Matthew Power [1974-2014] was an award-winning freelance print and radio journalist and a contributing editor at Harper’s Magazine.

Guerillas in the Mist

Feed  |  October 2000

45 miles east of Eugene, in a nine-acre patch of rainforest in Oregon's Willamette National Forest, the trolls are restless. Around a smoky campfire, with rain falling on a tarp overhead, a dozen of them hold a war council. They argue whether or not to dig up, yet again, the logging road that gives the U.S. Forest Service access to the forest. Wet and cold, dreadlocks filled with fir needles, faces smudged with soot and dirt, they look as though they've lived in this forest all their lives. The clearing is surrounded by a dense undergrowth of head-high ferns and vines. Moss hangs like laundry from branches as the massive trunks of Douglas fir and hemlock disappear upward in the gloom. Their dress is a mix of Zapatista and gutter punk, with camouflage pants, black hoodies and bandannas to hide their faces from the Freddies, their epithet for Forest Service officers. Ranging in age from 15 to 45, they go by noms de guerre: Fungus, Swamp, Ferret, Coal, Lorax, Half-Pint.

Doing "road work" will bring in the Freddies, another round of arrests, and the confiscation of equipment. On the other hand, a confrontation will revive the trolls' flagging energies, adding the thrill of battle to the trench warfare ennui, self-doubt and infighting that has set in since the Forest Service last "invaded" earlier in the summer. Someone suggests planting trees in the road. Fungus, age 20, is frying mushrooms he picked in the forest. He wants to train baby ravens to attack the color green that the Freddies wear. Most of the trolls chain smoke hand-rolled cigarettes, and when a twig breaks in the forest, they shine flashlights out into the heavy darkness, hoping to spot a "superfreddie", a quasi-mythical figure in flak jacket and night vision goggles sent by the Forest Service to spy on them. "I know you fucks are out there!" shouts a nineteen year old troll named Tangent ."You're never gonna cut down this fucking forest!" Swamp, a 24 year old activist from Massachusetts who has lived in the forest for the better part of a year, is more realistic."A lot of the time we think they're out there watching us when they probably aren't. But it's a constructive paranoia. It keeps us on our toes, " he says.

Frustrated by too much talk and too little action, a few trolls slip off and spend the entire night with picks and shovels, digging a four foot by four foot trench across the road, deep enough to break the axle of any vehicle that tries to cross it. The next day a dissenting group will fill the trench back in. It is a typical outcome of group meetings here. "We never agree on anything, which means they never know what we'll do next," says Fungus.

Since April of 1998, this group of a few dozen protesters have occupied the rainforest, constructing a network of treehouses in the upper canopy in an effort to save 96 acres of old growth trees from the sawmill. They call their tree village Red Cloud Thunder, after the last war chief of the Oglala Sioux. There are six 200 foot high tree sits in the main village, surrounding the end of the logging road and blocking heavy machinery from accessing the forest. The sits are jerrybuilt out of scavenged plywood, rope and tarps, and their height makes any attempt by the authorities to remove them all but impossible. The standard model for a tree sit is a "donut", a high platform around the tree that a forest service climber will not be able to get around to pull the sitters out. The trees are connected through rope walkways, so an Ewok can move between all the sits without touching the ground. Each sit has enough food and water to withstand a two-month siege.

At any given time there are a half dozen Ewoks, as the tree-dwellers call themselves, and a dozen or more trolls who support them from the ground. The population is constantly in flux, many arriving from the streets of Portland and Eugene, angered at what they see as society's complacency at the destruction of the Northwest's forests. "Most people think we're nuts, giving up everything to come try and save these trees. Maybe it'll get cut anyway, " says Lorax, a 24 year old sitter who has been at Red Cloud Thunder since its first winter, "But we're fucking doing something."

