LOWELL, Ore. — They’re still here, on plywood platforms and under blue tarps, watching the forest from the treetops and waiting for word that their efforts have paid off.
Four years ago two young men climbed 180 feet up an old-growth Douglas fir in the Willamette National Forest to block plans to log 96 acres of timber. Protesters say they’ve been there every day since, making it the longest continuous tree-sit against old-growth logging in the Northwest.
“It really tells you something about the commitment of these guys to protect what’s left of mature and old-growth forests on public lands,” said James Johnston of the Cascadia Wildlands Project, a Eugene-based environmental group. “I know they’ll be out here another four years, if that’s what it takes.”
The battle, already marked by blockades, arrests and lawsuits, is expected to rage on.
The U.S. Forest Service has set aside 70 percent of the Clark sale area to protect habitat for the red tree vole — a nocturnal, fir needle-munching rodent that lives in the upper reaches of old Douglas fir trees and is a staple of the northern spotted owl’s diet.
Still, activists say they’re nowhere near ready to abandon their perches and roadblocks.
“We want of course to defend this until the sale is canceled,” one of the tree-sitters said.
Timber industry leaders say they hope to see just the opposite at Clark and other delayed timber sales in the Northwest.
They’re waiting to see if Bush administration officials will loosen the grip on logging in public forests and restore the original timber volume promised under President Clinton’s much-criticized Northwest Forest Plan.
Across the region, the forest plan was to provide 20 percent of the historic harvest levels, but instead it has resulted in just 4 percent while the Forest Service surveys for wildlife and the courts consider ongoing legal battles.
The Clark sale is “exactly the kind of timber sale that scientists thought should go ahead under the Northwest Forest Plan,” said Chris West, vice president of the American Forest Resource Council, a Portland-based industry group.
“It’s an isolated block of mature forest, and because of its small size, it doesn’t have as much importance as other stands that they protected in the plan. That’s why it was proposed for harvest,” West said.
The timber was sold to Zip-O-Log Mills Inc. of Eugene in early 1998, but the company hasn’t been able to start cutting. It’s now negotiating with Willamette forest officials over the logging cutbacks.
“The sale has changed substantially because of the numbers of red tree vole nests,” said Rick Scott, the Middle Fork District ranger. “The question is, is it still an economically viable sale?”
If Zip-O-Log accepts the modified sale, the company could log 29 acres as soon as this year, Scott said. Or the sale could be canceled, if the company and the agency agree it has changed too much.
“I don’t think this was what they intended when they passed the Northwest Forest Plan back in 1994,” said Jim Hallstrom, president of Zip-O-Log. “It was supposed to smooth things out and speed things up and give the industry some kind of volume that they could count on. And it just hasn’t done that.”
Last year, timber harvested on the Willamette totaled 17 million board feet — far less than the 138 million board feet promised under the regional forest plan or the revised target of 111 million board feet adopted after the Willamette mapped creekside setbacks and special habitat reserves.
Forest Service officials in Washington, D.C., are now reviewing which plants and animals they should continue to survey and protect before allowing ground-disturbing projects to move forward on agency lands.
Environmentalists say they worry that industry pressure could lead the Forest Service to drop the tree vole from the required survey list, possibly returning the Clark timber sale to its original size.
“The whole process is taking place behind closed doors,” said Leeanne Siart, a biologist in the Eugene office of the Oregon Natural Resources Council, which is at the forefront of environmental challenges in the state.
Unsure what will happen — or when — the protesters plan to hold their ground in the Fall Creek watershed about 25 miles east of Eugene.
In the first year, the Clark sale and the protest it spawned led to repeated confrontations between activists and Forest Service officers. In the last couple of years, officials mostly have left them alone. But the activists are still ready for a showdown.
Approaching the area, visitors encounter crude roadblocks along the twisting spur roads leading to the stands marked for logging. Activists built them from rocks and branches, hoping to slow down anyone who drives in to try to remove them or dismantle their camps.
Up one tree in a dense stand of old growth, a woman played the flute. On a steep slope in a younger stand of trees, a young man calling himself “Ta” offered to share some of the food he prepared more than 100 feet up the trunk of a fir.
Fruit Fly, a soft-spoken man with a thick, dark beard, pointed to a tree in the stand that supports a tree vole nest. The Forest Service labeled the nest inactive, which doesn’t prompt a protective buffer, but he believes otherwise.
Either way, it shows that much is left to be learned about where the animal lives and what it needs to survive, he said.
“Every inactive nest could very well become active, so what’s the reason to cut it?” he said.
Fruit Fly, in the base camp this day, also has taken his turn on the doughnut-shaped platforms suspended by ropes high up in the trees. It’s lonely duty, and the wind and rain and cold can make it bleak.
But he also finds it refreshing and rewarding.
“Things move a lot slower and you’re kind of living in accordance with the trees and nature and the animals and observing that rather than observing traffic lights and horns and cars and lights and stuff,” he said. “In the upper canopy itself, there’s a whole different type of ecosystem.”
On the platforms, movement is limited.
“That’s why it’s probably not good to spend forever in the tree,” Fruit Fly said. “For human beings, we’re not necessarily meant to live in trees like that. Our habitat is different I guess. But it’s a fun habitat to hang out in.”
It’s also dangerous. A 22-year-old Portland woman died April 12 after falling 150 feet from a platform at the Eagle Creek timber sale protest in the Mount Hood National Forest near Estacada. That timber sale had been canceled three days before the protester’s death.
Siart said the accident has hit the activist community hard and is still sinking in. Tree-sitters know and accept the risks, but they also are taught to follow strict safety guidelines, such as making sure people use safety lines when they move from one platform to another.
As part of the Clark protest’s recent four-year anniversary, activists offered training in skills such as tree-scaling basics and safety protocols.
For now, there appears to be no quick conclusion to the standoff.
The timber industry has filed suit in federal court in Eugene challenging the legality of the Forest Service’s wildlife survey and management program. Environmentalists have filed their own lawsuit in Seattle, where decisions have tended to favor their causes.
“I’m disappointed that our political leaders haven’t fixed this problem,” said Johnston of the Cascadia Wildlands Project, “but I’m not surprised the public is still willing to clearly put their lives on the line to protect places like this.”