The Bitterroot Tree Party 

As moose forage on the ground below, mice scurry forty feet up in two majestic ponderosa pines to visit with two animals of a species they aren’t accustomed to sharing habitat with: human beings. Two environmental activists with Earth First! perch themselves in these two ponderosas in the Bitterroot National Forest near Darby, about seventy feet apart from one another. For fourteen days, they sit in the trees peacefully and, with the aid of harnesses, are even able to meet out on the rope that extends between their respective trees to socialize. Also hanging from this rope is a large banner reading “Is This Recovery?” The sign refers to the neverending debate between Earth First! and the Forest Service over whether burned area recovery is being done to restore forests, as the Forest Service claims, or to rape the land of timber for logging profits, as Earth First! claims.

From the forest floor below, Earth First! ground support provides fresh vegetarian meals and refills bottles of water. Forest Service officers stop by now and then to see the fuss, but logging continues in the surrounding areas.

The tree-bound Earth First!ers feel healthy, strong and righteous. Fear grips them only momentarily during one night when a truck drives up and shines a spotlight on the two for half an hour. They weigh the possibility that there might be a local logger in the truck mad enough to pull a shotgun and take them out. Ground support arrives in another vehicle during the tense stand-off and sees that the pick-up’s license plate has been covered with duct tape. The truck speeds away and the mood relaxes once again, but not for long.

On the 15th day of the tree-sit, everything changes. The demonstrators have now overstayed the Forest Service’s 14-day camping limit. The Forest Service and local law enforcement tape off the area surrounding the two occupied trees. Ground support can no longer get close enough to restock the tree-sitters’ food and water supplies. The Forest Service begins 24-hour surveillance, videotaping sporadically. Officers shine bright spotlights on the humans in the trees. The spotlights are powered by a loud diesel generator. The demonstrators see no more moose.

Night after night, the protesters find it hard to sleep under the spotlights, but each morning, the sun rises and so do the tree-sitters: Joel Wyatt, a 26-year-old with gnarly hair and a soft voice, and Rebecca Kay Smith, a 20-year-old who greets the dawn with a prayer for Mother Earth.

For Joel Wyatt, the tree-sit to protest the massive Big Bull timber sale in the Bitterroot National Forest lasts for 20 days, from July 8–28, 2002. Joel spends his time reading a book by Sioux medicine man John Lamedeer. He also reads The Autobiography of Malcolm X. He thinks about the dead trees around him and decides that they are just as much a part of life as the living, especially for the bugs that will inhabit them and the animals that will use them for shelter. He decides that Americans need to become more comfortable with death, to see beauty in charred trees—to see a mother that must be honored rather than simply harvested of her bounty. As he thinks, he tries not to move much; he’s weak from extreme dehydration. The hot summer sun beats down on his head and he slowly circumnavigates the tree, following the shade. What little water he has he sips from a twelve-ounce plastic bottle. When the water runs out, he becomes desperate enough to drink his own urine, but he is so dehydrated that consuming the toxic urea in his waste makes him even sicker.

Not far away, Rebecca Kay Smith endures her own trials. Her stint in the trees lasts from July 8 to Aug. 6, 2002. Smith lies on her back to conserve energy and writes songs on a piece of paper. Though her body is weak, she begins to menstruate, and the blood reminds her that she still has the ability to birth a child. When these two have the strength, they talk to each other. Though both grew up in Ohio, they knew each other only vaguely before taking to the trees. Yet, their elevated isolation not only caters to bonding, but makes it a necessity.

“We just supported each other,” Wyatt says. “We talked about animals that we’d see.”

Among the animals were loggers, who’d stop by to witness the disruption. “I’ve got to feed my family,” one such yells. “Six generations of my family have been loggers.” Meanwhile, ground support talks to their friends in the trees over CB radio, reading poems about protecting Mother Earth and singing songs.

Eventually, Forest Service officer Don Polanski cranks up a cherry picker. Another officer begins cutting branches from the two trees, and much of the demonstrators’ food and water supply falls along with the severed ponderosa limbs.

Later, in court, the Forest Service will take the position that it cut down branches of debris that were in the way. The tree-sitters wonder if it is coincidence than many of the branches “in the way” were the same branches to which their supplies were attached. Smith sees that Wyatt’s supplies are being cut down and quickly begins attaching as many of her own supplies to her person as possible.

Wyatt turns into the environmental activism version of McGyver, making a rainwater catchment system from a piece of rope, a blue tarp and his water bottle. Smith follows his lead, and she has a bucket to work with.

