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After the fall: Tree-sitter’s death prompts debate on Earth First! tactics

After the fall: Tree-sitter’s death prompts debate on Earth First! tactics


October 27, 2002
Sentinel staff writer

SANTA CRUZ - ‘‘Naya’’ had never climbed a redwood to save it. But
on Oct. 8, he quickly reached a safe perch halfway up a 200-foot
He’d gotten a ride from Saturn Cafe in downtown Santa Cruz to a
logging operation in the woods above Corralitos. His mission was to
preserve a second-growth redwood near Mount Madonna County
Park. Activists named the tree Esperanza, Spanish for “hope.”
Naya, 25, was eager to protest Redwood Empire’s logging operation
in Ramsey Gulch near Mount Madonna. But 12 hours after his tree-sit
began, something went wrong. Naya was found at the foot of the
redwood, mortally injured after falling at least 85 feet.
He was low-profile in life, and agreed to join the tree-sit less than a
day after coming to Santa Cruz from Arcata. Yet the death of Naya,
whose real name was Robert Bryan, has focused international media
attention on Earth First!, the radical environmental movement with
the green fist logo, the colorful assumed names for activists, and the
famous slogan: “No compromise in defense of Mother Earth.”
The death also has set off soul-searching among activists, led to a
temporary halt to tree sitting in this county, and prompted criticism
from those who say the group is too willing to risk young lives.
The local group, however, says it is unstinting in its commitment to
“direct action” and contends local logging practices, in places like
Ramsey Gulch, are violating already lax environmental rules, while
ruining the land. Redwood Empire has been logging a 60-acre area of
second-growth redwoods and Douglas fir, not far from a larger piece
of land that was harvested last year.
“Extreme strategies are vital if we are to keep our Mother Earth from
being annihilated,” said Meighan O’Brien, who, like Naya, was involved
with Earth First! in Humboldt County. She added: “It really is a
tragedy that he gave his life, but speaking personally I can’t think of
a better way to go, for myself.”
Bob Berlage, a spokesman for Big Creek Lumber Co. target of an
Earth First! tree sit in San Mateo County 10 years ago expressed
sorrow for Naya’s family but took the group to task for “putting
someone’s life in danger. It seems to me like there needs to be a
better way to address people’s environmental concerns.
“The land has been harvested before,” he said of the Ramsey Gulch
site. “Even from an environmental standpoint, (the protest) doesn’t
make sense.”
A local Earth First! spokesman, in response to queries for this story,
said “We wished you’d cover our struggle the other 360 days of the
year when folks are sitting in the trees, not lying dead on the ground.
... We’d love for you to carry regular stories about the terrible logging
plans submitted by local landowners on the front page.”
‘Our spiritual brother’
During the spate of coverage, including a reprinted piece in Time
magazine’s Asia Web site, Naya was remembered as part of a group
alternately lauded as eco-heroes and denounced as self-righteous
“tree huggers.”
An activist Web site called him “our spiritual brother” who sacrificed
himself for the cause. Another Web site, a sarcastic news digest
called Salient Points, ran a story about him under the mocking
headline, “It’s Raining Men.”
It is unclear if Naya had long-term plans for Earth First! or thought of
it as one more adventure in a life of exploration.
Those who knew him, though briefly, said he was an idealistic and
willfully homeless “traveler,” enthusiastic about the “Rainbow Family,”
an “intentional community” that holds vast gatherings in rural settings
with bartered goods and peace activism.
It appears his decision to join the tree-sit came about because of a
chance meeting and strong convictions. In Santa Cruz he told
“Blackbird,” a local Earth First! member, that he was angry about
once-unspoiled land parceled out as pricey real estate. Naya said he
was a rock climber, familiar with safety gear.
“It just kind of spiraled,” Blackbird said. “He didn’t seem nervous.”
A tragic year
Naya would become the first California tree sitter to die from a fall
during his “direct action” protest.
The year had already been tragic for another Earth First! group in
Oregon. In April, Beth O’Brien, a 22-year-old eco-activist, fell more
than 100 feet from a tree in Eagle Creek near Portland. The Santa
Cruz chapter came close to tragedy last year when a tree-sitter fell,
injuring her head. She survived and remains active with the group.
The movement’s Arizona-based newsletter also acknowledges “a
number of accidents” ranging from minor bruises “to severe spinal
injuries.” Even before Naya’s death, the newsletter printed an article
called “Climb Safe!” emphasizing the importance of safety protocol.
The article stated it is crucial not to flout safety rules for “macho”
reasons, to teach new sitters carefully, and to “always have a
back-up plan.”
Earth First! says America’s forests are under siege by greedy
corporations with government consent.
They say Redwood Empire, managing about 5,000 acres owned by
the Birch family of Morgan Hill, is logging excessively on a slope near
Mount Madonna, “devastating the area’s last intact watershed,” and
promoting erosion into a vulnerable steelhead habitat” charges the
company angrily denies.
“Logging in this county is among the most heavily regulated
anywhere,” said Redwood Empire spokesman David Van Lennep.
“We’re an easy political target because our sawmill isn’t within county
borders, and Earth First! knows this.”
But Van Lennep said he was deeply saddened by Naya’s death. He
said Earth First! promotes dangerous activities for questionable
“These are not unmanaged old-growth forests,” he said. “They’ve
been managed for sustainable yields for decades.”
He said he did not know what would happen to the tree Naya had
occupied. The tree-sitting platform has since been removed.
Redwood Empire did not allow reporters on the Corralitos property
last week.
The fall
An Earth First! trainer saw Naya pull himself up the tree with safety
gear Oct. 8. Another tree-sitter was a half-mile away.
“It took him 15 minutes to reach the platform and it takes some
people an hour,” said “Ayla,” who watched from the ground. “He was
tired when he got up there. He was a smoker.”
But Naya had enough energy to hoot down at the support crew on
the ground. They hooted back. Someone yelled up, “We love you,
A protester who goes by the name “Quicksilver” was waiting on the
