Tree's a crowd 

Does tree-sitting qualify as recreation or protest?

It will be up to a federal judge to determine whether two Wild Rockies Earth First!ers who perched in trees to protest logging on the Bitterroot National Forest (BNF) were exercising their right to peaceably assemble and petition the government for a redress of grievances, as the First Amendment guarantees, or were merely camping, as BNF officials maintain.

The two protesters, “Lupine,” a.k.a. Joel A. Wyatt, and “Fireweed,” a.k.a. Rebecca Kay Smith, were living in trees up the Rye Creek drainage in the Little Bull timber sale southeast of Darby since July 7. The two were protesting the 60 million board-foot Burned Area Recovery logging plan that was settled in court-ordered negotiations last winter.

The BNF cut off the protesters’ food and water supplies on July 23, which forced Wyatt down from his perch several days later. Smith, 20, was forcibly removed from her tree on Aug. 6 by Forest Service and Ravalli County law enforcement officers.

According to one eyewitness, about a dozen officers in five or six vehicles were on site Tuesday morning with a cherry picker to remove the woman. She had locked herself into a tube-like device while still in her perch. Officers cut limbs from the tree around her and removed her and the platform. The eyewitness says Smith appeared passive, possibly due to exhaustion and lack of food and water, and did not resist the officers.

The camping-or-protesting issue remains to be settled in federal court.

The federal government has charged Wyatt and Smith with four separate federal misdemeanors, including violating the 14-day camping limit. Though BNF officials maintain the two were camping and not practicing legitimate, constitutionally-protected protest, in a one-page press release issued Aug. 1 the BNF repeatedly refers to the pair as “protesters.” In fact, the press release uses the words “protesters” or “protest” nine times in connection with the two activists, and never once refers to them as “campers.”

Still, BNF public affairs specialist Ellen Davis insists that the Earth First!ers were camping because they didn’t go home at night, but slept in the trees. “They are camping. They’re sleeping. They’re living there. They’re not protesting and going home every night.”

Last week after repeated requests from the press and the public, Davis supplied information detailing the costs of monitoring the protesters/campers. Taxpayers reportedly spent $1,000 a day on around-the-clock surveillance, security, generators and lights. According to Davis, the generators ran the lights that illuminated the area around the tree where the woman sat, necessary, she says, for security reasons. Yellow police tape encircled the site, and Ravalli County reserve deputies were on hand to keep anyone from re-supplying Smith with food or water. One reserve deputy said that officers were also protecting her from unnamed people in the community who threatened to cut down the tree while she was sitting in it.

Davis could not say whether the BNF has ever arrested anyone other than Wyatt and Smith for violating the 14-day camping restriction.

BNF law enforcement officer Dale Brandeberry stated in the Aug. 1 press release that the 24-hour surveillance was necessary to allow logging contractors to do their job and build a helipad at the site. Shortly after Smith’s removal, loggers cut down her tree in preparation for the helipad construction.

Far from damaging the environmental cause, the Earth First! protest seems to have caused more “mainstream” enviros to sit up and take notice. Members of Friends of the Bitterroot (FOB), a local environmental group, say that they admire the Earth First!ers’ youthful passion and commitment, not only to the national forest, but to democratic principles.

FOB president Jim Miller, noting that most members of his organization are “too darn old” to be sitting in trees for days and weeks on end, says, “We monitor timber sales ourselves and every time we go out we run into these young people and, my gosh, they’re committed and passionate about what they’re doing,” he says.

“These young people are going to be the next generation of environmental leaders, and I greatly admire their courage and conviction. Civil disobedience is really a principle that most of the great movements in our country are founded upon.”

Miller and fellow FOB member Larry Campbell both criticized the BNF for spending tax dollars foolishly on monitoring a couple of protesters who have done no environmental damage while largely ignoring the harm done by off-road vehicles crossing the forest landscape and creating soil-erosion and illegal trails.

“They don’t enforce that,” says Campbell, who notes that he didn’t receive nearly this much law enforcement attention after his life was threatened last year in the parking lot of the BNF’s Hamilton headquarters. “They’ve just got all their people watching one girl. Have you ever seen that kind of response to a hunting camp that’s been there for more than 14 days?”

Stewart Brandborg, a 50-year environmental activist from Darby, calls the BNF response ridiculous, saying, “While the Earth First demonstrations are probably not beneficial from the public relations standpoint in the Bitterroot Valley and with the people of the Bitterroot Valley, the excessive expenditure of the Forest Service and law enforcement agencies to destroy food and water and conduct 24-hour surveillance comes down on the side of being ridiculous.”

Wyatt and Smith have also been charged with maintaining a structure on the national forest without a permit, threatening, resisting, intimidating, or interfering with any forest officer, and creating a hazard by stringing ropes throughout several trees and obstructing a helicopter landing site.

According to the Aug. 1 press release BNF Deputy Forest Supervisor Spike Thompson offered Earth First! an opportunity to protest peacefully in the parking lot of the Hamilton BNF headquarters, but his offer was declined.

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