Young rebels with a cause are taking to the streets, the parks, and the treetops to fight
for the planet.
by Heather Millar
My liaison has told me to yell, "Hello, trees!" to announce my
arrival at the Fall Creek tree-sit, about 40 miles southeast of Eugene, Oregon, in the
Willamette National Forest. As I hike into the site along fire roads and trails, I wonder
if I'm going to feel too silly to shout the prescribed greeting. Luckily, when I finally
reach the clearing, a few people are squatting on the ground, beating on bongo drums.
"Hi, sorry I'm late," I wheeze, letting my backpack slip to the ground.
"I'm . . ."
"We know who you are," says a young man, his electric-blue eyes
framed by dreadlocks and his septum pierced with cherry wood. "You wouldn't have
gotten this far if we didn't want you to. Ground security saw you hiking in."
"Lots of Freddies around lately," says a second bongo player,
his orange hair tipped with blond, like flames. "Gotta be careful."
("Freddies," I learn later, is tree-sit lingo for the U.S. Forest Service. The
tree-sitters believe they're under constant surveillance by the authorities.)
In the center of the clearing, river rocks have been arranged to form the
Celtic sign for the sun. A Maypole strung with ribbon stands at the north end; a compost
pile and refuse pit lie far to the south. Two hundred feet above, out of reach of Forest
Service cherry pickers, a cluster of "nests" made from rope, wood, and blue
tarps--home for a revolving crew of roughly half a dozen tree-sitters--has been lashed to
a few monumental Douglas firs. A huge cloth banner flutters between two trees, proclaiming
the group's name: Red Cloud Thunder.
"Hey . . . Lorax?!" a female voice calls down from the tree
village to the young man with the pierced nose. She identifies herself as Sprite, but the
platform's height and the glare of the afternoon sun make it impossible to see her face.
"Why don't you show our visitor around the forest for a while?" she asks.
"Give her an idea of what we're fighting for?"
Sprite and Lorax are one branch of a large and diverse group of young
activists fighting for the environment. While the tree-sitters employ direct-action
tactics, their peers lead hands-on restoration projects, campaign for green political
candidates, organize protests, and recruit new members for established groups like the
Sierra Club. Their efforts burst into the public consciousness in December 1999, when
young demonstrators helped shut down a meeting of the World Trade Organization in Seattle.
In April, protesters next rattled the Washington, D.C., meetings of the World Bank and the
International Monetary Fund.
After the demonstrations in Seattle and D.C., the mainstream press largely
focused on the gladiatorial thrust-and-parry between protesters and police. How many were
arrested? Was pepper spray used? Did the meetings go on despite the protests? Less
emphasized was the way in which these events gave young people from dozens of
organizations an opportunity to work together and a chance to flex their political muscle.
The youthful crowds at the WTO and World Bank demonstrations were
conversant not only in the social repercussions of globalization, like the staggering debt
amassed by developing nations, but also in the ways that the corporate system is rapidly
depleting our natural resources. While some campaign against sweatshops or the death
penalty, huge numbers of youth activists are tackling the big environmental issues:
logging in our national forests, habitat destruction from the Amazon to Siberia,
industrial pollution, damage done by non-native species. And they approach these issues
with all the energy and optimism of, well, youth.
In New York City, students clamor to be admitted to the newly renovated
High School for Environmental Studies. In 1990, about one in every ten high schools had an
environmental club; now, approximately nine in ten do. Green student organizations are
proliferating around the world, with 19 nationwide groups in North America alone.
"I think the environment is vital to, you know, everything
else," says Ingrid Chapman, a 20-year-old University of Washington student and a
member of Free the Planet!, a national network of student environmental groups. "I
care about human rights, and I care about the economic takeover of the planet, but I think
the environment is the basic issue underlying everything."
Out in the Oregon forest, Sprite and Lorax (tree-sitters tend not to use
their given, or "Babylon," names) depend on this growing awareness and action.
While the young activists in Cascadia Forest Defenders (also known as Red Cloud Thunder)
take a stand in the trees, dozens of loosely associated members of Earth First! and other
organizations support the effort, soliciting donations of money and organic food,
delivering supplies and mail to the forest, providing security, and gathering information
about Forest Service plans. In shifts, the tree-sitters have managed to occupy these trees
since April 1998, ever since the U.S. Forest Service auctioned off 96 acres of old-growth
forest to the unfortunately named Zip-O Log Company based in Eugene.
As recently as five or six years ago, tree-sits like the one at Fall
Creek--which began with two trees and has since expanded to six--were disorganized,
emotional responses to planned timber harvests. Protesters literally chained themselves to
tree limbs. Today, tree-sits are sophisticated efforts employing cell phones,
walkie-talkies, Web sites, mountaineering gear, and savvy public relations. At least eight
established tree-sits continue in California, Oregon, and Washington; most have sprung up
since 1997, when Julia Butterfly Hill scaled Luna, the now-famous Humboldt County,
California, redwood where she lived for two years. While loggers have cut the forests
around Luna, and around an Oregon tree called Madre Loca, the other tree-sits have managed
to keep the chainsaws at bay.
Lorax leads me into his forest world. Once a high school jock in upstate
New York, he passed through the Oregon woods en route to Hawaii one summer. "I just
knew this was where I needed to be. Hawaii will be there later," Lorax says.
"I've changed a lot." The 25-year-old has spent a total of 13 months in the
trees. In a simple ceremony, he even "married" a big tree they've named Grandma.