platform when Naya arrived. High above the forest, Naya asked
Quicksilver if he needed to leave his harness on even while sleeping
on the 6-by-8 foot wooden platform.
“I said, ‘Never ever take it off,’ “ Quicksilver said. “He said, ‘I got it.’ “
Everything seemed like it was a go. Protesters had spent weeks on
that very platform.
But 12 hours later, something went wrong.
A truck driver, tying off a load of logs on his last trip of the day from
the site, said he heard a “crashing through the brush sound, then a
thud,” around 6 p.m. He said he listened further, heard nothing, and
thought nothing more of it.
But about 6:30 p.m., loggers at the site heard a soft cry of “help
me,” and investigated, according to a Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s
Office report. The loggers said they found Naya conscious, leaning
against a stump. He had severe injuries, including visible compound
One logger told deputies he tried to get through to rescuers on his
radio, but couldn’t. Another called 911 on his cell phone but could not
pinpoint the location, according to the Sheriff’s Office.
One logger, Mel Reynolds, told deputies he’d had a “friendly debate”
with Naya earlier that day. Naya “talked about saving trees and the
environment and Reynolds talked about houses being made of wood,”
read the sheriff’s report.
Reynolds reported “comforting (Naya) by stroking his hair back and
encouraging him to keep talking.”
Loggers said Naya was found without a safety harness. According to
a sheriffs’ report, several climbing harnesses were found in the
platform in the tree, along with a backpack, rope, food and camping
Most property is still in the hands of Redwood Empire.
‘I did the right thing’
Naya was going in and out of consciousness after he was found. He
reportedly told a logger he thought he was “doing the right thing” in
the tree-sit “but now he just wanted to go home.”
Logger Troy Ellis told deputies he asked Naya how he fell, “and he
replied he didn’t know. He was sitting there and just fell.”
Ellis said he “felt real bad for him,” and added that “(Naya) was just
doing his thing, and we were doing ours.”
Rescue workers from the rural Salsipuedes station and the
Corralitos station of the state Department of Forestry and Fire
Protection say they were called to the scene just after 7 p.m. A
Salsipuedes firefighter who was at the scene said he was told not to
comment on the incident.
Some activists have criticized the response times. CDF rescuers said
the logging road was rough going. They said it took 10 minutes to
reach the top. Salsipuedes paramedics were attending to Naya when
CDF arrived.
Naya was dazed and “kept asking for water,” a CDF rescue worker
said. “At one point he didn’t have a pulse, he wasn’t breathing,” but
was given CPR, and an injection to stimulate his heart. “By the time
we got down to the (Life Flight) chopper he was trying to take
breaths on his own.”
The helicopter arrived in Corralitos to life flight him to Valley Medical
Center in San Jose around 8 p.m.
Naya died at 10:02 p.m., according to the Santa Clara County
Coroner’s Office.
The office has not completed the autopsy report or released
preliminary findings.
Soul searching
The death has prompted hard questions among some local members
of a movement founded in Tucson, Ariz., in 1980 by self-described
eco-warrior Dave Foreman.
The local group has called off tree-sitting for now, though other
chapters, including the one in Arcata, are going ahead.
Earth First!, in its newsletter last month, says tree sitting remains a
highly effective tactic “in defending ancient forests such as Eagle
Creek, Washington’s Watch Mountain and in reducing the Clark timber
sale in the Willamette National Forest.”
The most famous tree-sitter is Julia Butterfly Hill, a human shield from
1997 to 1999 in a 1,000-year-old Humboldt County redwood dubbed
“Luna.” The sit ended with an agreement from Pacific Lumber Co.,
which agreed to preserve Luna and a 200-foot buffer in exchange for
a $50,000 payment. The tree remains standing, though it was slashed
with a chainsaw in 2000.
Quicksilver said Naya’s death is heartbreaking but hasn’t made her
question “the ethics of direct action, but it makes me ask, what can
we do to be smarter and safer. I’d give anything to know what
happened. It’s maddening not to know.”
She said that at the time of the tragedy the group was stretched
thin, “with some people giving 200 percent for weeks or months. It
got to the point where we weren’t careful or (taking) long enough in
our training. The ironic thing is, this is what finally got people’s
She also said the group probably should do better job of getting its
message out, and to explain “what is good for the ozone layer, and
climate, and (preservation) of species is good for us.”
Ayla, of Earth First!, said protesters have no choice but to keep
tree-sitting because “people don’t listen. We don’t have social status
or money. These people see you as something less than they are, so
you have to go up there.”
The movement
The Earth First! movement bases its philosophies, in part, on Edward
Abbey’s “The Monkey Wrench” gang about eco-saboteurs. The local
group, which says it eschews sabotage, has had a presence in Santa
Cruz for at least 12 years. Among its “aggressive nonviolence”
tactics: blocking a logging road last year with a protester binding
himself with cement and chains, while wedging himself through the
hole in the underside of a car.
Twelve years ago, two activists knocked out power to Santa Cruz
County by starting to unbolt a 100-foot transmission tower. It’s
unclear if Earth First! was involved, though group members called the
action a “heroic” denunciation of dependence on destructive
Locally there are an estimated 30 members, ranging from graduate
students to people getting by with odd jobs. They describe
themselves as “off-the-grid,” anti-capitalistic “Dharma bums,” and
educated radicals willing to live up to their ideals, no matter how
difficult. Nationally the group’s members, wary of prosecution,
embrace such monikers as Dirt, Horehound, Air, Recon, Hazel, Kiwi and
Dumpster Leg.
“We’re all kinds of people, not some extreme wacky fringe,” said
Quicksilver, who is a UC Santa Cruz graduate student.
Earth First! sympathizers consider Naya an eco-soldier killed in
action. “He died in defense of Ramsey Gulch,” reads a pamphlet
drawing attention to his recent memorial in Santa Cruz. The group
received messages of sympathy at its table in front of the Farmers
Market downtown, though one man said, “That’ll teach him,” in
reference to Naya’s death.

