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The “Redwood Wars”: A History of Environmental Direct Action

In the fight to save our environment, resilience is key.

(Photo: Javier Fernández Sánchez / Getty Images)

Darren Frederick Speece’s Defending Giants: The Redwood Wars and the Transformation of American Environmental Politics (University of Washington Press, 2017) is a dense, substantial book (not for the faint of heart), yet every bit worth the effort needed to get through it to the end. A “good read,” it is itself something of an endangered species, to wit eloquent, inspiring, eminently readable nonfiction with precious lessons for those fighting the ever-greater environmental destruction wrought by corporate greed.

If the story is long and complicated, that is because nothing good comes fast or easily. As the tale shows, even those striving for the noblest of causes can know dissension in their ranks. And rarely do even the best efforts bring full success.

In this case, it is the story of trying to save some of the world’s greatest trees (and forests) — the California North Coast’s ancient and old-growth redwoods — from a socio-economic system that puts a price on everything, even what is priceless. Speece’s view of the challenge is clear from the outset: “The activists involved in redwood preservation understood the oldest redwoods as nonrenewable because they took more than a thousand years to grow, and they argued that the trees were most valuable to society when left in the ground.”

It goes without saying that it is a tale fully relevant to here and now, when public office is mobilized to dismantle administrative government, all in favor of the same system that would have clear-cut as much as possible of the last remaining redwoods, to embellish the bottom line of a corporate balance sheet.

The decades-long fight, “the Redwood Wars,” as Speece presents it, is a flow of victories interspersed by repeated setbacks and a final less-than-satisfactory resolution. Yet, as one reads it, over and over again there comes to mind an inversion of one of Yeats’ most famous couplets: the best are full of passionate intensity, while the worst lack all conviction.

The story begins way back in the latter part of the 19th century and intensifies over the decades as the market value of the trees increases with their dwindling numbers. As Speece recounts its evolution, one sees the gradual raising and spreading of awareness of the finite dimensions of what was once thought inexhaustible. (That awareness — fortunately — is still with us, given a fillip by a businessman con artist in the White House backed by cabinet members whose job titles can be uniformly summed up as chargés de pillage.)

The subtitle, The Redwood Wars and the Transformation of American Environmental Politics, may sound a bit dramatic, but it is not. Long before the Redwood Wars ended, the fight to save the redwoods from corporate greed had turned into a sort of low intensity warfare (including a potential FBI-backed corporate bombing) pitting environmentalists against big business with — as usual — the little guys (in this case, mostly the timber workers) caught in the middle.

Yet, at every point along the way, the battle was never a simple black-and-white affair. As the author insists:

Workers feared the effects of both liquidation logging and forest preservation on future employment. Activists wanted to make the North Coast hospitable to both giant trees and timber workers. And some timber company executives were acutely aware of the desirability of managing their land to maintain long-term harvest levels rather than facilitating short-term liquidation.

Speece points out that these forests had long been used and “manipulated” by Native Americans. Hence, he judges the terms pristine and virgin inappropriate, for they usually designate forests seen as merely untouched by the machinery of white loggers, ignoring countless generations of predecessors who lavished such tender loving care on the forests that they still appeared pristine and virgin when those white men arrived. He decides on the term “old growth,” using it to designate the habitat characteristics of a forest dominated by thousand-plus-year-old redwoods, where the longevity of the trees has created a unique, enduring environment and where the individual trees are irreplaceable.

Then, ancient can be used to describe the awe-inspiring age of the giants: ” … two-thousand-year-old redwood trees stand as monuments to the deep history of the earth, and they provide a direct connection to an ancient past for modern humans … once gone, they are gone forever, along with the connections to that ancient past.”

Replacing the Native Americans, the white Europeans and their descendants introduced a colossal and unusually bad complicating factor: private property, and that in a society where private property often annuls the idea of a public good held in trust for all and for all time. The California bureaucracy, for a variety of reasons, long generally sided with (protected) the lumber companies, and the trees were property that those companies meant to turn into money.

As the fight heated up in the 1980s in reaction to what the author politely refers to as “President Reagan’s decreased enforcement of environmental laws,” the activists turned to the courts and invoked every possible angle of every possible environmental protection law. Over time, they and their lawyers acquired a knowledge of the judiciary that enabled them to keep on fighting against all the odds — and against rulings in favor of industry.

Control of the media was a major factor, at times essential, in getting the general public to support saving or cutting. It is no surprise that the means at the disposal of those defending these giants were modest compared to the deep pockets of those defending the corporate giants. Thus, words, and the images they evoke, were important. Again, here, it is important to note that even with those (often VERY) modest means, the activists, full of passionate intensity, were able to keep on fighting — and often won.

