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The Secret History of Tree Spiking - Part 2

By Judi Bari - Anderson Valley Advertiser, March 8, 1993; reprinted in Timber Wars, © 1994 Common Courage Press.

Tree-spiking is a failed tactic by any standard. It has been practiced by Earth First! for 10 years now, and I think it's fair to say that the results are in. Here's [an excerpt of] Dave Foreman's description of tree-spiking from Eco-Defense

Tree-spiking is an extremely effective method of deterring timber sales, which seems to be becoming more and more popular. If enough trees are spiked to roadless areas, eventually the corporate thugs in the timber company boardrooms, along with their corporate lackeys who wear the uniform of the Forest Service, will realize that timber sales in wild areas are going to be prohibitively expensive.

Believing this to be so seems to be an article of faith for some Earth First!ers. But a look at the actual history of Earth First! tree-spiking will show that it hasn't really worked out that way.

The most intensive spiking campaigns occurred in Oregon and Washington, although there have also been tree-spikings in California, Colorado, Montana, Idaho, New Mexico, Arizona, British Columbia, southern Illinois, Kentucky, Maine, and New Jersey, to name a few. And I'm not going to say that none of them saved any trees, because in a few cases they did, especially early on, or in areas without a timber based economy. But the successes have been few and far between. Even unabashed Earth First! apologist Chris Manes, writing in his well researched book Green Rage, could only come up with two timber sales that were canceled because they were spiked, one in George Washington National Forest in Virginia, and one in the Wanatchee Forest's Icicle River drainage in Washington state. I don't know about the trees in Virginia, but the Icicle River sale has since been cut. Earth First! activists from Shawnee in Southern Illinois also report that when the hard-fought Fairview sale was finally clear-cut, the only trees that were left were a few oaks that had been spiked.

But there have been scores and scores of tree-spikings, and in the vast majority of cases, the Forest Service or timber company just sent people in with metal detectors and, often with great public fanfare, removed the spikes and cut the trees. Sometimes spikes were missed and sometimes they hit the blades in sawmills. But the timber industry has made it quite clear that this is a price they are willing to pay.

The first known tree-spiking in Earth First! history occurred in the Siskiyou Mountains of Oregon in 1983, on the Woodrat timber sale on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land. Notice was given of the spiking, and some of the trees were marked with yellow ribbons to make them easy to find and verify. The BLM reacted by having the loggers cut the trees and leave them on the ground for firewood cutters to saw at their own risk.

In 1984, a group calling itself the Hardesty Avengers mailed a letter to the Oregon Register-Guard announcing that a 132-acre sale on Hardesty Mountain in the Willamette National Forest had been spiked. The area was scheduled for helicopter logging by Columbia Helicopter. The Forest Service responded with a plan it called "Operation Nail." sending 20 Forest Service employees into the woods to remove the nails before they went ahead and cut the trees.

In 1985 in Southern Oregon, Earth First! was engaged in a high-profile direct action campaign to save Cathedral Forest in the Middle Santiam Wilderness. Demonstrators blockaded roads, staged the first tree-sits ever, and even occupied an area scheduled for blasting with dynamite, some of them actually sitting on the charges. In the midst of these actions, a few Earth First!ers took it upon themselves to spike some of the trees at Pyramid Creek. And to read about it in Chris Manes' book, I can see where people get the false impression that tree spiking is a drastic but effective last resort. "Despite continued opposition in the form of civil disobedience," writes Manes, "the road crept inexorably toward the sale. AS a last ditch effort, (Mike) Roselle sneaked into the stand one night and spiked it. He sent a letter to the timber company announcing the spiking, and signed it "the Bonnie Abbzug Feminist Garden Party, a reference to the voluptuous ecoteur in The Monkeywrench Gang. The authorities caught neither the allusion nor the tree-spiker."

