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Eugene Weekly : 09.22.05

Assault on High

Dealings get dirty at the McKenzie forest tree-sit.


This was no weenie water bottle. This was a big ol' 5-gallon jug with thick plastic skin that you could drum on. And it was pierced clear through with a broadhead arrow, the kind that could kill a bear.

Tree-sitter Van Kelly comes halfway down a Douglas fir in the Sten timber sale.

Apparently, though, someone was trying to hunt tree-sitters.

Micah Griffin gripped the jug awkwardly as he spoke into the telephone at the Lane County Sheriff's Department on the morning of Sept. 14. "I'd like to report a shooting, possibly attempted murder," he said. "I tried to report this several days ago, and now I'm physically here at the station, so I demand some — "

He stopped abruptly and turned to us. "I'm on hold. He says they're swamped right now."

Griffin, an independent filmmaker, had brought the pierced jug to the Lane County police as evidence for an alleged assault against tree-sitters in the Willamette National Forest. Accompanying him were Josh Schlossberg, an activist with the Cascadia Forest Defenders; Cascadia Wildlands Project Executive Director Josh Laughlin, the blunt public face of the movement; and somber-eyed supporter Mahogany Aulenbach, who seemed to be there for fortitude.

They said that the bow-and-arrow incident was the second assault on tree-sitters, and that on Aug. 27, someone shot at them with a .45-caliber pistol. They wanted the police to step in to protect the activists.

Griffin turned back to the phone and told his story. On the afternoon of Sept. 10, he said, he and his partner had been in the Sten timber sale in the Willamette National Forest, filming a documentary. A round white man with a long white beard ("we call him Santa Man"), accompanied by two other white-haired men and two red-haired men, drove up in a white truck. Santa Man made eye contact with Griffin and said, "I'm coming for you." Griffin and his partner hid behind a tree. Seconds later they heard two loud sounds: THWAP! THWAP! After a few heard-pounding minutes, they emerged from their hiding place and saw the jug, pierced by an arrow and dripping water, at the base of an old-growth Douglas Fir. It had been shot down from a tree-sitter's camp. "I believe it was attempted murder, and I'm a witness," Griffin said.

The dispatcher told Griffin to wait. Twenty minutes later, Lt. Spence Slater came down to the lobby and told the activists that the county officers would work with the Forest Service on the case, but the investigation wouldn't go far if the tree-sitting victims wouldn't give police their legal names. Then he disappeared with Griffin and Laughlin to fill out a police report.

A half hour later, the activists emerged from Slater's office looking worried. "I'm afraid someone's gonna get killed here," Laughlin said with a frown.


We piled into Laughlin's Honda Accord and headed toward the Willamette National Forest. As he drove, Laughlin filled in the details of the controversy.

In 1997, the Forest Service announced the Robinson-Scott Landscape Management Project, which calls for the selective logging of 2,000 acres of mature forest on federal lands in the upper McKenzie watershed. The Forest Service's stated goal for the project is to mimic the effects of wildfire by thinning the forest and creating a more diverse landscape. But some environmentalists, led by the Cascadia Wildlands Project (CWP), question the wisdom of logging in a native forest stand that contains the headwaters of the McKenzie River, where Lane County gets its municipal water supply.

The Forest Service broke the Robinson-Scott project into seven timber sales. One of them, the 468-acre Sten sale, owned by Freres Lumber, is a plan to aggressively log in a mature forest just upstream from the McKenzie Bridge. The company built roads into the 113-acre Sten Unit 43 in August.

As the workers surveyed, marked and cut, activists calling themselves Guardians of the McKenzie Watershed and Cascadia Forest Defenders slipped into the forest, set up tree-sits in old-growth Douglas firs and steeled themselves for a showdown.

Meanwhile, CWP and other environmental groups organized opposition on the ground. A dozen small businesses along the McKenzie River and more than 5,000 local residents signed a petition demanding that the Forest Service stop logging mature and old-growth trees in the McKenzie River watershed. Last May, the Eugene City Council voted 7-1 in favor of a resolution to do the same.

CWP doesn't expect the Forest Service to stop logging altogether. Instead, the organization proposes a different kind of logging plan, one that would protect healthy native stands in the upper watershed while thinning younger tree plantations in the lower watershed.

Laughlin pointed out the window at a tree plantation on public land. The trees were all the same height, their lower branches bare and dry. The canopy was choked with treetops competing for light; the understory was dark and devoid of plant life. This was the result, Laughlin said, of a clearcut about 40 years ago. The Forest Service replanted it in rows, and it grew into an unhealthy monocrop of Douglas firs with little wildlife value. But this area, which seemed to invite fire and infestation, was not slated for cutting.

Forest Service officer Dan Galbraith tells activists that the site of a recently dismantled tree-sit is now closed to the public.

