Salal climbs one foot at a time, stepping within her ropes. It’s a move called the “spider claw,” and it’s slow going. The fir tree she’s climbing is at least a hundred and fifty feet tall. She’s headed for a wooden platform somewhere near the top, maybe another sixty feet to go. The strenuous task of leveling the wooden platform with yet more rope is still ahead. All this to prepare for the next couple of weeks, when someone will be living on that platform, sitting in the tree to make the point that this forest is worth saving.
Salal is not her real name, by the way. It’s a forest name. It’s typical for activists who stage events like these—tree sits in national forests to protest logging—to use outdoor monikers. This is not so much because anyone is breaking the law. The worst crime being committed by the Cascadia Forest Defenders in staging this action, if any, is probably trespassing, since demonstrations like these are protected speech. But the activists are wary of surveillance and harassment. And some are violating public relations policies at day jobs with nonprofits, or otherwise acting off-brand or off-message of other environmental endeavors they support.
They have gotten pretty good at compartmentalizing these dual roles. And the climate movement has gotten pretty good at accepting that compartmentalization as a necessity. At a time when the popular response to ecological concerns is engaging more Americans, there’s acknowledgment that every tool is worth wielding.
“I never thought I’d be able to do this wing-nut shit,” Salal said a few minutes ago, suited up in a harness and preparing to climb.
But as Oregon becomes what one nonprofit director termed “the epicenter of the forests and carbon debate,” both direct action activists and those more inclined toward paper pushing are leveraging this tandem approach, as if pedaling the same bike. Their often unspoken cooperation is having unique success lately.
Consider this particular woodland. It’s located in the Willamette National Forest, about an hour east of Eugene. And because it’s part of the Flat Country timber sale, five thousand acres are about to be logged here—about a thousand of those clear-cut—even though significant portions are more than a hundred years old. Technically speaking, this isn’t “old growth.” These are not the virgin forests America has strived to protect in many parts of the West. But it is second growth, and on its way to becoming ancient, making it the next logical target for preservation if preserving older forests is an aim.
Some Oregonians question why—politically speaking—it is not, not yet.
Scientists oppose this timber sale, including Jerry Franklin and Norm Johnson, widely considered to be the godfathers of the Northwest Forest Plan. Congressman Peter DeFazio opposes it, too. And this area is part of tens of thousands of acres of forestland that paper-pushing environmental groups have urged the Biden administration to protect. Other forests being targeted for safeguards are in Oregon or other parts of the Cascades and are similarly stocked with old and mature growth. They contain trees that are more than eighty years old; they have never been industrially managed; and they are becoming the kind of complex, multispecies habitats that store carbon and support life. The Biden administration has taken the idea of preserving these woodlands seriously enough to have offered meetings with climate czar John Kerry’s staff and appointees at the US Department of Agriculture.
Those meetings haven’t produced results so far. And when the USDA recently released its Action Plan for Climate Adaptation and Resilience, it didn’t include the hoped-for logging protections for lands like these. Instead, the plan emphasized capturing carbon in soils and using land conservation funds to buy more forests. “But no real mention of how to protect carbon-rich forests on lands the public already owns, or the ongoing negative effects of logging places like Flat Country,” says Steve Pedery, conservation director of the nonprofit Oregon Wild. Pedery says the plan “talks up trying to store carbon in two-by-fours” as an alternative to safeguarding trees, a continuation of Trump-era policies that have been largely discredited.
The task for those involved in this tree sit is to show the public what a forest like this really looks like and to question why a government talking busily about carbon storage is also planning to log it, casting the inevitable two-by-fours as a win. As activists feel an urgent need to speak up, they are clear on the role they are playing.
Inside the temporary camp where Salal and others prepare, the concern surrounding the future of this forest comes to life. There’s a tarp overhead, tied between trees in the towering quiet of firs and ferns, nothing to hear but the murmur of wind in pine needle. The assemblage underneath reflects weeks of planning. There is a makeshift kitchen—containers stocked with coffee and peanut butter, water and apples, bowls and utensils and propane stoves. Next to it is a collection of things any camper hopes never to need: a sewing kit, rain ponchos, water filters, and mosquito netting. On a rope strung between two young trees hangs a clearinghouse of climbing gear, including the helmets and harnesses that are a constant reminder of the dangerousness of this task. And on the ground, a painted banner, ready to be raised for the inevitable press tours and photo ops: “No Old Growth Logging in a Climate Crisis.”
Asked his concerns about the upcoming tree sit, an activist who gave the name Archer is blunt: “I am way more scared of the risks of inaction than the risks I will take through action. I’m terrified of what’s coming.” He says every summer brings fresh fear of wildfire and that he is frustrated with talk of carbon storage systems when simple solutions are already here. “Elon Musk had a thing where he was like, ‘I’ll pay someone $1 billion if they create a system that can sequester carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.’ These trees do that,” he says, waving an arm in both exasperation and sarcasm.
For the next two weeks, the platform overhead will become home to whichever intrepid person sits there, quietly suffering the weather and the occasional gravity-defying vole. Mostly that will be an activist named Bramble, who plans to add a guitar to the supplies, along with a pile of books.
It is Bramble who speaks most clearly of what is lost when a place like this is logged: “Everything that lives here. It’s more than can be mapped or measured or witnessed through a purely material lens.” Habitat. Life. The spirit of a place. The comment is a nod to the Douglas firs and more than a dozen other types of conifers surrounding the camp, including an ancient pair of cedars in close communion nearby. Snowfall and rain flow through this region as part of the McKenzie River watershed, which supplies drinking water to Eugene. A short walk away, a freshwater spring pours from an underground source. In between, the ground is lined with maidenhair and sword ferns, huckleberry and vanilla leaf. It is unlike an industrially managed forest, in which the trees are the same, evenly spaced, uniform as a cornfield.
