habitual leadership of Idaho Senator James McClure and Oregon Senator Mark Hatfield — “the senator from Timber,” according to his environmental detractors — successfully attached a rider to an anti-drug bill making tree-spiking a felony. Still unsatisfied, the pro-resource industry McClure continues to clamor for stricter laws and has even suggested, in a moment of rancor unbecoming of an elected official, that for every acre of trees spiked by radical environmentalists, a hundred acres of wilderness should be clear-cut to teach them a lesson. The F.B.I. has repeatedly been called out in Oregon to investigate tree-spiking incidents, and the Forest Service, along with industry groups like Prevent Ecological Sabotage Today (PEST), have posted substantial rewards.

To no avail. No tree-spiker has ever been caught, and the practice continues to spread. Since 1984 it has increased tenfold, with incidents reported from the Plumas National Forest in California to the George Washington National Forest in Virginia. And as if to add insult to injury, in November 1988 a delegation of Oregon’s congressional aides touring a mill in southern Oregon to study the problem was treated to the sight of a $2,000 band saw shattering in a shower of metal and sparks after hitting a spike.

The Forest Service is loathe to talk about it, but sources in the agency and activists in the field say that at least two timber sales — in Washington State and Virginia — have been withdrawn due to tree-spiking. There have probably been many more. The Forest Service’s reticence on this matter is understandable, since the withdrawal of timber sales due to tree-spiking suggests that through ecotage radical environmentalists can sometimes have more influence on public-lands policy than mainstream environmentalists or even the Forest Service itself.

To some extent this is exactly the case. For example, it was the media-oriented agitation of radical environmentalists using tree-spiking, road blockades, and demonstrations that made a national issue of the spotted owl’s slide toward extinction due to the logging of its ancient coniferous forest habitat in the Pacific Northwest. This embarrassed national environmental organizations — which had been dragging their feet on the issue for fear of incurring the wrath of Senator Hatfield — into pressuring a recalcitrant Fish and Wildlife Service to hold hearings on listing the owl as an endangered species. In September 1989 Congress passed a compromise bill giving limited protection to the owl and its habitat. In the long run, the compromise is inadequate to protect either the owl or the forests, but there would have been no legislative action at all had it not been for the fact that radical environmental protests began appearing in the news, lending passion to the otherwise arcane subject of forest management.

The spotted-owl controversy is an example of how radical environmentalists have used not only ecotage, but ecological civil disobedience to challenge government and resource-industry plans to develop public lands. This often involves blockading timber roads. In 1983 four radical environmentalists placed their bodies in front of a bulldozer punching a road into the pristine Kalmiopsis forest of southern Oregon. They were arrested, but others soon took their place. Altogether, 45 protesters were thrown into prison over a three-month period. The blockade delayed construction long enough to allow Earth First! to file a lawsuit against the Forest Service and have the road declared illegal.

Since then there have been literally dozens of road blockades against the oil, mining, and timber interests that have purchased access to our public lands: on the north rim of the Grand Canyon, where a uranium mine is being operated by Energy Fuels Nuclear; in Northern California, where the giant Maxxam Corporation is cutting the last of the unprotected redwood forests in order to pay off the debt from a hostile takeover of the local timber company that owned the trees; in the Siskiyou National Forest of Oregon, where a number of timber companies are logging the lucrative old-growth stands (ancient, virgin forests that contain unique species, such as the spotted owl and Pacific salamander).

Ignore the environment for long enough, and it may protect itself with a Green Rage. The environmentalist simmer will eventually boil. Do nothing for long enough, and saving the planet will become a multifaceted active confrontation.

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