Penthouse Retrospective

by Christopher Manes Originally Published: May, 1990

Green Rage | 30 Years Ago This Month

In 1985 radical environmentalists set their sights higher by developing a new form of civil disobedience that has been a thorn in the side of the timber industry ever since: tree-sitting. Using rock-climbing gear, six protesters ascended 80 feet into the canopy of old-growth trees in Oregon’s Willamette National Forest, scheduled for clear-cutting by Willamette Industries. By attaching grappling hooks to nearby trees, the tree-sitters were able to prevent loggers from cutting the stand for over a month. When the last protester was brought to the ground by police in a construction crane, his tree was finally cut down — at a cost of several hundred thousand dollars in lost production time and increased law enforcement. As the tree-sitter later said after engaging in several other similar incidents: “I figure I’ve done about a million dollars worth of damage in the last two years. They can sue me — I don’t care, I don’t have any money!”

This scenario has been repeated over and over again, so much so that the Forest Service routinely closes areas to the public where protests against old-growth logging are expected. Forest Service officials claim it is for reasons of “public safety,” but environmental activists charge it is a blatant attempt to stifle dissent, a kind of wilderness martial law. They are considering the possibility of a law-suit against the Forest Service closures.

The situation has been made more volatile by Forest Service use of so-caIIed “pot commandos” to enforce the closures and bring the protesters down from the trees. The pot commandos are a paramilitary force of 500 law-enforcement officers, created by a 1986 drug bill, charged with the goal of preventing marijuana cultivation on public lands-hence their name. But Earth First! spokespeople say that fully half of the pot commandos may have been diverted to help the Forest Service combat environmental protesters. A suit over misappropriation of funds is also being considered over this issue.

The conflict turned particularly ugly in July 1988 when pot commandos trained high-powered rifles on tree-sitters in the Kalmiopsis road less area of southern Oregon. A law-enforcement officer at the scene was quoted as saying that if the protesters had made any hostile moves against the arresting officers, the pot commandos “would have shot the asses out of the trees” anatomy was spared, a tree-sitter in the Four Notch area of east Texas did suffer serious leg injuries when law-enforcement officials actually allowed loggers to cut down the tree he had occupied in protest.

“I tell you, someone’s going to die,” said Greg Miller, executive vice-president of the Southern Oregon Timber Industries Association. “That’s what I fear most.”

Physical resistance to wilderness destruction in this country is a fact that can no longer be disregarded by government, the resource industry, or the mainstream environmental movement. And as has already been suggested, it is a very costly fact, running into the tens of millions.

This expense is often precisely the re-suit radical environmentalists desire. To quote Foreman: “If enough damage is done to the industrial tools of the incursion into wild places, then insurance rates are going to go up. The Forest Service won’t be able to both build new roads and keep their old network intact if it’s being torn up. Monkey-wrenching is basically a means of self-defense.”

It is a defense not limited to the American wilderness. Radical environmentalism is an international phenomenon. In 1979 the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, a radical offshoot of Greenpeace operating out of Canada, took to the high seas in defense of marine mammals. On July 16 the 206-foot-long ship Sea Shepherd, under the command of its flamboyant captain, Paul Watson, rammed and disabled a pirate whaling ship off the Portuguese coast. Watson’s ship was confiscated, and rather than let ting it fall into the hands of the whalers, he reluctantly scuttled it himself. But he got the last laugh a few months later when the pirate whaling ship was mysteriously bombed and sunk.

Several years later, funded mainly by English schoolchildren who raised $25,000 in a save-the-whale walkathon, the Sea Shepherds took on whalers from the Faeroe Islands, a small Danish protectorate north of England, by interfering with their hunt. The incident culminated in a sea battle between the Sea Shepherds’ vessel — ringed with barbed wire to prevent boarding — and shotgun-toting Faeroese police in inflatables and a gunboat.

The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society struck again in November 1986, this time against Iceland for violating the International Whaling Commission moratorium on whaling. Two members of the society scuttled two whaling vessels in Reykjavfk Harbor and ransacked a nearby whaling station with a fury appropriate to that Nordic country’s violent Viking past.

On May 31, 1982, five members of a group called Direct Action made Earth First’s Glen Canyon Dam efforts look pale by comparison when they blew up the $4.5 million British Columbia Hydro Substation on Vancouver island.

Over the last few years, Australian ecoteurs have caused over $1 million in damages to dozens of bulldozers and other heavy equipment, causing some timber contractors to close down their operations. In 1986, saboteurs in Thailand, for environmental reasons, burned down a chemical plant producing the high-tech metal tantalum, causing $45 million in damages.

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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