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  November/December 2000 Features:
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Sierra Magazine
Generation Green

Young rebels with a cause are taking to the streets, the parks, and the treetops to fight for the planet.

by Heather Millar

My liaison has told me to yell, "Hello, trees!" to announce my arrival at the Fall Creek tree-sit, about 40 miles southeast of Eugene, Oregon, in the Willamette National Forest. As I hike into the site along fire roads and trails, I wonder if I'm going to feel too silly to shout the prescribed greeting. Luckily, when I finally reach the clearing, a few people are squatting on the ground, beating on bongo drums. "Hi, sorry I'm late," I wheeze, letting my backpack slip to the ground. "I'm . . ."

"We know who you are," says a young man, his electric-blue eyes framed by dreadlocks and his septum pierced with cherry wood. "You wouldn't have gotten this far if we didn't want you to. Ground security saw you hiking in."

"Lots of Freddies around lately," says a second bongo player, his orange hair tipped with blond, like flames. "Gotta be careful." ("Freddies," I learn later, is tree-sit lingo for the U.S. Forest Service. The tree-sitters believe they're under constant surveillance by the authorities.)

In the center of the clearing, river rocks have been arranged to form the Celtic sign for the sun. A Maypole strung with ribbon stands at the north end; a compost pile and refuse pit lie far to the south. Two hundred feet above, out of reach of Forest Service cherry pickers, a cluster of "nests" made from rope, wood, and blue tarps--home for a revolving crew of roughly half a dozen tree-sitters--has been lashed to a few monumental Douglas firs. A huge cloth banner flutters between two trees, proclaiming the group's name: Red Cloud Thunder.

"Hey . . . Lorax?!" a female voice calls down from the tree village to the young man with the pierced nose. She identifies herself as Sprite, but the platform's height and the glare of the afternoon sun make it impossible to see her face. "Why don't you show our visitor around the forest for a while?" she asks. "Give her an idea of what we're fighting for?"

Sprite and Lorax are one branch of a large and diverse group of young activists fighting for the environment. While the tree-sitters employ direct-action tactics, their peers lead hands-on restoration projects, campaign for green political candidates, organize protests, and recruit new members for established groups like the Sierra Club. Their efforts burst into the public consciousness in December 1999, when young demonstrators helped shut down a meeting of the World Trade Organization in Seattle. In April, protesters next rattled the Washington, D.C., meetings of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

After the demonstrations in Seattle and D.C., the mainstream press largely focused on the gladiatorial thrust-and-parry between protesters and police. How many were arrested? Was pepper spray used? Did the meetings go on despite the protests? Less emphasized was the way in which these events gave young people from dozens of organizations an opportunity to work together and a chance to flex their political muscle.

The youthful crowds at the WTO and World Bank demonstrations were conversant not only in the social repercussions of globalization, like the staggering debt amassed by developing nations, but also in the ways that the corporate system is rapidly depleting our natural resources. While some campaign against sweatshops or the death penalty, huge numbers of youth activists are tackling the big environmental issues: logging in our national forests, habitat destruction from the Amazon to Siberia, industrial pollution, damage done by non-native species. And they approach these issues with all the energy and optimism of, well, youth.

In New York City, students clamor to be admitted to the newly renovated High School for Environmental Studies. In 1990, about one in every ten high schools had an environmental club; now, approximately nine in ten do. Green student organizations are proliferating around the world, with 19 nationwide groups in North America alone.

"I think the environment is vital to, you know, everything else," says Ingrid Chapman, a 20-year-old University of Washington student and a member of Free the Planet!, a national network of student environmental groups. "I care about human rights, and I care about the economic takeover of the planet, but I think the environment is the basic issue underlying everything."

Out in the Oregon forest, Sprite and Lorax (tree-sitters tend not to use their given, or "Babylon," names) depend on this growing awareness and action. While the young activists in Cascadia Forest Defenders (also known as Red Cloud Thunder) take a stand in the trees, dozens of loosely associated members of Earth First! and other organizations support the effort, soliciting donations of money and organic food, delivering supplies and mail to the forest, providing security, and gathering information about Forest Service plans. In shifts, the tree-sitters have managed to occupy these trees since April 1998, ever since the U.S. Forest Service auctioned off 96 acres of old-growth forest to the unfortunately named Zip-O Log Company based in Eugene.

As recently as five or six years ago, tree-sits like the one at Fall Creek--which began with two trees and has since expanded to six--were disorganized, emotional responses to planned timber harvests. Protesters literally chained themselves to tree limbs. Today, tree-sits are sophisticated efforts employing cell phones, walkie-talkies, Web sites, mountaineering gear, and savvy public relations. At least eight established tree-sits continue in California, Oregon, and Washington; most have sprung up since 1997, when Julia Butterfly Hill scaled Luna, the now-famous Humboldt County, California, redwood where she lived for two years. While loggers have cut the forests around Luna, and around an Oregon tree called Madre Loca, the other tree-sits have managed to keep the chainsaws at bay.

Lorax leads me into his forest world. Once a high school jock in upstate New York, he passed through the Oregon woods en route to Hawaii one summer. "I just knew this was where I needed to be. Hawaii will be there later," Lorax says. "I've changed a lot." The 25-year-old has spent a total of 13 months in the trees. In a simple ceremony, he even "married" a big tree they've named Grandma.

