First! takes movement to the trees at the Gifford
Pinchot National Forest: Group of activists hope to make worldly
Maluski, Earth First! activist for 10 years, takes in the
grandeur of the Gifford Pinchot National Forest earlier this
week. The environmentalist group has promised to take an
unspecified "action" on Monday in support of
preserving the national forest.
Sutherland / The Chronicle
GIFFORD PINCHOT NATIONAL FOREST — 7/6/02 - Beside a stretch of highway
winding into the depths of the Northwest woods stood two slender
figures, backpacks hunching their shoulders, a look of mute exhaustion
across their faces, thumbs in the wind.
Appearing to be in their 20s, their clothes are tattered and layered,
providing insulation from the hot and cold extremes a person might
encounter hitchhiking in Washington.
Via train, automobile, and thumb, from as close as Portland and from as
far away as Illinois, activist associates of the Earth First!
environmental movement converged on a remote ridge deep in the Gifford
Pinchot National Forest for their annual Round River Rendezvous earlier
Movement is the term the activists favor, rather than organization,
because Earth First! has no central leadership and no hierarchy of
responsibility, organizers explained.
Law enforcement officials monitoring the event are also versed in the
language the activists use.
"They've come to meet, train, network, and they're going to have
their action," said Al Knorr, a law enforcement official whose
duties include patrolling the vast terrain of the "Giff," as
it is known to those familiar with the forest.
Knorr stopped by the welcome table to monitor the situation and to make
sure the rules are being followed, he said.
When a group reaches the size of 75 people, a permit is required to
ensure health standards are met, along with minimizing the effect on
resources, Knorr said.
The group has refused to seek a permit, claiming it has the right to
meet on public land and "exercise (its) rights," according to
the event's Web page.
Knorr declined to comment on what Forest Service officials would do when
or if the group exceeded the 75-person limit. But Linda Turner, a worker
for the Forest Service, said officials would simply serve the permits to
It was not an entirely welcoming encounter, as the activists are
extremely wary of "freddies," or federal agents, and the
officers showed little sympathy for the activists' cause. Participants
stood their ground and recorded the exchange in log books. Some pulled
their shirts over their faces to conceal their identity. Knorr said he
recognized a couple of the activists from
previous demonstrations. The activists knew Knorr as well.
"They are widely regarded to be dangerous police officers,"
said Maitake, an activist in his 30s who spends much of his time working
on genetic engineering issues.
The love lost between them was not a concern of Knorr's.
"You got to wonder about people so proud of what they do they put
on masks," Knorr said.
Stakes are high
Organizers were averse to allowing journalists to observe their
activities unescorted. Magpie, an appointed press liaison, explained
most participants did not want their identities documented, for fear of
retribution or intimidation.
Activists use "forest names" in order to protect their jobs
and keep their names off law enforcement lists, she said. If photographs
were taken without express permission, Magpie said to Chronicle news
staff members, "We can't be responsible for what a person might
do." She added later, after being asked for clarification, "We
believe in non-violence. A person might take the film and expose
Out of step with images of starry-eyed college students canvassing
Seattle's affluent neighborhoods for the Sierra Club, Earth First! is a
loose-knit cabal of direct-action activists and eco-warriors armed only
with radical ideology and dedication. Their suspicion of the press
matches their criticism of global capitalism and timber corporations.
"We're not enemies with loggers," Magpie said. "We have a
huge problem with their bosses."
The issue at hand, and the reason the group chose the Giff to host it
annual meeting, is to focus attention on the numerous timber sale sites
pending on national forest land. Opposed to any further logging on what
they consider "old growth," a term not easily defined,
associates of the movement see dollar signs behind any push to remove
timber from the forest.
They do not advocate an uncompromising position on the use of wood
itself, Maitake and Magpie clarified, saying they condone timber use for
furniture and houses, but do not approve of timber being used to produce
paper, which mostly comes from old-growth trees.
"It's not what you use," Maitake said. "It's how you use
Not everybody involved in the discussion sees this as common ground.
"Somebody should drop a dirty bomb on them," said Bill Pickell
of the timber trade group Washington State Contract Loggers Association,
whose outrage at regulations and the
environmentalists who lobby and demonstrate for them precedes
EarthFirst!'s Round River Rendezvous taking place in the Giff.
He described current sale levels as paltry, comparing sales in 1990 —
when 1,066 million board feet were harvested from the Gifford Pinchot
— to the 102 million board feet in 2000, according to Forest Service
"To say that you can't cut any old growth is asinine," Pickell
said. "They're fanatics."
A possible alternative to timber to help satisfy the market's need for
paper, such as industrial hemp, did not arouse much enthusiasm from
either side. Environmentalists fear mono-crops
would devastate mineral resources in soil, while Pickell, who called the
Northwest the OPEC of timber country, said because of the increased
volume of hemp that would be required to substitute for timber,
"You'd have to clear cut the Northwest" to be able to
cultivate enough to satisfy demand.
"Most of (the Earth First!ers) are young kids on a mission,"
said Pickell. "They have a principled idea of how a forest should
be managed, without the slightest idea how to manage a garden."
He estimates a smaller percentage of them are "hardcore"
advocates of what many call "eco-terrorism," or committing
acts of sabotage and property destruction aimed at slowing the timber
industry's advance into the forests. If it isn't the "monkey
wrenching," activist-speak for sabotaging logging efforts, it's the
endless litigation that is blocking timber efforts, Pickell said.
"They're not going to stop until the rules change," Pickell
said. "Nobody has the money to keep chasing them in court."
The issue has as many layers as trees have rings.
"Corporations are the true eco-terrorists," Maitake said,
countering Pickell's argument, saying while Earth First! uses legally
dubious "direct action" to get its point across to the media
and public, activists see themselves as adhering to the letter of a
higher law, one of self-preservation.
Earth First! is an "above ground" organization, unlike the
Earth Liberation Front, which claimed responsibility for the arsonist
fire that destroyed a forestry research building on the University of
Washington campus last year.
The affiliation between groups is vague, if any, Maitake said, adding
"You don't know who they are. For all you know, your editor might
be in the ELF."
Andrew Binion is covering Lewis County government and environmental
issues for The Chronicle this summer. He may be reached at 807-8237 and
by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org
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