A New Generation of Tree-Sitters

The essay below mentions a new generation of tree-sitters, such as those at the White Castle Variable Retention Harvest, a Demonstration Pilot Project designed “for the purpose of illustrating the principles of ecological restoration developed by Drs. Jerry F. Franklin and K. Norman Johnson,” according to the EA. 187 acres, with “78.4 aggregate retention acres.”


In September, the BLM initiated a Temporary Area Closure for up to 2 years: “The purpose for this proposed action is to quickly implement a temporary closure of the area to public use during active logging operations. The need for action results from the danger to timber sale protesters within harvest units of an active timber sale; risks to personnel engaged in timber harvest operations; and potential damage to roads, vehicles, and equipment.”

Anyone know what’s going on at present with the sale and the protesters? Are the protesters using the same techniques, aside from occupying trees, such as leaving steel “jumping jacks” on roads to puncture tires?

Just background for the essay, from High Country News’ Writers on the Range:


Protesters still take to the trees

By Robert Leo Heilman/Writers on the Range

If you think that sitting high up in a tree to block a timber sale is a thing of the past, then you should have come with me recently to what’s called the Whitecastle timber sale in southern Oregon. There’s a new generation of protesters up in the trees there, and in many ways they’re more sophisticated than the Earth First! radicals I interviewed back in the mid-1980s.


Today’s tree-sitters are much more likely to have been involved in other movements, such as Occupy, or in environmental struggles against coal, tar sands and power plants. There are also a lot more women involved.


Not surprisingly, the sitters can seem abysmally ignorant about some things; they’re young, in their 20s for the most part, and largely raised in cities. Most of them believe that the century-old second-growth forest they’re camping in is old-growth dating back to Shakespeare’s day. But like the folks who blocked roads and chained themselves to logging equipment during the Reagan administration, they are idealists, willing to put their freedom on the line for what they believe in.


Probably the most interesting generational change is that the “old guard” were often elitists, college-educated folks who thought timber workers were too stupid and ignorant to know what was good for them. The kids nowadays want to ally themselves with the workers and take on the bosses alongside them in a fight for both ecological and labor justice.


This is not such a far-fetched notion. When the Reverend Jesse Jackson came to Roseburg, Ore. — which calls itself the timber capital of the nation — at the height of the “Timber Wars” of the early 1990s, he received an ovation from a mixed crowd of timber workers and environmentalists. He brought them to their feet when he said: “This is not about workers against environmentalists; this is about workers and environmentalists against the greedy and the wasteful.”


This change of attitude can be traced back to Judi Bari and Gene Lawhorn. She was an Earth First! activist from the redwood country of Northern California, and he was a mill worker employed by the Roseburg Forest Products Co. After they met in the late 1980s, at the University of Oregon’s annual Environmental Law Conference in Eugene, Lawhorn persuaded Bari to renounce tree-spiking and other activities that could harm loggers or mill workers.


She, in turn, was able to convince her fellow protesters that their struggle was against the bosses, not against the workers. Endangering workers was both morally reprehensible and stupidly playing into the hands of the very folks who were cutting too much timber too fast, even as they cut the wages and benefits for their employees.


Bari went on to become the victim of a bombing attack, surviving that only to die of cancer a few years later. Since her death, she has become something of a saint in leftist radical circles, her name invoked reverently by this new generation. But Gene Lawhorn has been largely forgotten. He had complex views about logging old-growth forests, and he had the courage to voice his opinions. For this he received death threats, beer bottles were smashed in his driveway and the windshield on his pickup was shattered. After he lost his job with Roseburg Forest Products Co., he couldn’t find employment anywhere in Douglas County. Neither could his wife, who found that job offers disappeared as soon as prospective employers heard her last name.


When the local daily newspaper finally published an article about the so-called “timber wars” and the death threats circulating around the county, Gene Lawhorn’s predicament was exposed right in front of God and everybody. Yet not one leader in Douglas County — no politician, preacher, member of law enforcement or of the court system, and no teacher, mill owner or government agency head — spoke out against neighbors threatening to kill their neighbors. There was a letter to the editor of the local weekly, but the writer said that Gene Lawhorn was a traitor who deserved whatever he got. By then, Gene and his wife had already fled to Portland.