It is a grueling half-hour ascent, in harness, up a climbing line into the tree village to Yggdrasil (a tree sit named for the tree of life in Norse myth), which Lorax built in his first winter in the woods. The trees are massive, averaging 250 feet, with the blue tarps of the sits looking like kites tangled in their branches. From the tiny 4x8 platform the boundaries of the forest are clearly defined, and a few hundred yards in any direction the tree farms and clearcuts that surround the village are visible. The various sits are each occupied by one or two Ewoks, who shout to each other across the open clearing and pass food and supplies around through a network of pulleys. The Ewoks studiously ignore the dizzying height, walking around their sits without safety harnesses. Yggdrasil is outfitted with the necessities of life at 200 feet: 5 gallon jugs of water, buckets of food, blankets, tools, climbing equipment, ropes, and piles of books ranging from The Hobbit to the Unabomber manifesto. There is a walkie talkie attached to a car battery, which is charging off a solar panel at the top of the tree.

Lorax's wild red dreadlocks riddled with fir needles are countered by pale blue eyes. He was born in the Bronx, and has worked as everything from a logger to a body piercer. He spent his first winter in Yggdrasil. "I slept on the ground maybe ten times the first year, and once spent 17 days up there without seeing the sun," he says, " His first encounter with the forest was an epiphany. " When I came out here, I just fell on my knees. I knew right then that I had found something I could fight for heart and soul. They'll cut these trees down over my fucking dead body."

Having put themselves at the periphery of society, Lorax feels, a chief difficulty is getting people to understand what the Ewoks are doing and why. "I know this can only be won in the court of public opinion, so we're waiting for people to get up and voice their opposition. The hard part is, how do you get people to give a fuck when what we're doing out here is so far from their reality? And how can we go back and tell them?" It is a common sentiment among the Ewoks: the longer they stay in the woods, the more alienated and suspicious they become of mainstream society, the less they see any other option than living in the trees.

To the U.S. Forest Service, who owns the land, and the Zip-O lumber company of Eugene, who paid almost $2 million to cut its timber, the protesters are holding the forest hostage, and are little more than sociopathic vandals squatting on public lands. But to the Ewoks and trolls, they are not only fighting to save some of the last low elevation rain forest in the Pacific Northwest, but to forge a new civilization at the perimeter of the old. "We couldn't change society from the inside out," says Lorax."They see this forest as a commodity. We see it as a home." In the 18 months of occupation, there have been 61 arrests and thousands of dollars in damage to forest service property. The head of the Smokey the Bear statue at a nearby ranger station was hacked off in the middle of the night, the stump covered in red paint. Now a sign at the station bars entry to anyone wearing masks. Sue Olson, a representative of the Forest Service, is incensed. "Most of the people out there don't have a clue as to what they're protesting. Some of them are anarchists, with belligerent, atrocious behaviors. I'm talking about putting up barricades of logs across the road and covering them with human feces." None of the Ewoks deny the "shit-barricade" incident, but for many it seemed perfectly reasonable in the logical framework of defending the forest. "I hate to put it in terms of us and them, but they're the ones who want to clear cut this forest and sometimes those tactics are necessary," says Swamp.

Supplies for Red Cloud Thunder are brought in by car a few times a week, mostly dumpster-dived or donated by health food stores in Eugene, 40 miles away. The staples of life, hauled up into the trees, are stale bagels, wilted produce, and expired yogurt. Dysentery is common, especially among newcomers. "You live out here long enough you have the immune system of a horse," says Bogan, a sitter who has spent almost a year in the forest. Everything is done on a shoestring budget, with donations trickling in from sympathizers holding down day jobs. Rainwater is collected from tarps hung in the branches, and human waste is lowered down in buckets to be buried in the woods. It is a difficult and dangerous existence, leaving the sitters exposed to the heavy winds and rains of the Oregon winter, seven miles from the nearest paved road. Outsiders are treated with suspicion: any car that makes it up to the village will quickly find itself surrounded by a group of masked anarchists holding shovels and picks like a scene out of Children of the Corn. The sitters live with constant damp, cold, bouts of dysentery and hunger, but for many privation becomes a source of liberation. " The isolation is hard, but we help each other. Living here you begin to realize how much you don't need. We're free from lots of society's bullshit. Not much food, no showers, no toilet paper but moss. It makes you strong,"say Lorax.

Tree sitting, perhaps best known through Julia "Butterfly" Hill's two year occupation of a Northern California redwood, is increasingly common in the Pacific Northwest. Red Cloud Thunder, as the campaign is known, is the enfant terrible of the movement. Unlike Butterfly, a former model turned activist who used her sit as a soapbox and became something of a media darling, the denizens of Red Cloud Thunder feel deeply ambivalent about the media and public opinion "Good p.r. and freedom fighting don't always go hand in hand," says Lorax, "We're hard core. I know sometimes that works against us, but they still don’t know what to do about us. You can't get a person out of an occupied trre without killing them."

