Aaron Nelson draws his bow and aims it at a branch high up in a Douglas fir tree. But Nelson isn't hunting on this late September afternoon. At least, not to kill. He's looking for signs of the red tree vole, an uncommon species that lives most of its life in the forest canopy far above the ground. The animals are tiny: their main food source is the needles of the trees where they build their nests, and to keep themselves in water, they rely on the moisture from rain and fog that condense on the needles.
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is poised to sell the tree in Nelson's sight and most of the others in about 200 acres of the surrounding forest in Northwest Oregon to a lumber company in a logging proposal known as the Airstrip timber sale. But a lawsuit filed September 13 by an environmental group has tied up the sale for now, and Nelson and fellow volunteers from the Eugene-based Northwest Ecosystem Survey Team (NEST) are making their own efforts to slow or halt the sale. Red tree voles are not considered an endangered species, but their population is in decline, a signal of trouble for the old growth trees and forests where the animals tend to live and for the species who eat them, including the endangered northern spotted owl. Finding evidence of voles means winning protection for a swathe of trees around their nest sites and has helped conservation advocates alter or halt other logging projects. And they are willing to go to great heights to pull it off - at least about 100 feet off the ground.
When Nelson shoots, a coil of fishing line spools out behind his arrow and sails over the branch he's picked out. To the fishing line, he attaches a florescent parachute cord and pulls down the fishing line hand over hand until the cord is suspended in its place in the tree. He spots the bright cord with his binoculars to see if he can trust the branch, attaches a climbing rope and swaps out his line once more, fighting the growing friction of rope against bark as he pulls it through to the ground. Now he's almost ready to climb.
Joining NEST is Cascadia Earth First!, the Northwest group of the Earth First! radical environmental movement founded in the late 1970s. The tree vole survey project is a far cry from the SUV arsons and other methods of property destruction that some radical environmentalists have embraced and which thrust several into the media spotlight - and ultimately, long prison sentences - during the so-called Green Scare which began around the early and mid-2000s, when eco-saboteurs were surveilled using counterterrorism methods and labeled and tried as terrorists.
"We're basically doing BLM's job for them," said organizer Danielle, who withheld her last name. She and the other activists who spent up to a week on the land climbing trees and doing ground surveys say agencies in charge of managing public timber lands do not always survey thoroughly enough.
"They do have climbers; they just don't climb as much as they can," said NEST volunteer Clark McMahon.
The land comprising the proposed sale includes three separate neighboring units, one of which the BLM's environmental assessment (EA) says was surveyed for voles. The EA said no signs of the animal were found.
The volunteer climbers are in a younger section roughly a half mile away which still includes large trees at least around 80 years old - fires swept the area in the 1920s and 30s and some larger trees bear burn marks. They admit the chance of finding a red tree vole here might be a longshot, but they're not willing to take the BLM's word for it.
According to the EA, most of the trees in the unit BLM surveyed were inspected from the ground, while 17 were climbed; the document includes no record of vole surveys in the other two units. The BLM wildlife biologists named on the EA did not return calls and emails from Truthout seeking more information about their methods. BLM spokesperson Trish Hogervorst said BLM natural resource staff administrator Chris Papen's office would not comment on the proposed sale because it is in litigation.
The lawsuit, filed by Bark, a watchdog group that monitors timber sales on federal lands in the Mt. Hood National Forest, is one of many against BLM. According to Portland-based trade association American Forest Resource Council (AFRC), over 40 million board feet worth of timber at 11 proposed sales on BLM land are tied up in legal challenges. That's about one-fifth of the amount the Department of Interior charges the agency with selling in Oregon each year, according to AFRC President Tom Partin.
Partin said this creates a headache for AFRC's members.
"There's going to come a time where companies are going to say, do I want to stay and manage my land for timber, or do I want to put in a housing subdivision?" said Partin.
His words hint at the tension between environmental and economic interests, an issue that isn't going way anytime soon in the Pacific Northwest, or elsewhere.
Shifting the Environment-vs.-Jobs Paradigm
Danielle of Cascadia Earth First! is no stranger to this tension, either.
She stressed that Earth First!'s approach has evolved away from, "Save the forest no matter whose feelings get hurt" and now hinges on biocentrism, or as she puts it, "Every living thing has its own right to live." Danielle said that includes "social communities," which might sound professorial until you consider the environmental movement's often troubled relationship with people whose jobs depend on the timber, fishing or energy industries.
"It's not this weird social war where we're like, 'Fuck you for doing your job,'" she said. "We're not pinning any folks who are involved in extracting processes. We're saying, there's a way for you to make a living without destroying the forest."
Private industry and workers in timber-related fields are not the only ones who stand to lose when environmentalists win. Eighteen Oregon counties receive a cut of logging revenues to help fund health and social services, law enforcement and other public services.
Questionable Management Practices
But the litigious climate tying up BLM's plans for timber harvesting isn't just a headache for businesses and counties. It also raises questions about the nature of BLM's practices managing federal land.
In a statement issued the day it filed its lawsuit, Bark said: "The BLM has attempted to obscure the fact that the Airstrip Timber Sale would log old growth trees by leaving old growth forest out of the planned logging units, but designing its logging operations infrastructure to necessitate the cutting down of live old growth and standing dead old growth trees."
"I've never seen that density of yarding and landing zones," said Bark staff attorney Brenna Bell, referring to the areas where felled trees are moved through the site and stored before transport.