The tree-sitters I talked with recently had never heard of this former neighbor of mine, a man who reached out to people whom he’d been told were his enemies. Nevertheless, these kids are now making his argument for him.


Robert Leo Heilman is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is an award winning essayist, author and journalist living in Myrtle Creek, Oregon.

10 thoughts on “A New Generation of Tree-Sitters”

  1. Steve..
    This essay seems a little naive itself, given the people’s experience who live there and write on this blog.
    Oh, and really, Jesse Jackson moves into forest policy? I voted for the guy for Prez in an outburst of “idealism.”

    When the Reverend Jesse Jackson came to Roseburg, Ore. — which calls itself the timber capital of the nation — at the height of the “Timber Wars” of the early 1990s, he received an ovation from a mixed crowd of timber workers and environmentalists. He brought them to their feet when he said: “This is not about workers against environmentalists; this is about workers and environmentalists against the greedy and the wasteful.”

    I wonder who are the “greedy and wasteful”? The people who buy forest products from Oregon?


    The kids nowadays want to ally themselves with the workers and take on the bosses alongside them in a fight for both ecological and labor justice.

    But if they don’t have jobs, do they have “bosses” to take on? All very confusing.

    On a related note, there’s an FS retiree/raconteur, Richard Stem, who tells a great story about being on the Williamette during the earlier tree-sitting episodes. Someone ought to get that oral history from him, as it would be a description from someone who was actually there (I’m not saying unbiased, I’m not sure anyone is). Maybe someone at OSU knows a history graduate student who would be interested.

    • It is interesting, as others have pointed out, that the protesters are against Franklin/Johnson’s “ecological forestry” pilot project. I’d bet that the tree-sitters haven’t read a word Franklin/Johnson’s treatise, so they’re ignorant, at least.

      Coincidentally, last night I attended a meeting of the Clackamas County Timber Sale Advisory Committee — I’m a committee member. This public meeting was designed to accept public input on a small timber sale on County land — the County manages ~3K acres, with timber revenue supporting county parks. The County usually uses clearcutting, but on this sale, about 1/3 of the 75-acre tract will be left untouched (its mostly 40-year-old alder), and on the remainder about 90% of the conifers will be cut, and all maples and alders left. Stand age is about 70, natural regen after a clearcut in the 1930s. Wide buffers around a seasonal pond and along boundaries with private landowner neighbors. It’ll end up looking very much like a Franklin/Johnson treatment. About 100 locals have signed a petition to stop this sale. One young man at the meeting, who I imagined might willingly sit in a tree to prevent such a sale, expressed concern about the effects of the sale on amphibians and wildlife. After I and another forester on the committee explained that there would be an explosion of wildlife in the harvested area, once the trees were removed — songbirds, mammals small and large, etc. — he didn’t say another word. I don’t know what his thoughts were, but maybe he’s rethinking his previous opposition. Who knows. Anyhow, after the meeting he shook my hand and thanked me for the information.

  2. This is a pretty pathetic essay, giving sitters way more cred than they deserve. I mean, whatever happened to Julia Butterfly Hill? Sure, passion is grand, but based on what? Understanding? As for the Judi Bari angle, why do the Wobblies come to mind?

  3. If the snark dropped off this blog, what would be left here much of the time.

    And please do not snark back at me.

    I know the author robert heilman quite well, he was a tree planter, logger and mill worker in douglas county. He wrote one of the best books about rural life in the NW I have ever seen, Overstory Zero about the imploding economy in douglas county in the 80s. He knows it and loves it as much as anybody with far more sympathy for the locals than the vast number of urban enviros, and he has also had his windows broken.

    So hardly naive and a lot closer to the ground there than you might imagine.

    I doubt they are leaving spikes in roads, I hope not.