“It can only get better from that,” Blackbird said looking back on that
exchange. “I don’t expect a whole lot of sympathy, but people need
to know what we go through out there.”
Both loggers, and protesters say there has been tension at the
recent tree-sits. Tree sitters Ayla, Quicksilver, Blackbird and other
say loggers have been abusive and frightening.
“I heard a guy say, ‘We’ll shoot you,’ “ Ayla said. “They threaten to
take you down.”
Loggers make almost identical charges, saying Earth First! members
have threatened to “chop them down” and blow up equipment.
Van Lennep said Earth First! protesters have unleashed so many
expletives at workers that some loggers take lunch breaks with
earplugs in place.
Blackbird said Naya’s death might have been hastened by harassment
if loggers on the ground frightened him so much he got nervous and
careless in the tree before the fall. He’s said the possibility of “foul
play” should be explored.
Van Lennep acknowledged the tense exchanges but called the
accusations “absolutely ludicrous. ... There have been times when
angry words go back and forth, but they’ll say we shot at them,
which is absolutely ludicrous. When they talk about blowing up
equipment, that’s straight-up terrorism.”
Remembering Naya
Ayla at first thought her friend’s death “could not be real.” She thinks
of him, not as a symbol, but as a lanky, mohawked man who stood
6-foot-2 and used to sing songs with her.
He played guitar, loved “free style rap,” and told her she “had the
most beautiful voice in the world.”
She recalls a man with “big eyes, bright eyes, big feet,” somewhat of
a loner, without a girlfriend. He spoke of his mother in Utah. She
remembers him talking about rock climbing, and how “he could put a
harness on in the dark and double it back.” Not long before his death,
he talked to her about wanting to talk less and listen more.
“He was a traveler,” she said. She said he inspired her with his eager
optimism at a time when she was feeling cynical.
To her, Naya’s death underscores the fact activists are doing hard
work the world should take seriously, whether people agree with them
or not.
After his death, “I felt glad for him, because he isn’t feeling the
pressure of everything anymore. He got to go to a peaceful place.
That was his path. That was his time. But at the same time, I wonder