I feel disoriented almost as soon as we leave the clearing, but Lorax hikes with confidence. Like most old-growth forests, this stand of ancient Douglas firs has a spacious, luxuriant quality to it. The branches above our heads are festooned with witches' hair moss. Large ferns and giant skunk cabbage spring like green fountains from the dark soil. On the ground, mushrooms curl in strange shapes, and bright green and yellow centipedes inch along amid brown salamanders with pumpkin-orange bellies.

After about an hour, Lorax brings me to the fallen body of Joy, a tree once protected by a tree-sitter. Lorax becomes solemn, almost funereal. "For some reason, the sitter came down, and the Forest Service got wind of it. They came out and cut the tree down. They didn't even take it. What a waste," he says. "Remembering what happened to Joy keeps us going. If it comes to the tree's life or my life, I'll sacrifice mine."

Back at the tree village in late afternoon, Sprite, 19, climbs barefoot down a tree, then uses a rope to descend the last 15 branchless yards. It's time for me to go up. Sprite shows me how to buckle into a mountaineering harness and how to slide the triple-slipknots up the main rope until I put weight on them. To ascend, I step into a foot-loop of webbing, wrench my body toward the main rope, and stand straight up in the loop. Then I slide the hand knot up as far as it will go, sit back in the harness, and begin again.

"Try to enjoy the climb," says Sprite, who trained as a dancer before her experience as a WTO demonstrator led her to the tree-sit. "You'll do fine."

I start my clumsy inchworm dance up the rope. At 30 feet up, I begin to sweat and rue my decision to wear a fleece pullover. About 75 feet up, my hands blister, then tear. No wonder most everyone in this tree-sit brigade is (unlike me) under 30. But despite the difficulty and the fear, the climb becomes enjoyable. With each slide and heave, I see more clearly that a forest is not just a loamy floor and a cool canopy above, but a vertical, three-dimensional universe, like the ocean. Tree voles skitter up the trunks. Flying squirrels and gray jays flit from branch to branch. Insects whir and buzz everywhere.

After 45 heart-pumping minutes, I crawl over the edge of a plywood platform with the help of a 20-year-old named Spring. The riggers constructed their tree houses with a medieval-castle mentality. No climber can enter without the help of the sitters: The climber has to push out from the trunk, and then be pulled over the edge of the platform. This done, I collapse in Kali-Ma, the Grand Central of the tree village. Two large trees, Grandma and Yggdrasil, hold us up; plywood donut platforms encircle each tree and a large, two-tiered platform hangs between them. "You made it!" says Spring. He gives me a big hug.

While I recover from the climb, Spring squats at an L-shaped shelf that serves as a kitchen. A rocket stove, fueled by a propane tank hanging under the platform, hisses as he stir-fries a vegan dinner of brown rice, vegetables, soy sauce, and sesame seeds. Sealed boxes of spices, grains, and amino acids are stacked nearby. A Plexiglas bread box keeps flying squirrels out of cookies and crackers.

Across the platform, another shelf serves as a library and staging area. On one side lie a radio, a walkie-talkie, a yogurt container filled with wildflowers, an empty government-issue prune can full of tools, a video camera donated by University of Oregon students who want to film a documentary on the tree-sit. Since there's not a lot to do in a tree, the rest of the shelf groans with books: McLibel: Burger Culture on Trial; The SAS Escape, Evasion, and Survival Manual; a Forest Service Draft--"Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement"; In the Absence of the Sacred; the writings of Unabomber Ted Kaczynski; and Baking in a Box, Cooking on a Can.

Sure, Spring says as he chops and seasons the vegetables, tree-sitting is tough. The northwest storms blow wet and cold. Though it's May, it snowed just last week. Exercise becomes a distant memory; joints begin to stiffen. It's almost impossible to stay clean. Everyone fights the psychological tension, the fear that at any moment the lumberjacks and the Forest Service might burst into the clearing, burn or confiscate the gear on the ground, take down the village, or cut all the trees around it. Spring was at the Umpqua (a.k.a. "Right View") tree-sit near Roseburg, Oregon, when crews clearcut the forest all around Madre Loca, the tree where he was living. "The forest screamed as they killed it," he says.

Dusk begins to fall, and the sitters in the other trees start to hoot and call in the deep-throated code they've created. They're coming over to Kali-Ma for dinner, gliding in on harnesses along ropes strung between the trees. All took very different paths to what they call the "Ewok Village."

Spring hit the road after high school. "I was dissatisfied and I went to seek," he says. "Here, I can take a real stand against injustice." His parents didn't understand at first, but now they're supportive, he says. Spring's younger brother, who's almost 17, has become politicized by his older sibling's actions, and will join him in the trees soon.

The tree-sitters are acutely aware that their radical stand will not be enough to save the remaining old-growth forests. They see themselves as witnesses, whose extreme actions will spur others to file lawsuits, speak at Forest Service review meetings, organize environmental groups, or simply write checks to support those efforts. "I lived two long, cold winters in the trees, where all I ever heard of civilization was chainsaws," Spring says. "What I did was only symbolic. But we need our Rosa Parks and our Gandhis for the environment, people who will do what it takes to get things right."

Indigo, 19, left family problems in Ohio and has found that tree-sitting gives her new strength. "I get so much energy from the trees, and from these people," she says. "People are cheering you on." She admits that it's impossible to completely separate from mainstream culture. "We drive cars out here. There's lots of plastic. I like hot showers. I like a roof overhead. But if we don't do this, who will?"

More on Generation Green: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4

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