    And yes, they are likely misguided with a shallow understanding of NW forests. Franklin could straighten them out if they would listen, I got tired of trying myself. Many of them have much sweeter natures than you might imagine but hard to talk with too often.

  4. I would of thought it would of been in some of the local papers. I haven’t heard a word about it.
    Of course I don’t hear about a lot of things.
    I remember we had some tree sitters on Biscuit. The old guys put the young girl up on the platform and then hauled ass when the officials arrived to remove her. The girl was from New Hampshire and ended up missing the start of school doing some time in the Curry county jail. I think she was a bit exploited. They also dug a trench across the rock road in the middle of summer with hand tools, talk about hard work.
    I didn’t understand the reason for the sitters, the trees were all dead, one person even tried to tell me they would come back to life. Never heard about the broken windows either but I could see it happening. I really see most of us trying to get along, even if we don’t agree.
    Kind of ironic that they are actively protesting one of Franklins projects. “His” project here in Coos county has been stopped and appealed and maybe it is in the courts?
    I don’t believer in road closures, maybe only for short periods. That’s why most logging sides have watchmen.

  5. Do read Heilman;s Overstory Zero which explains the economic ghanges in Douglas county, the decimation of the unions, people working the mills for minimum wage, and in spite of more timber milled in the 80s, a lot less workers to do it.

    And of course, the fraying of the fabric of rural life with unemployment and the intrusion of meth.

    And this was while the cut was high, before the spotted owl declines in federal harvest.

    Hmmmm…..was that what Jackson was talking about? Maybe??

    Heilman also loves Little League, of which Douglas is a national center. I learned a lot and used it n classes I taught.

    I think that kid in Biscuit was being rhetorical when he said the snags would come back alive and meant that it would provide habitat for other critters although dead. I hate to think that he might have thought the tree itself would perk up and bloom again. They are not that dumb but…..

    I was in an odd position with them during biscuit, I figured many hated me and when I slunk into their camp after I quit siskiyou project with snarls and fury, the other kids in camp seemed to just avoid me, no suprise. A martyr for truth again nagle. sniff sniff…but at least the feds liked me.

    And then one comes up to me and asks if I have any more of my reports to give them since they had been sitting around the campfire reading them aloud. “What? You actually LIKED them???”

    Surprise surprise, best to look kindly upon the young.

    Franklin’s thing it to get more volume off those O n C lands without going as far as Defazio although Pete’s proposal would set aside as “reserve” all stands over a mean age of 120 (or 140..?), As such, it targets smaller diameter trees but these are often naturally regenerated in the older age classes. And of course the plantations where I assume they will drop the thinning and just clearcut.

    I have not seen franklin;s units and don;t know much about what they are doing and why. Would appreciate more info.

  6. Hardly naive, I offer that Robert Heilman is a lot closer to the ground than almost anyone I read on this blog. His essay on tree planting is the best I have ever read but I only have it as pdf, a person of conscience and insight. Best keep such as him on your side.
    And nary a mean bone in his body.

    Here is another essay of his.