We drove on to higher ground. Patches of sunlight broke into a forest quilted with trees of different species and sizes. Ferns grew on the ground; a pileated woodpecker flew to a new perch; a hawk screeched in the distance. Laughlin explained that the forest had not been logged in the 130-odd years since the last wildfire. The native habitat keeps the McKenzie River pure by filtering the headwaters, and the intact forest allows wildlife such as elk, cougars and the Northern spotted owl to migrate to the Mount Washington wilderness. It also boosts the local economy by providing opportunities for biking, hiking, birding, kayaking and fishing.

"There are thousands of 40- to 50-year-old tree farms in the McKenzie District that need thinning," Laughlin said. "Why go down the road of controversy? As long as we have logging in our public municipal water supply, there's going to be public opposition on a lot of different levels."


We headed to Sten Unit 43 to visit tree-sitters camped in old-growth Douglas firs. But the sitters were gone, and two Forest Service officers were taking down the last remnants of their camp. The gear was scattered on the ground by agency trucks: a plywood platform, ropes and pee-filled bottles.

"The area's closed," barked Don Galbraith, a Forest Service law enforcement officer.

Laughlin told him that unless the forest supervisor had issued a closure, we had a right to be there.

"There will be a closure here because I say there's a closure here," Galbraith retorted. "We have some issues with the safety of the employees."

"Safety issues with the employees?" Laughlin scoffed. "Tree-sitters are getting shot at. Have you heard about the shooting incidents at all?"

"Not officially." Galbraith tucked his thumbs into his belt. Laughlin put his fists on his hips. Aulenbach slid his hands into his back pockets, and Schlossberg crossed his arms. Griffin raised his video camera.

"What was it — 'protect and serve'? I hope you will respond to the threats of people being killed." Laughlin turned briskly toward his car, then added: "You guys are a joke."


The first two tree-sits were down, but the third remained. To get to it, Laughlin drove up a logging road, then parked the car at a barricade. A sign read, "Closed to all motor vehicles to protect wildlife habitat." The irony was not lost on the activists.

"It's not like they're taking these logs to use as beams in a Buddhist temple," Griffin said. "They're taking them to the pulp plant. They'll put some little roses on the toilet paper."

As we hiked up the freshly cut logging road, the loose dust, no longer anchored by tree roots, swirled around our feet. According to the Forest Service's environmental impact statement, that dust would likely increase temperatures in seasonal streams and turbidity in perennial streams, but wouldn't affect fish-bearing waterways. The road would be obliterated and re-seeded at the end of the logging project.

Forest Service spokeswoman Patti Rodgers, speaking by phone, explained that the agency takes precautions to protect the forest resources. The upper McKenzie had been knocked out of balance by previous fires, infestations and logging, and the centenarian trees needed selective logging to mimic wildfire, she said. The agency would make every effort to protect the 500-year-old legacy trees — unless, of course, they were in the hauling path for logs.

Josh Laughlin & Mahogany Aulenbach survey the damage.

The Forest Service would continue to maintain the water quality in the McKenzie River, Rodgers said. She pointed out that the McKenzie was still among the purest rivers in the nation after decades of Forest Service management. The agency's top priorities include recovering bull trout and salmon populations and maintaining recreational resources.

Rodgers implied that CWP's vision for the forest — thinning in the dense tree plantations while leaving the native stands alone — was short-sighted. The forest needs "vertical and horizontal diversity," she said. In other words, the Forest Service wanted to be consistent by logging in both the tree plantations and the native forest stands.



At the only remaining tree-sit, dubbed "Katrina," Aulenbach paused, tilted back his head and cupped his skull in his palms. He had just heard that loggers would begin cutting in the area the next day. "This is the last evening that I'm gonna look at this, with the beams of sun coming through the trees," he said with a sigh. "Calm. Peaceful."

The sitter spoke with me by hand-held radio, calling himself Jack. "I'm up in a big beanstalk right now," he joked in a light Southern accent. He said he'd been in that tree, an ancient Douglas fir about 5 feet in diameter, for about a week. Before that, he spent three weeks in one of the now-defunct sits.

A chainsaw buzzed in the distance. The sound irked Jack. "If you can envision a B-52 bomber dropping a Greyhound bus right by your home, that's what it's like when they drop trees around me," he said.

He said that someone had shot at him with a .45-caliber pistol on Aug. 27, and again with an arrow on Sept. 10. They missed him both times, but one of the arrows grazed his friend's hand, and they later found the pistol shell casings. The two shootings struck such fear into the other sitters that they abandoned their breezy posts, leaving Jack alone and pissed off.

"[The assailants] have endangered my life, and I am going to react accordingly," he stewed. "I'm not going to get explicit, 'cause I'm going to end up in jail because of this, but I have ways and means of fighting back. If they think they're dealing with another vegan pacifist defender, they're messing with the wrong person."