What Chris Manes doesn't tell us is that the spiking didn't work. It caused a spate of negative publicity, and it caused Mary Beth Nearing, one of Earth First!'s most inspirational organizers, to publicly distance herself and the Cathedral Forest Action Group from the spiking and Earth First!. But it didn't save the trees. In fact, Mike Roselle himself, speaking in Rik Scarce's book, Eco Warriors, admits that the spiking "barely slowed them down." The Forest Service sent rangers in to pull the nails, and the trees were cut.

Other areas in Oregon that were spiked and cut include the Hobson and the Deer Creek sales in the North Kalmiopsis, the Top and Skook sales in Hell's Canyon National Forest, Bull Run in the Mt. Hood area near Portland, and a Boise-Cascade sale in the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest. At this last site some of the spikes were missed by the loggers and made ii into the mill, breaking teeth off of six saw-blades. The saw teeth shot across the mill like bullets, injuring no one but terrifying and angering the mill-workers.

In fact, the main effect that tree-spiking seemed to be having in Oregon was to piss people off. In June 1987, Earth First! was protesting the Lazy Bluff timber sale in the North Kalmiopsis roadless area. Tree-sitter Randy Prince was perched 80 feet up in an old-growth fir when a logger cutting in an adjacent area hit an 11-inch spike and damaged his chainsaw. The logger stormed over to Randy's tree, revved up a saw, and, screaming something about tree-spiking, began cutting down the tree with Randy in it. He cut out a notch 1/3 of the way through the tree before he was talked into stopping. Shaken, Randy denounced tree-spiking and publicly distanced himself from Earth First!, and the Lazy Bluff timber sale was cut.

By this time it was becoming clear that something was going wrong with the tree-spiking strategy. It seemed that all this publicity was backfiring, putting the timber industry in a position of having to cut trees or lose face. So when Holcomb Peak in the Siskiyou Mountains was extensively spiked in June 1987, the spikers tried to correct past mistakes and do it "right". No notification was sent to the press. Instead, the BLM, the logging contractor, and the mill-owner were quietly notified, in order to give them an opportunity to quietly back out and cancel the sale. No luck. Instead, they called the press and made the incident into a media circus, with BLM rangers posing for photos in the woods with tree spikes, and the timber industry rallying to raise a $13,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of the spikers. And the trees were cut.

The ultimate media manipulation in the tree-spike wars, however, came in 1988 when Senator Mark Hatfield and Congressman Bob Smith (known to jaded Oregonians as the Representatives from Timber) were on a tour of the Gregory Forest Products sawmill near Glendale, Oregon. In an amazing display of synchronicity, at the very minute when the congressional delegation was watching the operation of a band saw, that very band saw just happened to hit a spike and explode. The delegation had just been shown spikes found in logs from the Silver Fire in the North Kalmiopsis. None of the dignitaries was hurt by the flying sawblade, but they were predictably impressed. "Tree-spiking is a radical environmentalist's version of razor blades in Halloween candy," was Congressman Bob Smith's comment.

Meanwhile, some of the Oregon Earth First! activists were getting tired of answering for this ineffective and marginalizing tactic. "Personally I don't think it works," Earth First!er Steve Marsden told the Seattle Times when asked about tree-spiking in June 1988. Fellow Earth First!er Bobcat expressed the same frustration, complaining that it makes them have to talk about "tree-spiking pro or con instead of old growth pro or con." but pressure was great within Earth First! to refrain from criticizing a tactic that others still engaged in. And tree-spiking was certainly going on outside of Oregon.

Spiking in Washington state was just as extensive as Oregon, and its results no better. Starting with the temporarily successful Icicle river spiking in 1986, sale after sale was spiked and cut, including the Lake Creek and Natches areas of the Wenatchee National Forest, Green Mountain and Granite Falls in Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie, and Storm King Mountain and Karamip in the Colville National Forest. The only spiked sales that I could verify as "probably still standing" are the Spoon sale and Olston Quirkendale in Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie, and they were set aside in the spotted owl ruling, not due to the spiking. In 1989 the Sugar Bear sale was spiked in the Cedar River area near Seattle. Although the cut in the watershed was eventually halved due to a public campaign by Earth First! and others, the spiked area was cut.