Bruce Gainer is the Forest Service's chief law enforcement officer in dealing with the situation. When asked how it's possible to safely get a person out from 200 feet up in a tree when they don't want to go, he dodges. "We'll carry that out in a very safe way. But I'm not gonna tell you what that is." For Gainer, getting rid of the tree sitters is a matter of fiscal practicality. "Why should I spend taxpayers' money to get everyone out of the trees, only to have them go right back and start all over again?" For the time being, the Forest Service has elected to stay away, leaving the tree village more or less alone, which actually makes it harder for the Ewoks to function. "Waiting for something to happen, for them to come in and try to log, makes a lot of people edgy, so we fight among ourselves from anxiety. People come up here with a lot of baggage from town, a lot of fear and anger. We try to work that stuff out." says Lorax.

Beginning with Earth First! in the early 1980’s, activism in the northwest has centered on the fight to save the last 5% of old growth forests from logging, with varying degrees of success. In the redwoods of northern California, a decade-long battle to save the Headwaters redwood grove culminated in a $480 million dollar, publicly funded buyout to Pacific Lumber owner Charles Hurwitz, a deal which many activists saw as amounting to ransom. Julia Butterfly's tree-sit ended in December after she paid Pacific Lumber $50,000 to preserve the redwood she had occupied for 2 years. "Paying someone to not cut down trees is just a sell-out, plain and simple," says Lorax. In 1998, a year-long road blockade by Earth First! at Warner Creek, Oregon led to that forest being saved. Another tree village, Howl and Growl, was cut down by the Forest Service when the occupants came down in a storm. When the 96-acre Clark timber sale was bought by Zip-O in early 1998, Dean "Dirt" Rimerman, one of the founders of Red Cloud Thunder, filed a series of public complaints. But the sale was slated to proceed, and the first sit went up in April of that year. "We saw it as the last line of defense between the forest and the logging company," says Rimerman. The campaign has since evolved into a training ground for many of the nine other tree sitting campaigns that have sprung up in the last two years in the northwest. In October, a group from Red Cloud Thunder made an 8 hour road trip to set up a sit in Arcata, California.

While the roughly 6 million board feet slated to be cut at Red Cloud Thunder are a mere blip in the billions taken annually from national forests in the Northwest, the Ewoks see their crusade as crucial. "What else are we going to do?" asks Lorax. "We're standing up to them, getting in the way. If it wasn't for our presence this forest would be lying down." The Forest Service's Olson won't give them credit. "It wouldn't necessarily have been cut yet. Zip-O is still within their contract duration." Zip-O's contract, originally set to be completed by the end of this year's logging season, has been given two extensions, until the summer of 2002, to cut the 96 acres that Red Cloud Thunder is fighting for. According to the Forest Service, those extensions are "market related adjustments", giving Zip-O the opportunity to wait for an upturn in the depressed timber market. And while Zip-O has refused any comment to the press about the protests, their Eugene yard, piled high with old growth logs, shows that they have plenty of other work to do while the Ewoks have tied up their 96 acres. Rimerman shrugs off the notion that free market economics rather than tree sits are keeping the forest standing. "They can believe whatever they want, but it's two years and they haven't made their cut yet."

In fact, most of the victories of the forest movement have occurred outside the forest. Direct action works to bring attention to a cause, but lawyers end up cutting the deals. But the Ewoks are deeply mistrustful of governmental double dealing."Legislation is always about compromise," says Rimerman. "We already compromised 95% of our forests. There's no more room for it." Little has been done legislatively to give the Ewoks faith in the process. Clinton's 1994 Northwest Forest Plan was offered as a solution between environmental and timber interests, preserving some forests while allowing others to be cut. The tree village falls in that so-called "sacrifice zone". Although the Forest Service follows a relatively strict set of environmental protocols, the Ewoks see no room for cutting old growth trees.

