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Climate movement elders revive monkey wrench tactics to save an old forest

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This article Climate movement elders revive monkey wrench tactics to save an old forest was originally published by Waging Nonviolence.

Troublemakers with signs outside the DNR.

Earlier this year, seven activists entered the site of a proposed timber sale in Washington State, intent on halting — or at least delaying — the destruction of trees with immense carbon storage potential. Over the course of several hours, they hiked off-trail through the dense understory, removing signs and flagging tape marking the boundaries of the controversial Carrot timber sale.

The creative nonviolent direct action seemed to pay off, as a couple days later Washington’s Department of Natural Resources, or DNR, announced it was cancelling the Carrot sale for the time being. The timing seems striking, even though the announcement did not acknowledge the protest. Now, the nonviolent saboteurs hope their actions have bought enough precious time to permanently protect the area.

“It’s been satisfying,” said retired physician and University of Washington faculty member Bill Daniell, who participated in the disruption. “It’s not often you get to see direct action have such an immediate impact.”

The action against the Carrot sale — located in Washington’s Capitol State Forest — represents an escalation in the growing movement to protect older forests that are beginning to display old-growth characteristics. Some Carrot sale trees are over 110 years old — not quite old-growth, which is defined in Washington as forest containing 160-year-old trees, but advanced enough to play a valuable role storing carbon. Often referred to as “legacy forests,” these types of ecosystems are also important strongholds of biodiversity. Protecting them has become an increasingly prominent focus for the climate movement in the Northwest — thanks to new scientific findings, and because climate activists have been able to take on new targets as other successful campaigns wind down.

“The science of forest ecology has progressed a lot in last 20 years,” said Emily Johnston, another participant in the Carrot sale action. “We now understand trees need to reach about 20 before they start storing up carbon in a big way. Their true carbon storage potential doesn’t really take off until they’re about 60 or 80. This means we’ve been cutting trees on private and public lands precisely when they can be of most benefit to the climate.”

Johnston, Daniell and other activists who disrupted the Carrot sale belong to a new Seattle-based group called Troublemakers, which strives to use direct action to push regional climate campaigns forward. The Carrot sale was their first target — and the individuals who participated were all older activists who collectively have decades of experience in direct action movements.

“As our group came together, it started looking like we’d be an older crew,” Johnston said. “So, we decided to embrace that, and I sought out a few more of my friends who are older activists. I was the youngest person by 14 years, and I’m 57. Most folks were in their 70s or 80s.”

On Feb. 20, the day after they sabotaged the Carrot sale, the Troublemakers visited the DNR office in Olympia to deliver the signs and flagging tape along with a letter taking responsibility for the action. All seven activists were prepared to face legal charges after publicly owning their involvement, but so far none have been filed.

DNR cancelled the sale the following day. In the struggle to protect carbon-dense forests, this victory stands out as an example of the important role direct action can play. It also shows how activists are successfully navigating a complex legacy of forest defense in the Northwest.

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Healing old divides

In the 1980s, future Troublemaker Patrick Mazza lived in Portland, Oregon, in a house that served as an informal headquarters for direct action movements in the area. Among the many activists who spent time there was Earth First! cofounder Mike Roselle.

“We gave Mike a place to crash while he helped with a lot of the yeoman’s work of organizing protests against logging,” Mazza said. “This was when there were first starting to be widespread objections to destroying old-growth. One day, Mike walks in and says we’re going to try something new: using mountain climbing equipment to put people up in trees.”

Not long after that, Mazza was present at one of the first tree-sits, a nonviolent protest tactic that spread throughout the Pacific Northwest and beyond. The direct action movement that took shape in Oregon and Washington over the course of the next decade helped spur national environmental groups to make protecting ancient forests a priority — and by the late ‘90s, most remaining old-growth in the region’s National Forests was protected under the Northwest Forest Plan. Yet, while the forest defense movement of that era achieved stunning victories, there were some unintended consequences.

“The timber wars of the 1980s and ‘90s accomplished really important things,” Johnston said. “But they also inflamed divisions in rural communities where some people see environmental groups as outsiders. When I started getting involved in forest issues more recently, I talked to rural organizers who feared direct action would worsen wounds they were trying to heal.”

Based on this feedback, Johnston and others decided against organizing widespread direct action to interfere with logging of legacy forests. The Carrot sale, however, was an exception.

“This particular sale, and a few others like it, were different because of the degree of local opposition,” Johnston said. Commissioners of Thurston County, where the Capitol Forest is located, unanimously opposed the Carrot sale. “There’s been public outcry against it at DNR meetings,” Johnston said. “People don’t want this legacy forest cut down, and when we talked with local organizers there was general agreement that direct action in this case would face a lot less backlash. We were thrilled to be able to help.”

