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A new fight for old growth

Activists take to the trees despite death in last year's protest

The tree-sitters are perched on a platform large enough to sleep four, about 100 feet aboveground in the Mount Hood National Forest.

With ample supplies to last the summer and dozens of supporting troops in the forest and back in Portland, they vow to remain treed 24 hours a day, for as long as it takes to block the 167-acre Solo timber harvest.

And news that an environmental lawsuit has delayed the Solo cut for the summer hasn't changed their plans. They think their presence in the canopy at Solo may ultimately kill the sale.

They are continuing to use the tree-sitting tactic despite the death last year of Beth O'Brien, a 22-year-old woman who fell out of a tree three days after the Eagle Creek timber sale in the same forest was canceled.

Meanwhile, an executive from the lumber company that won the contract for the trees there says he plans to wait out the protesters.

Rob Freres, vice president of Freres Lumber Co., says: 'We could log it in the middle of winter. Those guys are probably fair-weather campers. They'll have a tougher time running away through 3 feet of snow.'

The battles at Eagle Creek lasted three years. Three demonstrators were convicted of arson after admitting to burning logging trucks there. The headline-grabbing tree-sitter Tre Arrow remains wanted by the FBI in connection with that arson, nearly a year after the federal government first issued a warrant for his arrest. The sale was canceled in April 2002.

The Solo tree-sitters named their chosen tree 'Horehound,' which was O'Brien's nickname. They say the tragedy has brought a deeper level of seriousness to their effort to end commercial logging on public lands.

'People fall in love with these types of places,' says Ivan Maluski of the Cascadia Forest Alliance. 'There's so few old-growth forests left, they're definitely worth fighting for.'

Glenn Sachet, a spokesman for the forest service, sees it differently: 'When they say protest, what they mean is breaking the law, endangering public safety and damaging natural resources.'

Sachet says that his agency respects the rights of law-abiding dissenters but will deal harshly with saboteurs and lawbreakers. Occupying trees on public land is illegal, but protesters are rarely arrested and prosecuted before logging operations begin, which is after the timber is sold.

No one has been arrested at Solo so far. But there is evidence there of minor acts of sabotage.

Specklebellies and RTVs

The road leading into the area designated for logging is blocked with piles of logs and brush and cut with a trench. The activists joke that the trench was the work of a 'Cascadian roadpecker,' a rare bird.

The roadpecker is, of course, a mythical beast. But Maluski and his cohorts are searching for a collection of species with similarly odd names to achieve their goals. That's because, along with the usual tactics of occupying trees and blocking roads, the forest activists are using a new weapon of 'citizen surveys,' where they climb trees and scour the forest for rare plants and animals Ñ with the goal of limiting or canceling the logging operation.

That helps explain why they spend so much time talking about specklebelly lichen, red tree voles and Malone jumping slugs.

On a recent day, Kyla Zaret is marching through the woods, looking for specklebelly lichen (Pseudocyphellaria rainierensis).

A slim 24-year-old, Zaret bushwhacks effortlessly, stopping occasionally to consult a copy of Bruce McCune's 'Macrolichens of the Pacific Northwest.'

Last summer, the forest alliance invited a lichenologist to give a seminar at Solo about how to find and identify old-growth specklebelly lichen, a rare species that looks kind of like a wrinkled, lime-green piece of paper. It grows only in the rain forests of the Pacific Northwest and is rare enough that the forest service has to survey for it before approving logging plans.

During the seminar, the lichenologist found a live specimen in the area to be harvested. The forest activists brought their evidence to the forest service, and the agency put a 150-foot buffer around the tree with the lichen in it.

Now Zaret is looking for more specimens, so that more of the forest can be placed off-limits.

The other great prize for the forest activists is the red tree vole (Arborimus longicaudus), a cryptic, nocturnal rodent that builds nests out of bits of fir needles that it spits out after chewing.

The vole is the main food source of the northern spotted owl, the critter at the center of decades of forest wars in the Northwest. The activists refer to this rodent often enough that it has its own three-letter acronym: RTV, for red tree vole.

So far they've found no sign of the tree vole, but it's not for lack of trying.

A short walk away from where Zaret is admiring the specklebelly lichen, a climber is halfway up a huge tree, looking for vole nests.

To get there, the climber shot an arrow with fishing line tied to a climbing rope up into the sturdy branches 100 feet up or so. She then hooked up pulleys, tied some climbing knots and pulled herself up into the canopy.

She identifies herself as Jessy DoShiva, 22. (Forest activists are often hesitant to give their real names, and go by 'forest' names such as Bison, Tarp or Lichen because they fear infiltration and surveillance from the FBI.)

As a trained rope rescue technician, DoShiva says she has experience saving stranded climbers and climbing everything from dams to water towers. Climbing trees is way more fun, she says, and it's safe if you know what you're doing.

Unlike the tree-sits, the citizen surveys are legal.

Indeed, citizen surveys are at the heart of the legal issues used by activists to hold up the logging at Solo. Last month, the Portland-based Oregon Natural Resources Council filed the environmental lawsuit to halt the Solo sale and two others, arguing that the forest service is not sufficiently analyzing species that are dependent on old-growth forest, such as specklebellies and RTVs.

Last week, as a result of the lawsuit, the forest service's attorney agreed not to approve any logging in the Solo area before Oct. 1.

A national 'call to action'

Jason Morgan beams as he unhooks his harness to rest on the forest floor.

'It's a different world up there in the canopy,' he says. 'And when you're up there and the wind's blowing, it's like the trees are dancing.'

Even though there's no one around for miles, Morgan and the other activists practically whisper as they talk about their campaign. Earlier this year, the forest activists sent out a national 'call to action' inviting environmentalists to take part in what they're calling 'Cascadia Forest Summer.'

Morgan says recruits have traveled to Portland from West Virginia, Ohio, Michigan, Boston and Texas, among other places.

Throughout the summer, activists will hold regular seminars on how to climb trees and identify lichens, and what to do if they're arrested.

The structure of the event is informal. The Cascadia Forest Alliance, which is sponsoring the event, is an unincorporated organization with no restrictions on its lobbying aims and no money trail to follow.

Maluski explains that the alliance relies on informal donations of food, money and labor to supply the tree-sitters with sustenance and equipment. For example, Maluski works at a local farmer's market, and he saves a lot of produce that would otherwise be thrown out and brings it up to the forest.

The 'headache factor'

Before the Solo sale went up for auction in February, the forest alliance sent letters to all potential bidders, warning of delays, controversy and civil disobedience.

Freres was the only bidder. He attributes this to the 'headache factor' of knowing Portland-based protesters would target the sale with tree-sits to try to get it canceled.

Freres, who employs 425 people at his company's mills in Lyons and Mill City, says anti-logging activists can prove a nuisance, or worse.

'We've had 30 to 50 people arrested on past timber sales,' Freres says. 'They've blocked the roads; they've locked themselves to concrete. They put an old wrecked car in the way once. And they've damaged tires with nails or spikes on the road.'

Freres says the headaches won't stop him from getting his trees. Maluski says that remains to be seen: 'We're very patient.'