The standoff underscores a chief dilemma for the Forest Service: the timber interests think they're environmentalists and environmentalists think they're rapists. Congress won't fund them, so they lose nearly a billion dollars a year subsidizing logging on public lands. "We're expected to be all things to all people," says Rodgers. And in the Ewok mythos, they make a perfect enemy. Rodgers sees the problem as a failure to communicate. "I wish they would see that there is more to life than their opinions. I've wanted to go out there and sit around the fire with some homemade pie and cookies and try and be real human beings with each other. But I think we're past that. That's their village, their culture, and it's not a culture that welcomes the U.S. Forest Service. There's no leader who could speak for them, because they are a very transient population. These are runaway kids, these are throwaway kids. They can be dangerous, nasty, and violent."

There have been plenty of confrontations for Rodgers to base this assertion on. Accusations and counteraccusations have been common: the Ewoks claim the Forest Service used a bulldozer to ram an occupied tree, nearly shaking out the occupant. While insisting that never happened, the Forest Service claims the sitters poured jugs of urine on them, which the Ewoks deny. The 61 arrests in the campaign's history have been on charges ranging from blocking a government road to felony assault on a federal officer (a charge which was later dropped), and violent encounters at other enviromental protests have lent to the tinderbox atmosphere. According to press reports, eight protesters in Elaho, British Columbia were hospitalized when a group of 100 loggers attacked their camp. In 1998, a 24 year old protester named David "Gypsy" Chain was killed when a logger felled a redwood on him.

Many of the Ewoks fear that sooner or later one of them is going to be killed. "Everyone out here is ready to give their lives for this forest. But we don't need any more martyrs. Gypsy was enough. A dead activist can't fight anymore," says Swamp. While no one has been seriously hurt at Red Cloud Thunder, the dangers of treesitting are everpresent. A sitter in California fell 80 feet from a traverse line, shattering his pelvis. One woman did fall off a platorm in the village in the dark, but by a quirk of fate she landed on another platform 10 feet below. "That tree just grabbed her out of midair," says Lorax. This reflects not only the physical danger of treesitting, but the widely held belief among the Ewoks that the trees are sentient beings. "It's difficult to make people understand that we see these trees as fundamentally equal to us," says Lorax.

Earlier in the summer, a series of barricades had been built: piles of logs, trenches, ripped-out culverts stood on end, tunnels underneath the road, and an 80 foot high road-blocking structure with a sitter on top, all to keep the forest service and loggers out. There have been two total closures of the forest, when the Forest Service attempted to remove all the protesters on the ground. Guards were placed on the trees to prevent supplies from getting up. The Ewoks claim the Forest Service blared country music and shined spotlights on the trees, copying the sleep deprivation tactics of the Marines who flushed out Manuel Noriega. The Forest Service claims the lights were for safety and the music was for the guards' entertainment. Hazel, a 28 year old woman who came to Red Cloud Thunder from New York, was stuck up in a sit during the closure. " I was a prisoner of conscience, but it was really the most free I have ever felt. It was because I realized our wills were stronger than their wills."

While exciting, Lorax found the confrontations to be more trouble than they were worth. "It's incredibly emotionally taxing. Days of digging, piling, barricading, and the Freddies come in with bulldozers and destroy it in a couple of hours. People are arrested and they confiscate everyone's property as evidence. Up in the trees is the only place you're safe." Lorax estimates the Forest Service has confiscated $12,000 in equipment, ranging from climbing gear to dog food. Gainer sees that as an impasse. "I have a whole warehouse full of property for anyone who'll take responsibility for what's gone on up there." Not surprisingly, none of the Ewoks have elected to step forward. "I think a lot of the road work is pointless," says Lorax. "But there's no one here who can tell anyone else what to do, and killing the road makes some people happy."

The Ewoks have an array of defenses in their sits: mace, girth-stoppers (long poles to hold down a climber's chain), even a super-soaker loaded with cayenne pepper. And as a homemade form of biological warfare, some of the sitters are ready to dump their shit buckets on the heads of anyone trying to climb up. "They can't get us out." says Lorax, "Not even Climber Dan. He hog-tied a girl in Northern California and lowered her to the ground. Of course, she was a non-violent protester. We have a self-defense clause."