    Robert Leo Heilman
    2870 Weaver Rd.
    Myrtle Creek, OR


    It was the damp, chill autumn time, barely too warm for frost and too wet for comfort. We were working on a Bureau of Land Management stream-cleaning contract, clearing out a log-jam in the Siskiyou Mountains near the California line. My partner, Brian, and I sat up on the stream bank among sword fern and viny maple and waited to see what kind of fool the log would make of the government inspector.
    The odds were about 50/50 that he’d shortly be a dead fool or a maimed one, and better than even that he’d end up a cold wet one. Regardless of the outcome, we sat in the fog-wet brush near the yarder’s tailblock, me smoking a hand rolled cigarette, Brian with a jab of chew in his cheek, not talking, keeping our thoughts under our hardhats.
    Below us and about one hundred feet upstream, the inspector stood where I had stood an hour before, on a wet boulder, looking up at an old rotting log which hung overhead, wedged between moss-dappled rock walls above a small pool. Behind the log a waterfall fed the pool.
    Standing there in mid-stream on the slick rock, with the sound of splashing water and the mass of the log above and before me, I’d seen the possibilities and didn’t like any of them. If my chainsaw didn’t get stuck, if the log’s compression didn’t send it buckling my way, if I could shift my balance away from the log so that I didn’t fall into the pool, if I didn’t slip and fall breaking an ankle or rib while scrambling out of the way, I would merely get drenched on a cold mountain-fall morning. From above, up on the bank, it had looked routine; but standing there on that rock I could see that it was lethal. I gave it up as too risky and then Brian walked down there, saw in hand, and came to the same conclusion. “It’s funny,” he said after climbing back up the bank, “it looks easy from here.”
    Now it was the government man’s turn down there in the hole. He had showed up an hour later, looked down from the bank at the rock and log and pool and declared the log removable. The contract specified a clear, debris-free channel and he was there to make sure we fulfilled the contract.
    We refused. “It’s not safe.”
    “Hell, I could cut it out of there myself.”
    “OK—go for it.” Brian handed him a chainsaw.
    There was no use arguing with him, the log had fooled us too, until we stood in the only spot where you could lay a saw on it. If he wanted to prove us wrong, we’d give him the chance. The man might die, as easy as not. The log might crush him, pin him or drown him. We would, of course, try our best to save his life afterwards. But it was his choice now. Anything might happen—and to us it was all the same. Our hearts stayed as gray and featureless as a fog bank.
    Though loggers are often portrayed as hard characters, neither of us was cruel or deliberately heartless. Our indifference to his fate could easily be ascribed to machismo, a matter of manful pride, or to class differences with the inspector, whose boast had challenged both our craftsmanship and our courage.
    Logging is rough work. Hard labor, long hours, dangerous conditions and male-only companionship almost guarantee a hardening of the heart. There’s also what poet Gary Snyder, after watching pipeline workers in an Alaskan bar, called “The pain/ of the work/ of wrecking the world.” Work gloves can protect soft hands but tender psyches just develop calluses. Pride and the nature of logging go a long way toward explaining our attitude, but not far enough.
    We are all loggers in our way, though for most of us the brutality and violence of our jobs is more subtle. “I’m sorry,” we say, “it’s company policy.” as if the rules of corporations were as real and immutable as the laws of nature. Alienation is an occupational disease, one that afflicts each of us when we sell our time for money. It brings a numbness of spirit that makes all sorts of horrible situations seem routine.
    At work we become ashen-faced zombies, obediently carrying out tasks whose meaning and effects we seldom care about. We save real living for the weekends. Perhaps there is something in the nature of money itself that poisons all human relations it enters. Or maybe it’s something in human nature that leads us to sell off our lives, to trade the possibility of love for a strictly limited security. Whatever the cause, ultimately it whittles us down to its own inhuman scale. Most people are likeable enough away from the job and even at work. We each contain a complexity and beauty beyond the ability of art to portray. We also contain a bleakness of spirit unimaginable. It is in the humdrum, the daily grind, the unreal world of work that we cross between the two without noticing the change.
    One hundred feet away, down in the creek bed, the government man stood where Brian and I had each stood in turn. If he tried to cut that log, then he was a fool to doubt us and so whatever happened to him was simply his own doing. We waited and watched as he started the chainsaw and held it at arm’s length overhead to start his cut. Wood chips cascaded down into the pool, exhaust smoke mingled with the morning mists. Then he stopped, withdrew the saw, shut it off and came trudging back downstream and up the bank to where we sat.
    “You’re right.” was all he said, and we were, of course, pleased to hear him admit it.

  7. and another contribution by Robert Heilman although I cannot ferret out a copy of his better essay
    ” A tree planters lament”

    This will have to do. I would ask him on to the blog but I suspect he might view the tone here as not worth the trouble at times.


    Planting the millionth tree
    Document Actions

    Op-Ed – November 14, 2012 by Robert Leo Heilman

    The Arbor Day Foundation sent me a Tree Survey a few months ago. At least it called itself a survey, but it turned out to be more of a pitch for donations in the form of a questionnaire. Still,

    I decided to finish reading the thing before I tossed it in the wood burner with the other junk mail. Living as I do in a southern Oregon forest, I found questions like, “Are trees important to you?” amusing.