On July 28, his 20th day in the tree, Wyatt, fearing for his physical safety, decides to come down. He rappels to the ground, his weakened hands squeezing the rope attached to his harness. As soon as he hits the ground he is taken into custody.

“I could have stayed up there longer,” says Wyatt, “but thinking in terms of my health, I decided it wouldn’t have done the movement or my family or anybody a heap of good if I blew some synapses and…became a vegetable for the rest of my life.”

For Smith, the outlook is better. She has saved more water and held on to a container of peanut butter. She’s prepared to remain in her tree for a long time, and does so another nine days, until Aug. 6, when the Forest Service decides it is time to remove her. Getting Smith out of the tree takes three hours. Her arms literally hug the ponderosa and she has locked her wrists together in a tube-shaped device. A Forest Service officer saws off the top of the tree a few feet at a time, from the top down. A glass bottle and several branches hit Smith, who, for the first time since the pick-up truck incident, begins to fear for her own safety. Finally, the officer is able to lift her vertically off of the ponderosa’s trunk. Her arms remain locked into her tube, as if she is giving the Heimlich maneuver to an invisible man. The officer in the tree hands Smith over to another officer in a cherry picker and they slowly descend to the ground. The tree sit is over. The Forest Service can go back to business as usual, and Big Bull can now be logged. And Wyatt and Smith are about to realize that the penalties for their actions may be far more severe than they had anticipated.

The rope trick

On Jan. 6 and 7, 2003, Wyatt and Smith sit before a jury in a Missoula federal courtroom. Wyatt wears a button-down shirt and tries to look “like someone the jury can relate to.” He doesn’t own a suit. Smith wears a plain long-sleeve shirt and a skirt.

“I don’t really go to a lot of fancy restaurants,” she explains.

The defendants intuitively sense a hostile atmosphere within the courtroom. They have pleaded not guilty to the four charges against them—violating a 14-day camping limit, maintaining an unauthorized structure on National Forest land, refusing to obey a lawful order from a Forest Service officer, and a fourth charge—a more severe class A misdemeanor—of using a hazardous device capable of causing bodily injury or damage to property.

This injurious device, in the government’s eyes, is the series of ropes that Wyatt and Smith had tied to the trees surrounding them. Inside the Missoula courtroom, Forest Service law enforcement officers Don Polanski and Kay Jaquith testify that the Forest Service removed Smith from the tree due to fears that her health was declining.

Earth First! ground support team members Stan and Delyla Wilson also testify. They had taken their eleven-year-old daughter Meghan to the tree sit, and Stan had also brought along his seventy-three-year-old father, making three generations of Wilsons witnesses to what happened. The Wilsons, a middle-aged couple from Corvallis, find it ironic that the Forest Service removed Smith from the tree soon after a heavy rainstorm allowed her to catch several gallons of water in a bucket. The access to this new water, the Wilsons say, assured that Smith could remain healthy in the tree.

“It’s very interesting that they became extremely concerned about her health after her health needs were met,” Stan Wilson says.

David Avery, the lawyer hired by Smith, focuses his defense on the principle of “estoppel”—meaning that his client cannot be held accountable for the charges, aside from the camping violation, because the government gave her the impression that she was not breaking these laws.

“We specifically asked if there were any laws being violated,” Delyla Wilson says.

The Wilsons testified that a Forest Service official told them outright that “there’s nothing illegal going on here.”

Assistant U.S. Attorney Joshua Van De Wetering, the prosecuting attorney, says that if the Wilsons were indeed told this, they should have interpreted it to mean that there was nothing illegal happening on the ground.

Van De Wetering has experience prosecuting Earth First!ers, as he handled the Feb., 2001 trial of Randall Mark, the Earth First!er who threw a salmon pie at Idaho Rep. Helen Chenoweth-Hage in protest of her widely-perceived anti-environmental position regarding the disruption of salmon habitat. In this new case, Van De Wetering says that the tree-sitters endangered government employees with the ropes that they had tied to trees. By construing these ropes as an “injurious device,” the prosecution placed the defendants’ actions in the same legal category as tree-spikes or a trip wire attached to a gun.

Avery argued that the injurious device statute is not intended for “soft ropes that anyone can plainly see.” The defender also wonders why, if the ropes were such a danger, they weren’t cut down from the beginning.

Forest Service Captain Dale Brandenberry and his Bitterroot officers were unable to shed any light on the subject with the Independent, having been advised not to discuss the case.