I feel disoriented almost as soon as we leave the clearing, but Lorax
hikes with confidence. Like most old-growth forests, this stand of ancient Douglas firs
has a spacious, luxuriant quality to it. The branches above our heads are festooned with
witches' hair moss. Large ferns and giant skunk cabbage spring like green fountains from
the dark soil. On the ground, mushrooms curl in strange shapes, and bright green and
yellow centipedes inch along amid brown salamanders with pumpkin-orange bellies.
After about an hour, Lorax brings me to the fallen body of Joy, a tree
once protected by a tree-sitter. Lorax becomes solemn, almost funereal. "For some
reason, the sitter came down, and the Forest Service got wind of it. They came out and cut
the tree down. They didn't even take it. What a waste," he says. "Remembering
what happened to Joy keeps us going. If it comes to the tree's life or my life, I'll
Back at the tree village in late afternoon, Sprite, 19, climbs barefoot
down a tree, then uses a rope to descend the last 15 branchless yards. It's time for me to
go up. Sprite shows me how to buckle into a mountaineering harness and how to slide the
triple-slipknots up the main rope until I put weight on them. To ascend, I step into a
foot-loop of webbing, wrench my body toward the main rope, and stand straight up in the
loop. Then I slide the hand knot up as far as it will go, sit back in the harness, and
"Try to enjoy the climb," says Sprite, who trained as a dancer
before her experience as a WTO demonstrator led her to the tree-sit. "You'll do
I start my clumsy inchworm dance up the rope. At 30 feet up, I begin to
sweat and rue my decision to wear a fleece pullover. About 75 feet up, my hands blister,
then tear. No wonder most everyone in this tree-sit brigade is (unlike me) under 30. But
despite the difficulty and the fear, the climb becomes enjoyable. With each slide and
heave, I see more clearly that a forest is not just a loamy floor and a cool canopy above,
but a vertical, three-dimensional universe, like the ocean. Tree voles skitter up the
trunks. Flying squirrels and gray jays flit from branch to branch. Insects whir and buzz
After 45 heart-pumping minutes, I crawl over the edge of a plywood
platform with the help of a 20-year-old named Spring. The riggers constructed their tree
houses with a medieval-castle mentality. No climber can enter without the help of the
sitters: The climber has to push out from the trunk, and then be pulled over the edge of
the platform. This done, I collapse in Kali-Ma, the Grand Central of the tree village. Two
large trees, Grandma and Yggdrasil, hold us up; plywood donut platforms encircle each tree
and a large, two-tiered platform hangs between them. "You made it!" says Spring.
He gives me a big hug.
While I recover from the climb, Spring squats at an L-shaped shelf that
serves as a kitchen. A rocket stove, fueled by a propane tank hanging under the platform,
hisses as he stir-fries a vegan dinner of brown rice, vegetables, soy sauce, and sesame
seeds. Sealed boxes of spices, grains, and amino acids are stacked nearby. A Plexiglas
bread box keeps flying squirrels out of cookies and crackers.
Across the platform, another shelf serves as a library and staging area.
On one side lie a radio, a walkie-talkie, a yogurt container filled with wildflowers, an
empty government-issue prune can full of tools, a video camera donated by University of
Oregon students who want to film a documentary on the tree-sit. Since there's not a lot to
do in a tree, the rest of the shelf groans with books: McLibel: Burger Culture on Trial;
The SAS Escape, Evasion, and Survival Manual; a Forest Service Draft--"Supplemental
Environmental Impact Statement"; In the Absence of the Sacred; the writings of
Unabomber Ted Kaczynski; and Baking in a Box, Cooking on a Can.
Sure, Spring says as he chops and seasons the vegetables, tree-sitting is
tough. The northwest storms blow wet and cold. Though it's May, it snowed just last week.
Exercise becomes a distant memory; joints begin to stiffen. It's almost impossible to stay
clean. Everyone fights the psychological tension, the fear that at any moment the
lumberjacks and the Forest Service might burst into the clearing, burn or confiscate the
gear on the ground, take down the village, or cut all the trees around it. Spring was at
the Umpqua (a.k.a. "Right View") tree-sit near Roseburg, Oregon, when crews
clearcut the forest all around Madre Loca, the tree where he was living. "The forest
screamed as they killed it," he says.
Dusk begins to fall, and the sitters in the other trees start to hoot and
call in the deep-throated code they've created. They're coming over to Kali-Ma for dinner,
gliding in on harnesses along ropes strung between the trees. All took very different
paths to what they call the "Ewok Village."
Spring hit the road after high school. "I was dissatisfied and I went
to seek," he says. "Here, I can take a real stand against injustice." His
parents didn't understand at first, but now they're supportive, he says. Spring's younger
brother, who's almost 17, has become politicized by his older sibling's actions, and will
join him in the trees soon.
The tree-sitters are acutely aware that their radical stand will not be
enough to save the remaining old-growth forests. They see themselves as witnesses, whose
extreme actions will spur others to file lawsuits, speak at Forest Service review
meetings, organize environmental groups, or simply write checks to support those efforts.
"I lived two long, cold winters in the trees, where all I ever heard of civilization
was chainsaws," Spring says. "What I did was only symbolic. But we need our Rosa
Parks and our Gandhis for the environment, people who will do what it takes to get things
Indigo, 19, left family problems in Ohio and has found that tree-sitting
gives her new strength. "I get so much energy from the trees, and from these
people," she says. "People are cheering you on." She admits that it's
impossible to completely separate from mainstream culture. "We drive cars out here.
There's lots of plastic. I like hot showers. I like a roof overhead. But if we don't do
this, who will?"