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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Luna Mending

Air Date: Week of

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CURWOOD: On a ridge about a quarter mile up the mountain from Mike O'Neal's home is a thousand year-old redwood tree called Luna. The tree got its name from Julia Butterfly Hill, a woman who lived on a tiny platform near the top of the giant tree for 738 days. She was protesting the logging of ancient redwoods in the Pacific Northwest. In a deal with Pacific Lumber, Ms. Hill ended her tree sit and paid the company $50,000 to protect Luna and a swath of land around it. But it appears that was not enough. Late last year, someone with a chainsaw slashed a 32 inch deep gash halfway around the tree's trunk. Living on Earth's Mark Hertsgaard visited northern California to investigate the crime and the future of old-growth logging.

(Music up and under)

SPIRAL: We're 3000 feet up, about ten miles from the coast. The winds coming in are really, really strong. They rip tarps right off....

HERTSGAARD: His code name is Spiral. His fellow activists have names like Dragonfly and Guano. Music pours from the speakers of an old van as they pack warm clothes and food before an all-night hike into the "Mattole Free State"-- a blockade on Pacific Lumber land near California's rugged Lost Coast.

SPIRAL: I mean, there's usually between 20 and 30 kids in the woods. Feeding 30 people is a lot of food. Especially when you have to hike it in 14 miles.

HERTSGAARD: Spiral's colleague, Josh Brown, of Earth First!, claims the blockade has prevented Pacific Lumber from logging 3,000 acres of ancient Douglas Fir trees since last November.

BROWN: Well, if there was one good thing about being cut, it woke people up to the fact that the problems with the old-growth forests up here on the north coast are not over and that we needed to wake up and get re-involved.

(Engine sound)

HERTSGAARD: At Pacific Lumber's factory in Scotia, a worker outside the gate won't give his name, only his opinions. He says environmentalists will seize on any excuse to stop logging.

WORKER: First it was the bird, and then if that wouldn't have worked, they would have found some lizard or something. Then if that wouldn't have worked, they would have found a bug of some kind they had to protect. Just a bunch of radicals, that's what I think.

HERTSGAARD: Humboldt County has been ground zero in California's timber wars for over a decade. There has been violence before. A car bombing in Oakland, of activists Judy Bari and Daryl Chaney. Police swabbing pepper spray into the eyes of nonviolent protesters. Activist David Chain killed by a felled tree. Julia Butterfly Hill has her own suspicions about the kind of person who was behind the Luna attack.

HILL: Whoever did this is someone who is frustrated and angry and, most of all, afraid. And you apply enough pressure to anything and it explodes.

HERTSGAARD: Hill is sitting in her Circle of Life Foundation office, sipping unfiltered juice from a Mason jar. Reggae posters cover the walls. A dog named Mango relaxes at her feet.

HILL: The whole entire West Coast is filled with ghost towns of timber companies and other extractive industries that have come in, promised wealth and gold, and raped the beauty, raped the community, and leave it with nothing. Environmental activists are the easy scapegoat.

(Electric sawing)

HERTSGAARD: Back at Pacific Lumber, the factory worker says he's sure a timber man didn't cut Luna. Otherwise, that tree would be down right now, not hanging there half cut.

WORKER: The environmentalists probably cut it just to make this place look bad. It should have been cut years ago and made into lumber.

(Footsteps, rustling)

HERTSGAARD: Just down the road from Pacific Lumber, if you look carefully, you can see Luna from Highway 101. But hiking up there unaided is nearly impossible. Even with guidance the climb takes over an hour, through clear cut zones where wisps of smoke rise from soil burnt black and bare for replanting. Over a last hill looms Luna, near the top of a sharply sloped canyon. Stepping close, you can trace the cut across its trunk. Large metal buckles now straddle the gash like stitches and cables stretch from upper branches to the ground. Arborists hope, but can't promise, that these measures will keep the tree from tipping over in 80 mile an hour winter winds. The criminal left behind neither foot nor fingerprints. But there were woodshavings, says detective Juan Freeman of the Humboldt County Sheriff's office.

FREEMAN: What my goal would be potentially to compare the shavings to some shavings in a particular chainsaw that may have been involved in the actual cutting of the tree.

HERTSGAARD: Freeman says he hasn't asked Pacific Lumber for anything besides a single visit to the crime scene. Yet, he praises the company for its cooperation. But he hasn't questioned the tree's owner, Julia Butterfly Hill. And why not?

FREEMAN: For one thing, I don't know where she is or anything. And I don't really have time to hunt her down and try to get an interview from her. If she were to contact me here, I'd be happy to talk to her.

HILL: Thousands of people from all over the world contact me on a daily basis. So, if a detective can't find me, I'm a bit concerned about his ability to find who attacked Luna.

