At first, the Bureau of Land Management tolerated them, even considering a long-term permit allowing them to stay put. But that was before the activists mysteriously and somewhat miraculously dropped a three-ton cargo container in front of a logging road in the nearby Umpqua National Forest. Draped in bright yellow, the 20-foot-long container had bold black letters across it, reading "Ancient forest protection starts here." Four activists locked themselves inside. The act not only stopped logging truck traffic, but it sent federal law enforcement into a tizzy.
But what the containers symbolize is just as important as the temporary logging halt. For the past three years, direct actions like tree sits and lockdowns (wherein activists chain themselves to trees or logging equipment) have quieted.
This type of firebrand activism seems to have crested pre-September 11. At the time, Tre Arrow staged a major coup after scaling the US Forest Service building downtown and holding a media vigil for 11 days. He was protesting a proposed logging at Eagle Creek, a patch of federal land on Mt. Hood's backside. At that time, there were also numerous tree sits throughout the state. And, in perhaps the boldest action, a few logging trucks were set on fire just days before cutting began at Eagle Creek. Those actions culminated in a major victory for environmentalists when logging operations were shut down there.
But since then, a confluence of events and political attitudes have conspired to quell such activism. Citing budgetary woes and fatigue, Cascadia Forest Alliance, a Portland-based organization that served as a clearinghouse for activists, closed its doors. Another more aggressive national group, Earth Liberation Front, also seems to have faded from the front lines after several activists in Oregon were caught and severely prosecuted. In 2000, Jeffrey Luers, a 23-year-old, was arrested for setting fire to three SUVs, a statement against the gas-guzzling vehicles. He is currently serving a 22-year sentence.
Not long afterwards, and just months after September 11, Tre Arrow vanished after he was named as a suspect for the fires at Eagle Creek. One of the FBI's most wanted, he was caught shoplifting bolt cutters three months ago in Canada. If extradited back to Oregon, he faces as many as 60 years in prison--a sentence that's longer than most rapists and many murderers receive.
Although activists are quick to point out their direct action does not harm people, they have nonetheless been defined by federal authorities as "eco-terrorists," a term that has taken on a much more severe connotation in the past three years. Those prosecutions, admit environmentalists, have chilled activists' enthusiasm for risking their liberty for direct action stunts.
But the pendulum may have begun to swing back towards the pre-September 11 glory days. With Greenpeace's recent action in Umpqua forest, a bold thumb-in-the-eye-of-authority attitude seems to be re-emerging. This past weekend, Greenpeace's Arctic Sunrise docked in Portland. The vessel is like a mobile war room for environmentalists. In the past, they have rammed whaling ships and rushed activists to environmental hot spots in ways similar to the Marines going into war. On Tuesday they hosted a news conference announcing a new alliance with local green groups like BARK!, and have promised a summer full of direct action.
It's likely that most of that attention will focus on the notorious Siskiyou Wild Rivers area in southwestern Oregon. A major forest fire ripped through this old growth forest several years ago. Since then, the Forest Service, urged on by the Bush administration, has pushed for the so-called "Biscuit Fire Recovery Project." Under the plan, the Forest Service will auction off permission to a private company to clear out trees in the area. To permit the sale, the Bush administration has rolled back protections on several endangered species. The sale went to auction on Wednesday after press time.