Forest Defense: A North Coast Tradition

by Ellen E. Taylor

Twenty-five years ago, Darryl Cherney remarked that he expected tree-sitting to become a national pastime. From his high perch in a fragment of the decimated coastal forests of the California northcoast, he was exulting over how many young people from all over the country came to help. Even before the fear of climate catastrophe was a headline issue, they were aware of the enormous value trees provide for Earth’s air, water, biodiversity, and spiritual tranquility. Contemplating the barren vistas which replaced their childhood dreams of a glorious life, they were propelled into action.  

Three decades later, young people all over the world are rising to defend their inheritance. New Zealand, India, Pakistan, elsewhere, children are surveying a future of fire and floods with sinking hearts, and reacting. Fridays for Future, a creation of Greta Thunberg, and Extinction Rebellion, bring crowds of hundreds of thousands.

A group of children in Colombia calculated the increasing mass of rainforest being destroyed annually, its price in carbon, in carbon generating capacity, in water, and in biodiversity. Then they sued the government for the theft. 

Here in the US, twenty-one children watched increasingly worldwide chaos and growing threats to survival. In 2015 they brought a lawsuit against the United States for failing to protect their right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, citing the Equal Protection clause of the Constitution. Their own parents, they said, and their parents’ generation, were destroying their future. Although their case, Juliana vs the United States, lost this year in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals (in an opinion which confessed craven impotence: “any effective plan would necessarily require a host of complex policy decisions entrusted, for better or for worse, to the wisdom and discretion of the executive and legislative branches”), they set an inspiring example and are continuing to move forward undeterred. 

“Trees are for climbing, not cutting.” Youth forest defenders, Oliver Simona McClintic and Oliver Levi Cochran, speaking to
the press at a demonstration to save Jackson Demonstration
State Forest from logging. Photo by Chad Swimmer.

Similar suits have emerged around the country, in which children are claiming their right to a habitable environment. This August, Judge Kathy Seeley ruled that a Constitutional climate suit against the state of Montana must be heard in court.

Here in Humboldt County, recognition grows that the tree-sitters of the 90s were right to defend the forests, which protect air, water, and wildlife, reduce fire risk and, as a photosynthetic engine, remove one third of the carbon humans generate. 

But human inertia, government cowardice, and the all-consuming frenzy of corporations for profit have been crushing. The destruction continues, with atmospheric carbon increasing 70 ppm between 1993 and the present. Catastrophic fires rage. The population of Northern Spotted Owls, gravely endangered already, regarded as an indicator species, has decreased 30 percent over the same period due to habitat loss.

It is undeniable however, that respect and reverence have grown over the passage of time for forests  as an indispensable element in the functioning and structure of earth’s biosphere. Indigenous peoples know this, through the traditional knowledge bequeathed to them by their forebears who lived in and with forests for thousands of years. They managed their resources, or in modern parlance “public trust values”, and addressed the danger fire posed to themselves with frequent cultural burns in carefully and seasonally selected areas. 

Industrial extraction has destroyed the forest.  Because it demolishes forest infrastructure, and desiccates undergrowth on the forest floor, logging has intensified the destructive power of fire severity to its present terrifying scale. 

The atmosphere must be recognized as part of the public trust. Forests are working lands, and their “high value forest product” is a habitable climate.  This product is vastly more valuable than the inferior quality wood they provide in their currently degraded state.

CAL FIRE does not recognize this. In response to a letter commenting on a recent timber harvest plan (THP) in the Mattole, which suggested allowing trees to grow, before harvest, for, say, three hundred years, rather than the current maximum of 90 years, it offered this preposterous retort: “If old trees were proposed for harvest, they would be highly scrutinized by the public that want no harvest of old growth trees. In addition, many mills are not equipped to handle large logs.”

Administratively, forest management belongs in the Department of Conservation. Institutions teaching forestry must reorient, away from extraction and toward protection, examining as well the highly developed management skills once employed by their Indigenous predecessors.

There is support for this. Public understanding has evolved since the 90s. It is unlikely that locals will sport bumper-stickers with the inflammatory “save a logger, eat an owl” slogan. People must make a living. But they want their lives to mean something. They want to restore, rather than destroy, their children’s futures. 

Like the coal industry, logging has become obsolete. Other building materials are being developed which do not externalize the costs. Like the rubber and palm plantations, which have devastated the forests of Indonesia, South America and Africa, young even-age conifer plantations are being relocated to areas where they can be treated as fiber farms.

The Laytonville School System is not likely to make reading the Lorax a crime anymore, and the children, many of whom see themselves as the hero kid of the book, know these words virtually by heart:

“And all that the Lorax left here in this mess

Was a small pile of rocks, with the one word UNLESS.

Whatever that meant, well, I just couldn’t guess……”