Earth First! takes movement to the trees at the Gifford Pinchot National Forest: Group of activists hope to make worldly statement

Ivan 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.
lex Sutherland / The Chronicle

By Andrew Binion
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 this week.

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 be signed.

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 it."

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 it."

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 figures.

"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 or

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