HERTSGAARD: Hill and her supporters expect little from the official investigation. So little, they've opened their own inquiry, headed by environmental attorney Mark Harris. Harris says there's a ten year history of collusion between the sheriff's department and Pacific Lumber, with employees going back and forth between the two outfits.

HARRIS: If we have Pacific Lumber employees who are deputized on the spot by our public sheriff officials, who then climb up in trees and wrestle and apply pain compliance to peaceful activists in a very, very hazardous and dangerous setting.

(Engine starting)

HERTSGAARD: Harris, a part-time pilot, believes the activists have lost the battle for northern California's redwoods. He says you can see why from the air.

(Airplane radio)

HARRIS: We're coming up on the edge of Headwaters Forest and you can see there's some pretty widespread clearcuts just below us. There's a beautiful symmetry that only old-growth redwood possess and it's dead ahead of us. You can see it through this mist and fog. If you stood a pencil up next to a toothpick, that's essentially the kind of contrast that you have here.

HERTSGAARD: That contrast, between the protected Humboldt Grove, and the clear-cut acres around it, is indeed stark. And it's a direct result of the Headwaters deal that Julia Butterfly had climbed the Luna tree to protest. Signed in 1999, by Maxxam and the governments of California and the United States, the Headwaters deal banned logging on only 7,500 of 60,000 contested acres. And it let the company log those remaining acres more aggressively than before. In effect, excusing it from the Endangered Species Act.


HERTSGAARD: After half an hour of viewing dozens of clearcuts, we're back on the ground in front of the Selective Cutting hair salon in Scotia. Population 1,200, Scotia is one of the last company towns in America. A typical bumper sticker reads, "Earth First. We'll Log the Other Planets Later." Pacific Lumber still owns every building here and whistles its employees to work three times a day.


(Ringing phone, receptionist)

HERTSGAARD: John Campbell, company CEO, says he has only a vague idea about who might have cut the Luna tree.

CAMPBELL: I think it was sort of a very, you know, vulgar thing to do. I think it was some deranged person who perhaps didn't even have a part of the debate.

HERTSGAARD: Local activists think the most likely suspects are Pacific Lumber workers, acting with or without management approval. They reason that the attacker almost certainly arrived by vehicle and would have to pass through locked gates to access Pacific Lumber's land. The accusation angers John Campbell.

CAMPBELL: It's outrageous. I mean, we worked very hard to set the tree aside. And we worked very hard to try to save the tree, you know, after it was cut. And I've heard it that perhaps someone within the environmental community had done it to continue the fundraising and keep the issue before the public.

HERTSGAARD: Campbell admits his company has dramatically increased clear-cutting since Maxxam's takeover. But he says this was an industry-wide switch.

CAMPBELL: If you're managing your land for maximum sustained yield, which you're required to do under the Timber Productivity Act, you want your trees out in bright sunlight when they're young so that they grow vigorously and overcome the competition.

HERTSGAARD: Julie Butterfly Hill is the first to admit that logging in Humboldt County has only accelerated since she ended her tree-sit. So what exactly has she accomplished? Hill is proud of having inspired countless people around the world to get environmentally active in their own communities. And she makes no apologies for fighting to save the scraps of Humboldt's ancient forest.

HILL: When I got here in November of 1997, we were already fighting for the scraps. 97 percent of what used to be here is gone. It's a sad magnifying glass of the state of affairs of our world that there's even an issue over 3 percent.

HERTSGAARD: It's ironic that the battle that made Hill famous ended in defeat, but the Headwaters deal is hardly her fault. And Hill rejects accusations that no matter how many concessions timber companies and politicians offer her, enough is never enough.

HILL: They've taken 97 percent. When is enough enough for them?

HERTSGAARD: Pacific Lumber's John Campbell sees it differently.

CAMPBELL: If you go out here, you can see young redwoods growing everywhere, so 90 percent of the redwoods have not disappeared. 97 percent of the old-growth perhaps has disappeared, but these are working forests. These have been legislated and put in place for the growing and harvesting of trees.

HERTSGAARD: Paul Mason is the executive director of the Environmental Protection and Information Center. He says the real issue is not the fate of a single celebrity tree, but rather the need to change the entire approach to logging in California. Selective logging can work, says Mason, but clear-cutting destroys not only trees but the rivers and wildlife they nourish.

MASON: Salmon continue to be in the death spiral in northern California and throughout the Pacific Northwest. And saving individual old growth trees is not going to change that. We need a fundamentally different way of logging in these watersheds where we leave a functional forest after we've done our logging. That's the next battle.


HERTSGAARD: The search for the Luna tree's attacker is unlikely to end any time soon, and neither are California's timber wars. Spiral, Guano, Dragonfly and other activists will keep fighting for the Douglas Fir trees in Mattole Valley, but future debate will probably not focus on ancient trees like Luna for a simple reason. By now, almost all of them are either protected or horizontal. For Living on Earth, I'm Mark Hertsgaard.



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