Then he switched gear, saying that his real name was Van Kelly and that he wanted to press charges for the shooting incidents. He gave me the license plate number for the white diesel truck that he said the assailants used.

He explained why he wasn't afraid to identify himself. "I've got some really crazy friends up here," he said. "I have no control over them. When the shit goes down, it's gonna be them perpetrating the illegalities, not me. Their names are Norman and Mother. You gotta look out for Mother."

He came halfway down the tree, allowing me to shoot photos of his face. Then he scuttled out along the traverse line between trees, shouting down to me directly.

"The wilderness truly is the only thing left worth defending in this world," he said. "Other people want to fight for money, they want to fight for oil, they want to fight for gold, but I'm fighting for the wilderness. There's only 5 percent of the wilderness left in the world. If we don't protect that, it'll all be gone."

His sentimentality segued to anger. "The Forest Service is the most lying, thieving agency in the U.S. government," he fumed. "I can't imagine a more Orwellian term than Forest Service. They don't serve the forest at all; they serve the timber industry. They've been lying, raping and pillaging our national forests for more than 100 years, and they're not gonna get this without a fight. I'm 50 years old. It's not like I got a whole lot to lose."

And where, he asked, were the 75 percent of Oregonians who say they oppose clearcutting? "They're afraid of fighting back," he said. "They should be afraid of what it's doing to their kids."

Suddenly he tilted back his head, and a falsetto granny voice wafted from the branches. "Norman! Who're you talking to out there?"

He swung his legs like a child. "Oh, Mother."

On the hike back down, I asked Laughlin if Jack/Van Kelly really expected me to believe that two other people were up in the tree with him.

"He's smart," Laughlin said. "He knows what he's doing."


The legalities of tree-sitting are washed in shades of gray. Anyone can camp on public land for up to two weeks, but it's illegal to build structures — though hunters do it all the time. It's also illegal to "interfere with an agricultural operation," including logging.

A freshly cut road in the Robinson-Scott timber sale.

"There is a righteous tradition among forest defenders of not giving their names to law enforcement," Schlossberg said. "It's not that they're not cooperating; they're scared."

Lauren Regan, an attorney with the Civil Liberties Defense Center in Eugene, said that with or without the victims' identities, police should give a report of attempted murder highest priority. "If someone is injured or, goddess forbid, killed, they will be held accountable for knowing of these incidents of attempted violence and failing to act appropriately and quickly," she said.

Lt. Slater said that the police received calls about multiple assaults on tree-sitters, but that only one — the bow-and-arrow incident that Griffin reported — was filed as an official report. He said that the Sheriff's Department is actively investigating that assault, and that two forest deputies are patrolling "close to that area, if not in that area." But they don't have the resources to patrol the site itself. "You have to understand that we have X amount of deputies," he said.

Slater said that officers went to the site of the tree-sit on the night of Sept. 14, but "they weren't able to determine anything." They returned the next day at the request of the Forest Service, again without much purpose. "The Forest Service was trying to fell trees and they wanted some more people there," Slater said. "I don't think our guys did much."

The Forest Service officers, on the other hand, were busy that day. Galbraith briefly detained Schlossberg and took his videotape, then released him when he gave his name, as reported in the R-G (9/16).

"It sounds like an unlawful search and seizure to me," Regan said of Schlossberg's detention. "The Forest Service has stolen this person's property without cause, and it happens to be timely media material that was about to be disseminated to the public."

Slater repeated that until police had the names of the assault victims, they couldn't do much with the investigation. He added that activists didn't need to worry about blowing their cover. "It's public land. You can go up there. You're looking at interfering with an agricultural operations, but I don't expect anybody's going to do any jail time for it."

I told Slater that a tree-sitter who claimed to be a victim of the shooting attempts had given me his real name and the alleged assailants' license plate number.

"Oh, really? Well, that information needs to come to us or we can't do anything with it," he replied.

"It needs to come from the victim directly?"

"Well, we can certainly look at it, but if we don't have a victim who said 'Yeah, it was me they shot at,' that information will never see the inside of a courtroom."

He hung up the phone without asking for the name and license plate number.


On the day after Griffin reported the arrow assault, activists re-occupied one of the dismantled tree-sits. County deputies came to help the Forest Service fell trees, then went home. In the early evening, activists reported, bullets once again flew toward tree-sitters.

"The police are, in a sense, encouraging violence by doing nothing about it," Schlossberg said. "If there had been a police presence there after the first shooting, there wouldn't have been a second shooting. They're basically sitting back and waiting for this to unfold."

In the meantime, tree-sitters are learning to dodge.  

To weigh in on the controversy, contact Willamette National Forest Supervisor Dallas Emch at demch@fs.fed.us or 225-6300. Lt. Spence Slater can be reached at the Lane County Sheriff's Department: spence.slater@co.lane.or.us or 682-4141.