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Earth First faces sobering questions

Earth First faces sobering questions



Jan. 19, 2003
By Ken McLaughlin
Mercury News

One of Northern California’s most colorful, in-your-face environmental groups is searching for its soul after a death in the family and increasing jitters over eco-terrorism.
The Santa Cruz chapter of Earth First is best known for its 2 ½-year-old war with Redwood Empire, a San Jose-based lumber company, amid the majestic redwoods of the Santa Cruz Mountains. But in October one of its newest members fell to his death shortly after taking up residence in a tree named Esperanza, the Spanish word for hope.
The death of Robert “Naya” Bryan, 25, of Utah, was the first such fatality in California, a state where Julia “Butterfly” Hill helped turned tree-sitting into environmental lore.
But unlike Hill, who managed to save some redwoods in Humboldt County after living in one for nearly two years in the late ‘90s, Earth First Santa Cruz faces the sobering realization that its heralded “direct action” saved no trees and cost a life.
Activists abandoned the last of four “tree-sit villages” after Bryan fell 100 feet after detaching his safety harness. The trees they fought so hard to rescue were later harvested by Redwood Empire.
“Naya’s death was heartbreaking for all of us,” said Earth Firster Donna Beavers of Boulder Creek. The death of Bryan, along with the loss of the trees, “makes us feel that we’re losing the battle. We’ve been torn.”
Also tearing at the group are accusations from law enforcement officials and groups battling eco-terror that some Earth First activists support the Earth Liberation Front, which the FBI has classified as a leading domestic terrorist organization. Along with its sister group, the Animal Liberation Front, ELF has caused more than $43 million in damage through more than 600 vandalism and arson incidents since 1996, the FBI says.
ELF began the new year by torching sport-utility vehicles at a Pennsylvania auto dealership in a fight “to remove the profit motive from the killing of the natural environment.”
After the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, law enforcement authorities in Santa Cruz County evaluated the possibilities for terrorism, and deemed eco-terrorism the county’s No. 1 threat.
The Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office has generally had good relations with Earth First activists, whom it’s refused to roust from trees out of fear that officers and activists could get hurt or killed.
‘Lunatic fringe’
“Some of these people are fairly well-intentioned,” said Lt. Roger Wildey, head of the sheriff’s tactical unit. “But we do worry about lunatic fringe elements attaching themselves to groups in order to carry out acts of violence. And Santa Cruz sure has its share of anarchists, Al-Qaida supporters and you name it. Who knows what they’re going to do.”
The county has a long history of radical environmentalism. On Earth Day in 1990, a group calling itself the Earth Night Action Group toppled transmission lines from the Moss Landing power plant, then owned by PG&E. The county went black for two days, infuriating residents.
Earth First was never accused in the incident, but the national group has been battling the “terrorist” tag ever since it was launched in 1979 by Dave Foreman, who thought too many environmentalists had become compromising wimps.
Foreman wrote a book on how to drive spikes into trees and other ways to “monkey wrench” chain saws and logging equipment. He left the group in the early ‘90s, saying that Earth First had swung too far to the left.
Local Earth First members scoff at the notion that they support or condone terrorism.
Spotlighting problems
Indeed, many central coast environmentalists from mainstream groups like the Sierra Club have generally backed Earth First’s tactics, as long as they stay peaceful. They say the tree-sits call attention to problems caused by logging such as sedimentation in streams and the threat to birds and fish spawning grounds.
Earth Firster Dennis Davie, 54, who has a degree in environmental studies from the University of California-Santa Cruz, said his group preaches non-violent civil disobedience.
Davie, a Silicon Valley software engineer who helped found the Santa Cruz chapter 21 years ago, conceded that individuals of the “headless, tailless” group often differ on tactics, strategy and philosophy. But, he said flatly, “we don’t monkey wrench.”
But they do face some vexing internal questions.
“Where are we going?” Davie recently asked other members at a meeting. “What do we need to be doing?”
The answers seemed elusive.
“There’s no real consensus,” said “Blackbird,” 31, who like most tree-sitters uses his “forest name” to protect himself from trespassing charges.
“Our goal is to achieve peace in the forest by fighting anyone who commits violence against it,” he said. “We love the forest, the loggers and people in community who seek change in forestry practices. But we’re not changing anything yet. So we have to try harder.”
Davie, who in his extra-large flannel shirt looks more like a lumberjack than a tree-hugger, has staffed a closet-size office in an old house on Broadway near Ocean Street for years. The office is sprinkled with bumper stickers: “Developers: Go Build in Hell,” “Hemp: The Clear Cut Choice” and “Spike a Tree for Jesus.”
He said Earth First Santa Cruz consists of “various folks” who want to protect local ecosystems: students, teachers, bike activists, organic farmers, artists and computer programmers. The group, which has no formal membership list, operates on a shoestring through small donations and by selling T-shirts, hats and wallets at the Sacred Grove, a local shop servicing wiccans, druids and pagans.
Redwood Empire’s war with Earth First began in June 2000 when Blackbird took up residence in a 120-foot redwood near Mount Madonna that he named Wisdom. Protesters later attached themselves to gates with cylindrical pipes. Others blocked a logging road by burying a metal post in concrete, driving a car on top of the post and chaining a protester to the post.
Accusations of abuse
Officials at Redwood Empire say some activists have gone well beyond peaceful rhetoric and passive protest, taking the Earth First slogan of “no compromise in defense of Mother Earth” to extremes.
“The tree-sitters have hurled every personal abuse at us you can think of,” said David Van Lennep, a Redwood Empire forester. “They say things like, ‘I’m going to come down there and cut you like you cut trees.’ “
Activists tried to drop a five-gallon bucket of feces on a tractor driver as he passed under a tree, barely missing him, Van Lennep said.
He also points to the graffiti of one young tree-sitter who called himself “Rampage” and praised the Unabomber and the ELF. Rampage fled the county after being arrested for trespassing and was later charged with planning to firebomb a Moose Lodge where white separatists had planned to celebrate Hitler’s birthday in Orange County.
Logging officials say the lull in Earth First’s tree-sitting campaign is a good time to reconsider the dangerous practice.
“This all seems so silly and unnecessary,” said Bob Berlage, an ex-logger who is now the spokesman for Big Creek Lumber north of Davenport. “None of this local logging is occurring in old-growth habitats. Why are they doing this?”
New target of protests
Big Creek was a target of Earth First protests in 1992 in San Mateo County. But activists of late have focused on Redwood Empire, owned by Morgan Hill resident Roger Burch.
Earth Firsters call Burch a ruthless “CEO timber-baron” who routinely flouts state environmental laws and is not engaging in “sustainable forestry.”
Redwood Empire officials dismiss those charges. “How could you say we’re not doing sustainable forestry when a great deal more wood is being grown in Santa Cruz County than is being harvested?” Van Lennep said.
Blackbird is skeptical. “I don’t make any claims to be a scientist,” he said, “but I know their science is bogus and has no bearing on the ecology of the forest.”
He, Davie and Beavers don’t rule out more tree-sits in the new year. But, they said, Earth First plans to institute more formalized safety training and “peace training.”
“It’s hard not to be angry, considering what the government and loggers are doing to the environment,” Beavers said. “But we’d only be part of the problem if we’re going to be aggressive and violent. Violence only breeds more of the same.”
Contact Ken McLaughlin at kmclaughlin (at) or (831) 423-3115


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