    Reading along, I came to a question that gave me pause: “Have you ever planted a tree?” I thought first of the 150,000 trees that I planted while reforesting clear-cuts in the Cascades

    and Coast Range, about enough to cover 300 acres of mountain slopes. That sounds like more than what it was, though. I have friends who were serious tree planters.

    My pal Darlene told me that she must have planted about a half-million of the little things during her winters on the slopes. And there are three of my ex-tree planter buddies — Johnny Escovido, Bruce Gordon and Les Moore — who slammed over 1 million trees in the ground apiece. I’m sure there are others among my acquaintances who have surpassed that impressive number, though most tree planters don’t talk about how many trees they’ve planted. They talk about their chronically sore backs.

    One million trees sounds like a much bigger deal than it is. It only takes about 40 seconds to plant a seedling conifer eight feet away from the last one you planted. Reforestation crews generally plant about 500 seedlings to the acre, so a million trees would only replant about 2,000 acres of logged-off land, about enough to, someday, provide habitat for a single nesting pair of northern spotted owls. I’ve worked on corporate clear-cuts here in Oregon that were that big, while up north in British Columbia there are cuts that are measured in square miles rather than acres.

    A few weeks later, I ran across Lester “The Rat” Moore, and I got to wondering about when and where he planted his one-millionth tree. He was busy stealing firewood off of some timber company land at the time, buzzing up an old buckskin-colored seasoned madrone log and tossing the rounds into his pick-up to haul back to the tar-papered shack he lives in. He was in a hurry, and I was on my way into town, so we “howdied” but didn’t stop to talk.

    The Rat isn’t exactly the sort of guy you’d see in a TV commercial. He’s not the square-jawed handsome woodsman type the corporations like to promote, nor the caring sort who could serve as a poster child for an Arbor Day celebration. He’s a small, wiry, snaggly-toothed guy who chews tobacco and drinks whiskey straight from the bottle. If you saw him on a city street, you’d probably try your best to walk past him without making eye contact. But when it comes to tree planting, he was the genuine article, good for a steady 1,000 trees every day, five days per week, 20 to 30 weeks a year for 20-something years.

    It’s a tough way to earn a paycheck, humping up and down mountains in the rain all winter. The State Employment Office in Eugene, Ore., once posted a warning notice about tree planting: “It is the hardest physical work known to this office. The most comparative physical requirement is that of a five mile cross-mountain run, daily.”

    Most people would consider logging a tough job; tree planting is a logger’s idea of hard work.

    That one-millionth tree of The Rat’s career might have been planted in Oregon or Washington, Montana, Idaho, British Columbia, Alaska, Arizona or Colorado. I doubt he remembers it. It was probably a lot like the 20,000 others he planted that month, and I’m sure that nobody handed him a golden shovel or took his picture for the occasion.

    Nobody gives out awards for stoop labor, which is really a shame. It is difficult work, demanding both physically and mentally. I have seen many a fine physical specimen give up the attempt to plant trees after a day or two because they lacked the necessary gumption (or the desperation, which is just as useful) to see it through to payday. It seems that the people who actually bend down and touch the earth in order to do the work of healing the world are always the least honored of all.

    Robert Leo Heilman is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He lives in Myrtle Creek, Oregon, and he is the author of Overstory: Zero, Real Life in Timber Country.

    • I’ll call RLH lyrical. He writes so — in terms of really good English, this guy nails it. And I didn’t call him naive, although every direct-actioneer I’ve ever met aside from the “leaders” had apparently never asked themselves “And Then What?”
      But he still works way too much significance into these sitters. The last thing forest policy needs is more idealistic, ignorant passion. I mean, this is the Franklin model of DBH’s and an age wall, that flies in the face of reality (but is still better than notouchienothingnowhereforever), yet even a half-measure like this is too much?


Leave a Comment