Spiking was not saving many trees in Washington, but it was certainly raising the ire of the timber industry. Band saw blades were broken by tree spikes in four different Washington sawmills between 1987 and 1989, resulting in the standard cries of "terrorism." Finally in September 1989 the timber industry and corporate press mounted an all-out assault on Washington Earth First!. A four-part series was published in the Bellingham Herald listing acts of sabotage in the area, quotes from Eco-Defense, and the names, addresses, places of employment and photos of key Earth First!ers. No proof was given to show that these public Earth First!ers were actually responsible for any of the sabotage listed, but the atmosphere was so hostile that no proof was needed. Earth First!ers had to leave town for their own safety.

The classic example of tree-spiking regularly cited by Earth First!ers as proof the tactic works occurred on Meare's Island in British Columbia in 1985, where the Society to Protect Intact Kinetic Ecosystems (SPIKE) drove 26,000 helix nails into old-growth cedar trees. What the tree-spike advocates didn't tell you is that there was a whole campaign going on over Meare's Island, and the spiking was only part of it. The issue on Meare's Island is native land rights, as the Claquet people who live there have never ceded the land or signed any treaties. When the Canadian government attempted to sell timber rights on the island to MacMillan Bloedell, a coalition of natives and whites fought back with a lawsuit and a five-month occupation. When MacMillan Bloedell tried to come in and cut before the court could grant a restraining order, hundreds of people massed on the beach to prevent their helicopters from landing. The court finally halted the logging until the final ruling. That ruling is expected soon, and the Canadian government has stated that if MacMillan Bloedell wins in court they will take the timber spikes or no spikes.

Closer to home, California has had far fewer spikings than our northern neighbors, with many of them occurring in 1987, the same year George Alexander was hurt by the spike at the Cloverdale LP mill. Just one month after that incident in Mendocino County, Trout Creek was spiked in a last-ditch attempt to save it from being cut by its owner, Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E). Friends of Trout Creek had been negotiating for a compromise, but when the spikes were discovered, PG&E angrily broke off negotiations. Things looked bad until Earth First!er Sequoia came up with a plan. She organized a protest in which people were asked to withhold $1 from their PG&E bills and mail in a green card to show public support for saving Trout Creek. PG&E received so many green cards that it backed down and agreed to save the whole grove with no compromise.

There were also a few tree-spikings in California's National Forests. A minor uproar occurred in June 1987 right after the Trout Creek spiking when it was discovered that a spiked sale in Mendocino National Forest had been cut anyway and sent on to the mill, despite injuries to George Alexander one month earlier. A 202-acre sale in Tahoe National Forest was spiked and cut, as was a 240-acre sale at Running Springs in the San Bernadino National Forest, sold to LP at Inyokern. One of the strangest tree-spiking incidents in California was again on LP land, this time near Guerneville in Sonoma County. The newspapers received a notice that the Sonoma County Coalition to Stop LP had spiked trees at the Silver Estate. No spikes were found, but nonetheless LP said it had a suspect. He was described as "a black man with a bone through his nose who rides a bicycle and carries bows and arrows," obviously a better example of LP's racism than its investigative capacities.

As tree-spiking continued across the US, the government increasingly tried to crack down on it. Although no spiker has ever been caught, laws were passed to make spiking a felony in California. Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Montana. In 1989, the federal government passed its own laws, and that brought the FBI into the picture. When the Post Office timber sale in Clearwater Forest, Idaho, was spiked, the FBI responded by rounding up University of Montana professor Ron Erickson and several of his Earth First! students. They were forced to give hair samples and fingerprints, write "Stumps Suck" 25 times, and submit to a federal grand-jury investigation. No evidence was found to link them to the spiking, and no charges were brought. But this intimidation served to separate Missoula Earth First! from its support in academia. And the trees were cut.