The direct action planned by the group of elders was an innovation for the modern movement to protect legacy forests. However, by using direct action to stop or delay logging, they were following in the footsteps of other campaigns.

“I haven’t heard about anyone doing this tactic of removing flagging tape around here for a while,” Mazza said. “But it’s a traditional forest defense technique to go in and monkey wrench a timber sale by removing the boundary markers. It’s by no means an original idea, but it’s effective.”

The Capitol State Forest in Washington. (Washington State Wiki/AJM)

Buying time

“I have a deep affection for forests, so when given the opportunity to join this action I naturally said yes,” said Bobby Righi, another Troublemaker. “I didn’t fully realize how hard it would be. We had to hike off trail through a landscape of sword ferns concealing fallen logs and tunnels dug by small animals. Then there were patches of devil’s club bushes, each 7-10 feet tall and covered in thorns. It was slow moving — but fun.”

Despite the challenging terrain, the group succeeded in removing flagging tape and signage across the area marked for the Carrot sale. This made it practically impossible for it to move forward in the short term, as the area would have to be resurveyed. Although the trees could be put up for sale later, the Troublemakers hope their actions secure enough time for legal maneuvers to prevent this.

The movement to protect legacy forests on state lands has stopped other sales in court — but sometimes victory has come too late. Last year, a case against the About Time timber sale in Grays Harbor County was declared moot when the land was logged before its fate could be decided in court.

Climate groups hoped to win an injunction against the Carrot sale that would save this forest from a similar outcome. However, given the stakes, direct action seemed like the only way to guarantee extra time for the sale to be stopped in the courts.

The Troublemakers who disrupted the sale knew firsthand about the importance of direct action from their experience in other movements. Righi protested the Vietnam War, later joining the fight to cancel developing countries’ debt. Daniell was part of the antiwar and anti-nuclear movements. After being involved in early forest defense work, Mazza shifted focus to climate activism in recent decades, participating in the blockade of an oil train in Everett, Washington in 2014.

“As an old tree hugger, I couldn’t resist getting involved when I heard about the Carrot sale action,” Mazza said. “So, I joined the others bushwhacking through heavy underbrush, finding signs and pulling them out. I’m 71, and I can’t say it was easy. But I survived the day and it was worth it.”

A movement for forests and climate

Previous Coverage
  • Climate activists set sights on ending fossil fuel exports in Pacific Northwest once and for all
  • The Pacific Northwest has long been a hub for environmental direct action — not just during forest defense campaigns of the 1980s and ‘90s, but more recently as part of the climate movement. In the 2010s, a series of coal, oil and gas export projects drew massive public opposition that included nonviolent direct action protests. Those efforts were startlingly effective.

    Today, almost every fossil fuel export proposal in Oregon or Washington has been defeated. Meanwhile, Oregon’s only coal-fired power plant shut down in 2020, while Washington’s coal plant will finish coming offline next year. Both states have also passed some of the country’s strongest clean energy laws.

    The fight against fossil fuels in the Northwest is certainly not over, but these victories have created space for the region’s climate movement to focus on new targets. This has happened just as the role of older forests — including those not yet ancient enough to qualify as old-growth — in regulating the world’s climate is becoming better understood.

    “There are a lot of connections being made between the forest and climate movements,” Mazza said. “People are realizing it’s really one issue, as something like 20 percent of CO2 emissions come from deforestation.”

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    Today’s legacy forest defense movement utilizes a variety of tactics, including lawsuits, rallies and organizing around public comment periods. The Carrot sale disruption shows direct action, when used strategically and with sensitivity to political context, also has an important role. And to some activists, it makes sense for older individuals to be at the forefront.

    “The risks from taking direct action for older folks just tend to be much lower,” Johnston said. “The chances of an older person being roughed up by cops are smaller, as police look much more like bullies when being careless with folks perceived to be fragile. Then there’s the question of time and money, which young people are less likely to have.”

    Over a month out, the Carrot sale Troublemakers have faced no criminal charges, but civil penalties remain a possibility. For example, if the Carrot block is put up for sale again, the group could be ordered to pay the costs of re-surveying.

    As for the old trees that prompted the seven activists to risk repercussions, they appear to be safe for now.

    “I don’t know if we can get the DNR to stop all sales of legacy forests on state lands to the timber industry,” Johnston said. “But maybe we can at least stop them where they know there will be protests — so in communities that say no, don’t cut these trees, they may actually start listening.”

    This article Climate movement elders revive monkey wrench tactics to save an old forest was originally published by Waging Nonviolence.

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