The largest trees offering especially important animal habitat have a giant orange "W" spray-painted on their trunks, but that doesn't guarantee they will remain standing. "In speaking with the BLM counsel about it, they admitted that at least one of the wildlife trees will be felled because it's in a yarding corridor," said Bell. "They've already admitted to at least that impact, which could be more."
Bell has worked on opposing BLM timber sales for 14 years and says the agency "has a history of not being incredibly forthright or trustworthy."
"They're much more focused on timber production than anything else as their highest value, definitely, even more so than the Forest Service," said Bell, who also noted that the 18 counties' dependence on timber revenues creates pressure for the BLM to "get the cut out."
It's still unclear whether other agendas are a factor in the unconventional plan for the Airstrip sale.
"The timber company gets to keep all the trees that it fells," explained Bell. That includes any "incidental takes," or trees that have to come down to ensure worker safety or because they are in the way of trees slated for logging. Freres Lumber Company's winning bid at the BLM's February 15, 2012, auction was over 2.5 times the BLM's asking price.
Old growth trees are more valuable because they contain more board feet of wood and because their wood is considered to be of better quality.
"Not too often do we get a massive bid-up that's double the value," said BLM Salem District Forester Tim Lieske. Lieske said the average bid-up at BLM sales is 1.1 times the appraisal value but that prices can jump due to inventory fluctuations.
Freres Lumber Company's Vice President Rob Freres said an early January fire at a Chilean plywood plant caused prices to rise. It wouldn't be the first time a shortage abroad registered here. In 2010, an earthquake in Chile caused US prices to spike as much as 30-42 percent.
Habitat vs. Profit
"Weight test!" calls NEST's Nelson as he dons his helmet and attaches the rope to his harness. Another volunteer joins him and grips the rope above his head. On the count of three they jump, dangling in an aerial bear hug and listening for telltale sounds from above. The branch holds, and Nelson begins to climb, pulling his right foot partway up the rope by a strap that runs between the two lines until he's in a crouch; every time he stands up on his bent leg, he moves another few feet off the ground.
Like the activists searching for tiny rodents, Bark has seized on one small piece of this forest in its quest to protect a larger share of the land. The watchdog is suing the BLM over the proposed logging road into the site, which threatens to take out two standing dead trees, or snags, which offer habitat for four species of bats whose numbers, like the red tree vole, are dwindling.
"This appeal is over two trees," said Freres. "It just seems ludicrous to me. They [environmental groups] just seem to be suing on everything these days."
The BLM's environmental assessment acknowledges the risk of taking out the trees, but Bark criticized the agency for not going further, saying the project is slated for an area that already falls below the minimum standard for animal habitat and conflicts directly with the BLM's own management plan. "It is not surprising that the BLM also failed to analyze the impacts of reducing this habitat on sensitive birds and wildlife, keeping itself and the public in the dark about important environmental effects of the project," Bark said in its September statement.
Freres and Bell agree on at least one thing: "It's almost absurd that we filed a lawsuit over two big, dead trees," said Bell, "but when there are only two big, dead trees left, their value is almost incomparable. It's one of the last spaces that could be a refugia."
An Island in a Sea of Clearcuts
Nelson said his climbing setup can take up to three hours and 30 shots with his bow. Once they're aloft, the volunteers must skirt around as much of each tree as possible, checking for vole sign in cavities and prominent debris piles on branches. It is painstaking work. After about a week, the only sign they found was a single resin duct, which along with nests, food cuttings, and droppings, are considered proof that voles have been present in the area.
"We were not able to cover enough ground with the amount of climbers we had who were experienced enough to be able to top trees out," said Danielle, who was joined throughout the week by more volunteers who came to learn to climb. But she said Cascadia Earth First! will still work to protect the area under threat from the sale.
It might seem like a lot of trouble for a couple hundred acres already surrounded by large stretches of recently logged land and other development.
"It's an island of intact ecosystem in a sea of clearcuts," said Danielle. "We're going to push through until the whole sale gets canceled."
She said Cascadia Earth First! is conducting a letter-writing campaign and will begin outreach in communities near the sale. "I think there's this misconception that perhaps the general public has, that our direct action campaigns start with direct action," she said. "I would rather have the letters work and the campaign and the tabling and the outreach work." Direct action tactics such as tree-sitting have challenged other controversial logging proposals, including one in a forest an hour outside of Eugene that spawned both the formation of NEST and a tree sit that lasted five years and ultimately contributed to the sale's cancellation. One of the activists at that tree sit, Jeff "Free" Luers, served over nine years in prison after being sentenced to over 22 years for setting fire to three SUVs in 2001, an act in which no one was injured.
Eleven years later, much has changed for hard-line activists, and much has stayed the same. "We're in an interesting time where this is escalating in a really weird way, where you don't even have to break a law to end up in prison, and we can see that with the recent grand jury hearings," said Danielle. Three Northwest activists have been jailed recently for civil contempt after they refused to testify at grand jury hearings connected to July raids by the FBI and the Joint Terrorism Task Force with warrants seeking computers, black clothing and anarchist literature.
But Danielle is optimistic about Earth First!'s past and future. "Our groups were able to push through and push on through all this government oppression" she said. Like many activists, she is quick to link the system of capitalism to environmental problems, and she's up for the challenge of working with people whose livelihoods are intimately tied to the practices she opposes.
"Active ally-ship really begins when you start to really care about community needs and have a general understanding that people don't necessarily choose to work all day," she said. "People would rather spend the day with their families in a healthy environment."