Anti-logging activists prepare for national forest loggers

Associated Press Writer

Published June 26, 2004

JEFFERSON NATIONAL FOREST, Va. -- The wide net on which they'd defy the government was at least 80 feet above the forest floor, tied at the corners to sturdy trees. Several women hooted with excitement as they shinnied up ropes and took their seats.

When the loggers come, as expected sometime this year, the women and possibly a hundred more environmental activists say they'll be ready. Tree-sitting nets like this can be installed within minutes.

"Water and food can be towed up after everyone gets in," said veteran tree-sitter Inez DeLoach of Seattle, who instructed would-be protesters at a weeklong "action" camp earlier this month.

Such West Coast tactics are a rarity in this part of the country, but after losing a federal court fight against a plan to trim 618 acres in Jefferson National Forest, Southern environmentalists say it may be time to get more aggressive.

"We don't want this kind of action unless as a last resort," said Steve Brooks, spokesman for the Clinch Coalition, a group of about 40 activists in southwest Virginia that invited organizations including Earth First! to the camp. "But at some point, it's necessary."

Local groups have been trying to stop the Bark Camp timber sale since it was proposed in 1997. The mountainous region is corrugated with rivers and streams that give sanctuary to 27 federally protected aquatic species and 29 types of rare mussels.

After residents along the Clinch River blamed timber cutting for mud slides and flooding in 2001, the Forest Service agreed to reduce the harvest by a quarter. But the district ranger who supervises the area around the timber sale said the government will not bend to confrontational tactics by environmental groups.

"They're using threats to demoralize and intimidate us and other locals," said District Ranger Doug Jones, who dealt with Earth First! and others while working for the Forest Service in Utah. "I'm afraid these loggers are getting the fear of God put in them. Someone needs to stand up for them too."

This fall, the government will put the first 170 acres up for sale in the "Joel Branch" part of the forest. Forest Service spokeswoman JoBeth Brown said the logging company that wins the contract will have three years to build roads and cut trees that the Forest Service preselected to build habitat.

Meanwhile, Forest Service officers and local police will monitor the logging for protests, Brown said. "If they're breaking the law, we'll take action."

The Ruffed Grouse Society, a Pittsburgh-based conservation group that receives funding from the timber industry, supports the Forest Service plan.

"There's probably 70 species of just songbirds that require young forest habitat," said Mark Banker, a wildlife biologist who works for the group. "And the only way to create that habitat is to cut trees and let the little ones grow back."

Those arguments didn't sway any of the activists interviewed at the action camp. Logging contracts, many of them said, were simply ways for the government to subsidize the timber industry.

"There's another name for it: 'corporate welfare,"' Brooks said.

The government "could make more money from supporting recreation in the forest," 18-year-old Meghan O'Dea added while dangling from a poplar tree in her climber's harness. "Look at all the hiking trails around here."

About 100 people attended the action camp, squatting under tarps in the intermittent rain as camp leaders lectured about the history of nonviolent protests and how to delay loggers by blocking roads.

Most didn't live in the region, but instead learned about Bark Camp through Web sites and friends. Andrew George, the campaign coordinator with the National Forest Protection Alliance, said environmental groups around the country are taking notice of the Clinch Coalition's fight in the Jefferson.

"The movement is rallying around these folks," said George, of Chapel Hill, N.C. "Bark Camp is becoming one of our highest priorities."

Still, many local environmentalists aren't sure whether they'll follow through with the protest. Officially, the Clinch Coalition will probably stay out of anything illegal, Brooks said, though some members are willing.

"I'm prepared to put my body and my life on the line," said John King, a professional kayaker and coalition member who lives in Wise.

Brooks said it's likely that if a protest develops, Earth First! members would do most of the tree sitting while Clinch members helped from below.

"We can't climb a tree, but we can hug a tree," said 63-year-old Nancy Ward, a member who lives several miles from the action camp. Ward and her husband, Otis, 68, traveled to the camp every day, bringing corn bread and cabbage casserole to the weary campers.

Otis Ward, an avid hunter, blames logging for scaring away many of the wild turkeys, deer and owls from the region. He hopes that the government realizes how many citizens are against the plan.

"This is our last stand," Otis Ward said. "If they don't listen, we'll have to show them."

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