The main protagonist following the Second World War was Pacific Lumber. It was “part family-run business and part diverse business organization, and had already become a multinational conglomerate in the 1970s.” During the following decade, the family-run business image, so useful as a public face, fell like a mask when the company was taken over by a corporate raider who proposed to clear-cut Pacific Lumber’s vast holdings in order to pay off the debt he had taken on for the acquisition.

Thus, the company passed under the guiding hand of Charles Hurwitz who “steered Pacific Lumber toward an unsustainable business model sure to doom the workers, the shareholders, the redwoods and the salmon.” In short, it was life or death for much of the forests, of the biome within which they lived and of the communities — human and otherwise — that shared that biome.

But Hurwitz was burdened with more than debt. He also had a long history of shady dealings, which served to mobilize against him people who otherwise might have been disinterested. In the case of Pacific Lumber, Hurwitz, with his tarnished reputation, turned out to be something of a catalyst.

He was backed by a Pacific Lumber manager, John Campbell. Married to Cynthia Carpenter, whose father was a Pacific Lumber executive, Campbell had found his calling. “As resident manager, Campbell developed and implemented many of the operational changes that made Pacific Lumber an attractive target for Charles Hurwitz as well as environmental activists…. The key to his strategy was land acquisition.”

His purchases were ambitious, to say the least.

In 1981, Campbell discovered that Louisiana Pacific wanted to leave the North Coast. He purchased twenty-two thousand acres of their land … and another tract outside Scotia, both properties adjacent to the existing bulk of Pacific Lumber property outside the company town. To provide unfettered access to the newly expanded land, Campbell also purchased an additional twenty-seven thousand acres from various small inholders whose property was surrounded by Pacific Lumber land…. Campbell wanted to start clear-cutting again…. The board [of Pacific Lumber] agreed with Campbell, and in 1982, the company submitted to the Board of Forestry its first clear-cut plans in decades.

Yet, by the end of the 1980s, while nobody could cry, “Victory!”, there was at least a stalemate owing to the unrelenting activism.

Old growth was nearly impossible to harvest, the [California] Department of Forestry and Board of Forestry were under intense scrutiny by the courts, and activists were flooding the woods with eyes and bodies to monitor logging plans and logging activities…. The activists had failed to resolve the Redwood Wars using California’s legislative apparatus. However, the Forests Forever campaign had forced the timber industry to recognize the widespread unpopularity of their practices.

Things came to a head a decade later with a plan, the “Deal,” to prevent the logging of the world’s largest privately owned old-growth redwood forest. The federal and California governments agreed to purchase 7,470 acres of Pacific Lumber land, including 3,000 acres of old growth. California agreed to purchase another 1,600 acres of old growth for $100 million. Pacific Lumber, in addition to the cash, received 7,755 acres of second-growth forest, and the ancient groves it still owned would be off limits to logging for 50 years. This amounted to “an unprecedented land acquisition and endangered species habitat management agreement.” On March 1, 1999, the State of California passed the necessary appropriations bill, sealing the Deal.

For nearly two decades, a small group of rural Americans had forced a multinational corporation, the State of California, and the United States government to accommodate local environmental concerns. California and the US government had agreed to pay Pacific Lumber nearly half a billion dollars for approximately ten thousand acres of redwood forest. Pacific Lumber had also completed the nation’s first multispecies Habitat Conservation Plan, an agreement with the federal government restricting logging activities on the private timberland to better protect the habitat of the northern spotted owl, the murrelet, the Pacific martin, the salmon, and other threatened species. It was a historic night for ancient redwoods, endangered species policy, and environmental politics more broadly.

Yet this was only a fraction of the 60,000 acres the activists had wanted protected.

Kathy Bailey, who had led the fight, “was convinced the protections and limitations were not enough — for the old-growth redwood ecosystem or the species dependent on it. And she was angry that Charles Hurwitz had seemingly succeeded in holding his redwoods hostage to get a massive public bailout, just like he had received in the 1980s after the collapse of the Texas savings and loan industry.”

But, while for many the victory was, thus, bittersweet, it set a precedent in a much broader context, for “the Redwood Wars were fought over how to best integrate human society with nonhuman communities, not how to separate humanity from the wild.”

That challenge continues today more intensely than ever, echoed by thousands of other grassroots efforts throughout the country and the entire world. The failure to stop construction of the Keystone and Dakota Access pipelines would seem to signal the triumph of corporate over public good. The redwood activists often faced — and still face — such setbacks, yet they were/are not daunted. The longevity and impressive resilience of their struggle remind us that we must not relent either and never let down our guard, for the threat to the Good Earth is greater than ever.

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