With this kind of history, you have to wonder why some Earth First!ers cling so tenaciously to the myth that tree spiking works. One of the explanations commonly given is that, regardless of whether it saves individual trees, spiking is an economic constraint on the industry. "The idea could have come from the Chicago Business School," says Chris Manes in Green Rage. "If the cost of removing spikes is high enough, the cut will not be made, or at least the decreed profit margin will discourage logging in [controversial] areas." With this logic, Chris Manes would have flunked Econ 101. There are several flaws in this theory. The strategy of tree-spiking was designed for federal lands, where most remaining old-growth in the US is located. In these cases it is the Forest Service, not the timber company, which bears the cost, both of removing the spikes and of charging lower rates for the timber to make up for the risk of broken saws. The Forest Service is not required to make a profit, since it is financed by tax money, and one of the scandals of the looting of our national forests is that the Forest Service subsidized big timber by paying for log road construction and selling timber below cost. Between 1982 and 1987, the Forest Service received $800 million a year in federal timber sales, but spent $1.2 billion a year making the timber ready for sale. That's a loss of $400 million a year. There aren't enough tree spikes in the world to make a dent in this agency.

And even in the case of tree-spiking on private lands, this economic theory assumes that the price of lumber is fixed, so that any increase in production costs will result in a decrease in profits. But old-growth timber is so valuable, and there is so little of it left, that the timber industry could charge anything it wanted and still sell every stick. Any increase in production costs due to tree-spiking would simply be passed on to the consumers.

Nor are the timber companies put off by the threat of injury to employees, as we have already seen in real life. Dave Foreman tells us in EcoDefense that tree spiking is "unlikely to cause anyone physical injury even should a blade shatter upon striking a spike, which is an unlikely event." But Foreman also admitted to the Christian Science Monitor in 1987 that he had never seen the inside of a sawmill. And it is clear that he doesn't understand the depths of depravity of the timber companies. The routine maiming and killing of timber workers is coldly calculated into the cost of the lumber, and a few more injuries are hot going to stop them. LP made this clear after George Alexander was hurt. "LP will not let tree-spiking be a deterrent," said spokeswoman Glennis Simmons. And she meant it. LP kept running the logs from that same spiked sale through the mill, even though workers encountered two more spikes and broke another saw blade. Other timber companies were just as emphatic. After the Buse Company in Everett, Washington broke four saw blades on tree spikes in 1987, manager Ron Smith commented: "I assume they think if they do things like this, the timber industry will get discouraged and will just quit cutting trees. But I don't think that's going to happen.

And it hasn't happened. Yet just because Dave Foreman told us 10 years ago that it would, most of Earth First! continues to ignore reality, no matter how much experience we have. The forests that Earth First! had been instrumental in saving in this area (Trout Creek, Cahto Wilderness, Headwaters Forest, Albion, and Owl Creek) have all been saved through blockades and public organizing campaigns, often combined with lawsuits. And it's time we faced the truth about tree-spiking. It is unquestionably dangerous to workers. It needlessly endangers Earth First! activists on the front lines. And it [more often than not] doesn't save trees.

Ironically, most of the early advocates of tree-spiking--including Dave Foreman--have all left Earth First! for safer harbors after suppressing debate by treating any questioning of their tactics as heresy.

And, although most of them have refused to make any public statements about it, the Earth First! groups that most strongly advocated tree-spiking in the early days have quietly abandoned the tactic. Yet the myth lives on.

Last month in Maine, a letter was sent to the local press stating that the trees at Mt. Blue had been spiked by Earth First! I don't know if the letter was real or fake, but a group of Earth First!ers blockading Mt. Blue were subsequently arrested, dragged through the coals from their campfire, and roughed up in jail. And I wondered if a new generation of activists is going to repeat the mistakes of the last 10 years. Those of us who are out on the front lines putting our bodies in front of the bulldozers and chainsaws can't afford to be isolated and discredited by something as in effective and incendiary as tree-spiking. If we are serious about putting Earth first, we need to choose tactics because they work, not because they seem macho or romantic. That's what no-compromise really means.