"Climber Dan" aka Dan Collings, is a logger for Pacific Lumber in Humboldt County, California. At 42, he's been climbing after people in trees for 12 years. He estimates he has taken 50 sitters down from trees, usually by taking their food and gear and starving them out. He is a mythological creature to the Ewoks, able to skirt any manner of defenses. He has never gone up against the Ewoks, and when he hears about their tactics, he is unenthused about the prospect. "If they called me and said, here's $5000 just to see what you could do, I'd do it. But the first shit bucket that came rolling down, I'd probably decide that that wasn't enough money." So is there anyway to get them out? "If you want to play shitty, I'll just dump a truckload of tires at the base of the tree and light em on fire. They'll come down in a big fucking hurry."

Nevertheless, Collings doesn't think the situation should escalate. "They're bullshit, but what would I want to splat someone all over the ground I don't even know for? It's just a tree. They can stay up there until they're old and gray and collecting social security they never paid on for all I care."

A group of trolls gather around the morning fire, groggily reboiling grounds from the previous day's coffee, which they call 'crack'. A few are eating charred black bagels, a home remedy for the amoebic dysentery that can come from drinking untreated water from nearby Fall Creek. Fungus and Tangent debate the veganness of different food items: whether or not Heinz ketchup contains cow blood and Guinness contains lard and fish scales. There is a shout from above. "Branch!" Everyone scatters.

A pumpkin and an orange hardhat come tumbling out of Yggdrasil. On impact, pumpkin shrapnel scatters forty feet. The hardhat bounces and comes to a stop. Reportedly it belonged to A.E. Ammons, the Pacific Lumber logger who killed Gypsy the previous fall. "It's trying to kill someone again!" shouts down Grasshopper, the sitter who accidentally sent it overboard.

Despite Gypsy's death, which devastated many of the tree sitters, they haven't changed their tactics or the risks they're willing to take. "One sitter named Khaos sat up on the roadblock platform with a noose around her neck, daring them to shake her off," says Lorax.

Indeed, Rodgers is more worried about the Ewoks than they themselves are. "Sometimes those trees just blow over. And what do you think would happen if one of those kids fell? They're dead. What do you think they would do in their little anarchist culture? When I hear a kid saying 'I would give my life for this tree', I think, "You don't have a life yet, you don't know what life is. What are you giving?"

Lorax sits on the stump of Joy, wearing a Sturgis bike rally t-shirt. Joy was one of the earliest sits, set off a few hundred yards from the main village. The sitter left it unattended, and the Forest Service came in and cut it down. Bruce Gainer sees that as a necessary law enforcement tactic. "What they're doing out there is illegal. Building tree sits is against the law, and we had to cut down the tree to get the sit out." "They shouted out 'dead tree!' as it fell", says Lorax, "Now the rule is 'never leave a tree empty.'" No one yet has dragged the tree out, so it has been lying on the ground for over a year, the smashed up plywood of the sit pinned underneath, 200 feet from the stump.

I ask Lorax what he would do if the Forest Service came in. "We worry about the Freddies all the time. I doubt they think about us that much. But we have to prepare and strategize constantly. If they come in to log, it becomes a game of cat and mouse, running around the woods to keep them from cutting." Lorax knows that "Cat and Mouse" is exactly how Gypsy was killed, but he sees it as the only option when cutting begins. "The sits can only protect those trees. They could pretty much log around us, because a logger can drop a tree on a dime. The truth is, everything we do on the ground is just a stalling tactic, buying time while we wait for people to wake up. And there's always the fear that they never will."

In a fittingly strange denouement, the cavalry riding in to end the standoff may come in the form of a two inch-long nocturnal rodent, the red tree vole. These upper canopy voles, a favorite crudite of the threatened spotted owl, are themselves threatened, and in December a federal judge signed a temporary hold on logging the Clark timber sale until surveys are done to see if the vole lives there. The catch is, nobody ever actually sees the voles, their presence must be determined by looking for their nests. And despite the hold, the Ewoks have no intention of coming out of the trees unless the sale is completely canceled. "We know if we left the trees now, they'd cut the ones we'd occupied down just for spite," says Lorax. Bruce Gainer won't say what he will do if they left the trees, but the Ewoks aren't willing to take any chances. "Our foot's in the door, and we can't take it out," says Lorax. "But that's when we win, when we can take the sits down and leave the forest alone. And go find another one to defend."