Contact Dan White at dwhite (at)

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Wasn't Us

Santa Cruz Earth First! was not, in any way, involved with the power line destruction in 1990. It is not known to us, or anyone other than the persons involved, who was responsible for that action claimed by "Earth Night Action."
We as a group did not comment on the action at the time, and decline to do so today. As Dan White states in the story, individuals have, and are free to comment on the power line destruction, but they do so as individuals, not as spokepersons for SCEF! and should not be identified as such, or as associated with the group.

It is totally irresponsible for Dan White, and the Sentinel, to publically link that destructive action in any way with SCEF! We demand that The Sentinel print a correction prominently on the front page explaining their error in publishing that portion of the above story exerpted below.

>Twelve years ago, two activists knocked out power to Santa Cruz
>County by starting to unbolt a 100-foot transmission tower. It’s
>unclear if Earth First! was involved, though group members called the
>action a “heroic” denunciation of dependence on destructive

my friendly debate just a few days before.

i'd like to comment on the uh, 'friendly debate' i had just a few days before robert's death, from the same platform in esperanza. though we'll never know for sure what happened to robert that day, how, or why it happened, but i'd like to venture a guess that his 'friendly debate' with the redwood empire employees was comparable to, if not more harassing coming from the loggers, than my own experiences with their brand of lighthearted discussion. just a few days before robert's death, while i was living in esperanza, i was woken up around six to six thirty in the morning to the friendly greeting of "hey, shitbag!" and "hey, dumbass!" and "we'll be coming up there for you next fuckface!" and "scared yet asshole!?". let's not forget the friendly threats of violence that followed that friendly introduction to the friendly redwood empire employees. threats like "...we could just cut the tree out from under you if you want!", or "we could just shoot you out... got my gun in my truck!". so, dave van lennep and the rest of them can say "oh well they yell profanities at us too" but isn't it reasonable to assume that a number of men on the ground with heavy machinery, chainsaws--and yes--guns, not to mention, THE GROUND BENEATH THEIR FEET are in a little more intimidating position than a tired tree sitter armed with fruits, vegetables, nuts, granola, and worst case scenario, a bottle of piss. oh, so i'm getting off subject. let's skip ahead a little bit to the next friendly interaction, which was having rocks thrown at the platform, and watching as, i'm sure in a friendly jovial sort of way, their chainsaws were being started and ran close enough to nick esperanza's trunk. anyway, to make a long story short, this behavior continued all day without provocation, and was by no means friendly. anyway, i'd just like to repeat that we'll never know what really happened up there, but i think that the experiences that myself and others involved in the action were witness to, things that were said, and numerous things that were done [rifles being pointed at us, trees being cut less than two feet away from us, etc.], cast a heavy stone of doubt and suspicion into our stomachs, as to the nature of robert's interaction with the loggers. anyway, just thought i'd offer something. we all have something to offer.
or at least... we should.


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