This isnt just her story, its our story
Three days after timber sale is canceled, forest activist takes fatal fall from tree
Some of Portland's fiercest forest warriors gathered beneath a huge Douglas fir tree in Mount Tabor Park last Sunday to pay tribute to a fallen comrade.
Beth O'Brien died at age 22 on Friday, April 12, after dropping 150 feet from a tree platform in the Mount Hood National Forest.
At the candlelight vigil, O'Brien's comrades remembered her as Horehound, a Dumpster-diving, freight train-hopping, tree-sitting anarchist who died a heroic death in defiance of an untrustworthy government.
One friend choked back tears as he read from a poem composed in O'Brien's honor: 'Our struggle will be passionate,' he vowed. 'We will fight for you.'
A day earlier, U.S. Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden had called O'Brien's death 'utterly senseless.'
The timber sale O'Brien was fighting, the object of nearly three years of tree sits in the forest and numerous demonstrations in Portland, had been canceled three days before O'Brien fell.
But O'Brien and her colleagues from the Cascadia Forest Alliance continued their battle, even after it already had been won.
O'Brien had snowshoed 6 miles into the forest and scaled up into the forest canopy that day to protest the proposed Eagle Creek timber sale. An inexperienced climber, she lost her grip while trying to scale a rope ladder extending from one tree platform to another and plunged to her death.
The sudden death of O'Brien, and the tragic timing of the event, has sparked deep emotions in Portland, Washington, D.C., and Santa Rosa, Calif., where O'Brien grew up. It also shines a spotlight on Cascadia Forest Alliance Ñ and on the traveling subculture of youths who eschew American materialism and mainstream environmentalism in favor of direct action and anarchy.
At the vigil, O'Brien's friend and lover, a bearded 24-year-old who identified himself as 'Monkey,' clutched her journals tightly and told those gathered: 'This isn't just her story, it's our story. The things that she wrote could apply to any traveling punk kid.'
Another supporter read a message sent electronically from South Africa: '(O'Brien) died while making a difference. Billions of people on this planet are part of the problem, while Beth was part of the solution.'
'We've heard promises before'
Wyden, the chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Public Lands and Forests, worked for 18 months to block the Eagle Creek sale. The area is east of Estacada in Clackamas County.
He announced the deal's cancellation April 9 on the Senate floor. That same day, his staff contacted environmental groups in Portland, including the Cascadia Forest Alliance, to tell them of the triumph.
The tree sitters didn't buy it. They refused to believe that Wyden could be successful working within a system they reject.
'We made the decision to stay out there because we wanted to wait for the final paperwork,' said Sarah Wald, a spokeswoman for the alliance. 'We've heard promises before, and we weren't leaving until we got the documents.'
Wyden's chief of staff, Josh Kardon, said, 'I don't want to (fault) their decision to stay up in the trees. They know why they made the decision. I'm sure they feel that they were right, and I'm sure that they are extraordinarily sad about the loss of a friend and a colleague. Sen. Wyden was very emotional when he heard the news because he had worked for so hard for so long to cancel the sale, and because he's a father with kids not too far from the age of Beth.'
'Then she fell'
About 1 p.m. April 12, O'Brien and 17-year-old Camas Roy snowshoed in from where the forest service road was blocked with snow.
They carried food and supplies for John Felsner, a 31-year-old volunteer for the alliance who had been living in the trees for several months.
Felsner later told Clackamas County sheriff's deputies that he recognized Roy but did not know O'Brien. He noticed that O'Brien was not particularly adept at using the three-rope system to climb, so he came down to instruct her.
O'Brien told Felsner that it was her first climb in a year, and she was out of practice. Eventually, she reached the first of two platforms in the tree, where protesters keep their toilet buckets. Safe on the platform, she sent the climbing gear back down to Felsner.
As Felsner began climbing up to meet her and Roy, he looked up and saw that O'Brien had begun scaling a rope ladder from the lower platform to the higher one, without a safety harness. Roy, already on the higher of the two platforms, was coaching her from above.
Felsner could see O'Brien was struggling. She could not hoist herself onto the platform, and Roy was too far away to grab her and pull her to safety.
'Then she fell,' Felsner told investigators. 'She let go, like she was giving up. She brushed my arm when she fell.'
Felsner immediately called 911 on his cellphone, then descended to check on O'Brien.
Roy, paralyzed with fear, was unable to leave the tree.
It took a 25-person rescue team almost three hours to reach the scene. The road was impassable with snow, and Life Flight helicopters and Air National Guard rescue units were 'not available,' according to the Clackamas County report.
Felsner told investigators he checked for O'Brien's pulse as soon as he made it down from the tree. He did not detect a pulse, so he covered her body in blankets and hiked out to direct the rescue team to the scene of the accident.
'I couldn't breathe'
That same night, in Santa Rosa, O'Brien's mother, Melinda Ellison, was celebrating her son Michael's 10th birthday when a sheriff knocked on the door.
'I thought I'd forgotten to pay a parking ticket,' she said. 'Then he told me what happened, and I just grabbed him so I wouldn't fall down. I couldn't breathe.'
Ellison remembered her daughter as an energetic idealist who read everything from 'The Tao of Pooh' to radical historian Howard Zinn.
'She always had a cause, and she always wanted to start a club. She always wanted to organize. É She would see something that was wrong, recognize what was wrong and start looking for ways to do something about it.'
Ellison was devastated by her daughter's death. 'I agree with saving the trees,' she said. 'But sending a 22-year-old up a tree? She was just 22. She had her whole life in front of her.'
O'Brien grew up in a working-class family in Santa Rosa. Her father, Mark O'Brien, today a truck driver who lives in Florida, supported the family by working in the timber industry when Beth was young. He says that Beth first started getting political when she was 11, and she grew more strident over time.
She helped set up a local group of Food Not Bombs to feed homeless people each Sunday in Santa Rosa's Old Courthouse Square. Later she joined activists trying to preserve the ancient redwood trees of Humboldt County, Calif.
She traveled widely to express her views. She met Monkey at the Food Not Bombs center in Eugene and they participated in a number of demonstrations.
In Portland, she joined Monkey and other anarchists in a protest that shut down Portland's largest marine terminal last August, blocking an Italian ship in protest of the Italian government's crackdown during the G-8 summit in Milan.
Although she frequently practiced civil disobedience, O'Brien had no criminal record in Oregon or California.
She took her nickname Horehound from a wild African herb believed to have curative powers.
O'Brien moved to Portland about a year ago. She rented a room in a house full of like-minded friends at 4001 N.E. Garfield St. for $185 a month plus utilities. She worked as a cook at the Rose City Cafe, at the airport.
Her friends and family recall that she only worked as much as necessary to get by on a frugal budget. Her father recalls: 'This was a girl who lived minimally. I gave her a cellphone once, and she sold it to raise money to feed the poor. Another time I bought her a boombox, and she did the same thing. She didn't want possessions. She just wanted to help people.'