This tree sit is not sanctioned by established environmental groups, and the activists know their lane. They know that violent action doesn’t help their cause. But visible spectacle, displays of courage and daring that communicate the urgency of problems and a commitment to solving them—those get attention. These landscapes lack witnesses until the camera turns its eye. Activists know that when they’re strategic, attention can move solutions along.
“If people haven’t actually thought that through, sometimes you get a lot of very passionate action that actually doesn’t fit into a strategic framework,” says Tim Ream, a long-time activist who has been involved in both direct action and policy work. It’s important, he says, that radical activists think about how they work alongside their moderate colleagues, who tend to secure the movement’s wins through court battles, lobbying, new rules, and signatures. “Moderates, generally, are better at getting the person to sign the piece of paper. They work the inside. They work the politicians. They have good relationships with them and the bureaucrats. They know that world. And the radicals … oftentimes their most important role is changing narratives.”
Consider the climate strikes of 2019 and 2020. They got the attention of young kids’ parents, started conversations around dinner tables, and spurred more discussion during the presidential debates than in prior years. The school strikes—particularly their storytelling—pulled the climate conversation in America decidedly to the left. Now, even energy companies rarely deny that the planet is warming.
These kinds of nonviolent direct tactics are key to the unique success that the Pacific Northwest has had in battling fossil fuel energy development. Over the past two decades, organizers have fought the construction of terminals intended to export fossil fuels through a combination of legal work and campaigning led by nonprofits, grassroots organizers, and activists.
For instance, after Zenith Energy began shipping oil by rail through Portland, activists planted a garden on the company’s train tracks. They hired a truck, dumped a load of dirt on the rails, and got to work planting vegetables and installing a scarecrow, a toolshed, and chairs from which to enjoy the view. Five activists who were arrested that day later put on a courtroom spectacle in which they admitted to planting the garden. They played a video showing jurors as much, and argued the action was necessary because attempts to thwart climate change by other means had failed. Over days, experts testified as to the seriousness of the climate threat, the stalled efforts to contain it, and the potential of nonviolent direct action to spur change. The trial ended in a hung jury, and Multnomah County opted not to prosecute the case a second time.
The action was one of varied efforts to oppose fossil fuel export facilities, efforts that played out at city council meetings, through planning commissions, with state boards, and in the governor’s office. Now the region is in a unique position: not only has it triumphed over new fossil fuel infrastructure, but it is also pushing back against the old. Zenith’s existing operational permit, for instance, was reviewed under local law and found to be out of compliance with community standards. Brett VandenHeuvel, executive director of Columbia Riverkeeper, says organizers can now look to other existing energy facilities and consider a new phase of work—whittling. That’s unusual. And it’s an outcome that reinforces the importance of strategic cooperation between organizations that support legal and policy work, grassroots and community organizers, and direct action activists, even if that cooperation is often unplanned and unacknowledged.
“I think those different approaches might seem inconsistent, but they really feed off of each other,” VandenHeuvel says. “We don’t know what’s going to work. These campaigns are long and twisty and curvy, and we can’t be dogmatic in what we think is the right approach. … I’m a huge fan of ‘Let’s all join together and whatever way you want to do your part, whatever way you want to share your time and energy and ideas, we want it all.’”
On the forest front, these more varied approaches lie ahead. Under the tarp at the tree-sitters’ camp, a man who uses the forest name Earwig describes how many forest and climate organizers are united under a loose coalition called Blockadia. Within the modern direct action movement, Blockadia includes resistance camps blocking pipelines in Indigenous communities, as well as protectors of unique landscapes like this one. These groups will likely become more active as the need for climate action becomes more urgent. And the overlap between forest and climate activism has helped spur the forest movement’s pivot to cross-tactical organizing. Intergenerational and cross-tactical work has been key to the climate movement’s increasingly mainstream appeal, and young organizers who participate in both efforts have transferred the strategy to defending the trees.
Organizers within the Blockadia movement have other things in common. They use the most recent volume of the Earth First! Direct Action Manual to guide their tactics. They also have a shared sense of culture and ideology and a shared experience of repression. “A lot of people find their way into these meetings when they’ve tried other avenues of activism and then find themselves, first of all, alienated,” Earwig says. “They also find themselves frustrated with the ineffectual nature of more mainstream tactics. Every time you do a peaceful protest that’s broken up by the cops, I think you’re pushed a little further into the camp that says, ‘We can’t trust the existing system of governance.’”
Structurally, the activists have more work to do. There’s a gulf between those who undertake this work within the forest movement today and those who did so in the past. That stems in part from government efforts to cast activists as terrorists following 9/11, and the associated violence, harassment, and surveillance that drove many of them underground. Some faced hefty criminal charges; others scattered in fear to preserve their livelihoods when official scrutiny threatened their jobs. Young activists have sought to reclaim these connections. In recent months, they have hosted trainings and long weekends, inviting Earth First! organizers to impart advice, including safety and logistical techniques that helped in the construction of the wooden platform Salal will eventually level in a tree. This intergenerational bridge-building is now informing strategy, providing critical intel about why tactics work or fail and insights into how to build effective campaigns.
“There’s a lack of institutional knowledge, and it’s idiotic if we don’t talk about that,” Salal says. “But that leaf is turning.”
That doesn’t mean today’s activists wish to be like those of the nineties. Quite the opposite, in some ways. They spy a chance for less machismo, for the inclusion of more women, and increased accessibility for people who might not have the fortitude or ability to do physical work. There is also talk of replacing a penchant for rigging the craziest stunts with another approach: operating from the belief that diversifying skills builds strength. It’s part of recognizing that accommodation can be a pathway to power—and that paper pushing can be an important tool when deployed along with a monkey wrench.
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