It is an overcast morning in early June and we are standing with Patrick Lancelin in his dooryard in Stafford, a small community in northern California's Humboldt County. A short distance down the road lies the site of the clearcutting-caused landslide of New Year's Day 1997 that wiped out seven homes. Patrick was one of the lucky ones - the landslide only destroyed his water supply, not his house. He leads us around the side of the house and points to the high ridge to the west. Up in the light fog near the top of the ridge, just to the south of a clearcut scar, I can see "Luna", a massive, 1800 year old, 200 foot tall Coast Redwood, silhouetted against the sky. Though I can't make it out from there, somewhere high in Luna's crown is the 6 foot by 8 foot, tarp-covered, plywood platform that Julia "Butterfly" Hill has been occupying since the 10th of December.
Several hours later, after a long, steep hike up the ridge with supplies and mail for Julia, several of us stand just uphill from Luna, on a level with the platform in the top of the tree. Julia greets us from above and lowers climbing ropes for us. A short while later we join her high in the tree's branches. For the next couple of hours Julia talks passionately to us about her feelings for the forest. She chronicles the events that led her to her lofty perch 180 feet up in a Redwood for what has become the longest tree occupation in America's history. It is a classic tale of modern American greed clashing with deeper environmental and spiritual values.
Typically more than 200 feet tall with some trees reaching more than 350 feet into the sky, and living for up to 2000 years, ancient Coast Redwoods are truly one of the great living wonders of the world. These majestic Redwoods, the tallest trees on Earth, once extended in a contiguous 40-mile wide swath from Big Sur in central California north to southern Oregon. Today, however, less than 3 or 4% of the original 2 million acres of Coast Redwoods survive. The remainder has been ransacked by logging companies over the past 140 years.
The 60,000 acre Headwaters Forest owned by Pacific Lumber Company of Scotia, California is the largest unprotected Redwood forest remaining on Earth. Between the 8000 acres of old-growth Redwoods in the Headwaters Forest and other patches of old-growth in an additional 140,000 acres owned in the region, Pacific Lumber Company now controls about 75% of all the old-growth Redwood remaining in private hands.
Up until 1985 the Pacific Lumber Company was a family-owned business that practiced selective cutting and sustainable logging on its land in northern California's Humboldt County. As far back as the 1930's they had abandoned the practice of clearcutting on their land. Then in 1985 Pacific Lumber was seized in a hostile corporate takeover by Texas financier Charles Hurwitz, chief executive officer of the Maxxam Corporation. The heavily-leveraged buyout was financed with junk bonds. Once Hurwitz was in charge of Pacific Lumber, to pay off the high-interest junk bonds he cashed in the company's $60 million pension fund for its employees and then began liquidating the company's stands of virgin old-growth redwoods, doubling the rate of harvest from the ancient forests and returning to the practice of clearcutting.
These actions by Pacific Lumber have spurred a heroic 13-year battle by forest activists to protect Headwaters Forest and the other remaining old-growth Coast Redwood forests in the region. Espousing a policy of non-violence, many of these dedicated forest activists have literally put their bodies on the line to save the ancient Redwoods from the chainsaw. Their non-violent philosophy is in marked contrast to the philosophy of the Humboldt County Sheriff's Department which thinks it is perfectly acceptable to swab pepper spray under the eyelids of peacefully protesting teenage girls. It is this heated battle into which Julia Butterfly Hill has entered.
Julia's occupation of Luna has saved the tree, preventing it from being cut, but it has not been an easy six and a half months. To start with, in meteorological terms she could hardly have picked a worse winter to camp out in the top of a Redwood. With Luna near the top of a high ridge and her platform in the top of the tree, fully exposed to the elements, Julia had to endure the high winds and torrential rains of the many El Niño-spawned storms in one of the most severe winters in California's recorded history.
Then there were Pacific Lumber Company's efforts to dislodge her from the tree - company climbers sent up after her, round-the-clock security guards camped out at the base of Luna for ten days in an attempt to cut off her supply lines, floodlights and the blasting of air horns throughout the night to prevent her from sleeping, and the close flight of huge helicopters.
However, the hardest part for Julia might have been watching Luna's close neighbors fall to the chainsaw as the hillside was logged off during the winter. About fifty large Redwoods originally stood in the grove with Luna, their once proud forms now reduced to stumps. But with a wisdom belying her 24 years, this extraordinary and inspiring woman has survived it all, emerging as one of the most eloquent and passionate spokespeople that the movement has seen.
The situation in the Scotia-Stafford area of Humboldt County has many parallels with that of the unorganized territories of northern Maine. It is a forested region with most of the forest privately owned by a large out-of-state corporation. The population is generally poor compared with the rest of the state. Good paying jobs are scarce and most of those jobs that are available are connected to the timber industry. Logging jobs in the region are being lost due to a shortage of timber resources. Most importantly, the out-of-state corporation involved is practicing unsustainable forestry and large-scale clearcutting with no regard for either the health of the environment or the long-term interests of the area's inhabitants. There, perhaps, are lessons we could learn from the forest activists of northern California in valuing and protecting our natural resources here in Maine.
There is one key difference between Maine and Humboldt County, however, and that is that the area being logged in Humboldt County is not forest that has been cut once or twice in the past, but is irreplaceable old-growth forest. Old-growth forests are now such a rarity in the East that most Mainers living today have not even seen old-growth forest within the state. Virtually all of our original forests were cut-over long ago. If the ancient Redwood forests fall to Pacific Lumber Company's chainsaws, they too will be lost forever.
Walking in a grove of ancient redwoods is a truly spiritual experience. One would have to be totally lacking a soul to see these majestic, ancient trees as simply standing timber or money in the bank. To even consider cutting them down is incomprehensible to me and logging these ancient forests reveals the profundity of human hubris and arrogance perhaps more clearly than any other act our species commits. We are talking about trees some of which date back to the time of Christ. Shouldn't there be some sort of statute of limitations - some grant of immunity stating that if you manage to reach a certain age, perhaps 500 or 1000 years, that you are exempted from the excesses of human greed?