Avery says a Forest Service video shows that the ropes were tied from trees the sitters occupied to trees that Wyatt and Smith were not in, which proves that the ropes could easily have been cut down from those other trees. The video is currently in the custody of Montana federal defender Melissa Harrison, according to Avery. Independent requests to view the video were not answered by Harrison as of press time.

Van De Wetering responds that “simply cutting down one side of the rope won’t take the danger away” because “a rope on the ground can still get sucked up into the helicopter’s rotors.”

No helicopters were involved in the tree- sit incident.

On Jan. 7, 2003 Joel Wyatt and Rebecca Kay Smith were found guilty on all four charges. The jury took less than an hour to reach the verdict.

Avery has accepted defeat on the three minor charges, but has filed a motion for acquittal on the injurious device charge. Judge Leif Bart Erikson, federal magistrate in Judge Malloy’s court, will likely decide within a few weeks whether the jury had sufficient evidence to convict Wyatt and Smith on this count.

Wyatt is disappointed with the verdict, but not surprised.

“We’re in Montana. The jury pool is going to represent the economy,” he says. “If [the jurors] aren’t directly involved in logging, at least their parents or grandparents probably are.

“I try to keep a perspective on the logger’s perspective,” Wyatt continues. “If you’re only thinking about your side, then…no one’s going to listen to you…My grandpa Wyatt is 93 and he worked for the Civilian Conservation Corps when they were putting in logging roads and fire roads [in Colorado], so my family has just as much history as anyone else’s and I don’t feel that it’s any disgrace to him to sit in a tree and say, ‘This has to stop. We’ve done enough here.’”

In his closing statement, Van De Wetering compared Smith and Wyatt to children who must be reprimanded for acting selfishly and irresponsibly. He also compared the tree-sitters to robbers holding up a bank with guns.

Not your father’s Earth First!

As the mellow and contemplative Joel Wyatt proffers a blueberry bagel and a cup of herbal tea inside of the Stensrud building’s Northside Community Center, the image of this activist as bank robber is comical. Wyatt considers his work with Earth First! “the closest thing he has to a day job.” This makes eating regularly an adventure in dumpster-diving. Formerly, he has been a part-time University of Montana student and worker at an organic farm in Whitefish. Wyatt does not come off as the type of person you’d want to avoid in a dark alley late at night.

Instead, he is the young man in the wool-knit cap who rides his bumper sticker-laden bike to Break Espresso every Wednesday night to meet others with environmental concerns, people like Chris Bergman, his wife and their two-year old daughter Prairie, whom Wyatt greets with a smile and a familiar nod, refillable coffee mug in hand.

Bergman, a 30-year-old resource conservation major at the University of Montana with long, braided hair, says that Wyatt’s intelligence and forethought is a main reason he comes to Earth First! meetings and monitoring trips. Both Bergman and Wyatt believe that it is important that their actions remain peaceful.

Earth First! had a violent reputation from the 1960s through the 1980s, becoming infamous for illegal covert action. The group was known for monkeywrenching, sabotage of industrial logging equipment, and tree-spiking.

Wyatt worries that he may have been convicted based on the jury’s perception of an earlier generation of Earth First!ers with a different code of behavior.

“When a lot of people in Montana hear about Earth First!, they’re going to think ‘monkeywrenching’ and ‘tree-spiking’ and ‘dangerous to loggers,’” Wyatt says. But Wyatt believes that the Earth First! of yesteryear doesn’t necessarily represent his chapter today, the Missoula-based Wild Rockies Earth First!

“In my eyes, Earth First! is a group of idealistic people without many resources that want to preserve things for future generations. They’re people that care about the environment. And they don’t want to see it get trashed to line the pocketbooks of a few people…I wouldn’t endorse anything that was going to endanger people’s lives. I wouldn’t endorse anything like tree-spiking,” Wyatt says.

Wyatt speaks only for himself, as there is no official hierarchy to Earth First!

But Wyatt believes that changes in Earth First! as a whole are obvious if one looks at the way the group operates now, in contrast to the secretive actions of Earth First!ers in the past.

“Since I’ve been involved with Earth First!, what we’ve been doing is very much in the public spotlight—public meetings, public monitoring trips. We welcome anybody to come and see what we do. We’re not operating on a clandestine level in the dark of night.”

Larry Campbell, former executive director of Friends of the Bitterroot, is well aware of Earth First!’s negative reputation, and is careful to distinguish himself from the group. His organization, Friends of the Bitterroot, reviews land management agency proposals and works within Forest Service processes to reduce projects’ environmental damage utilizing science and law. This environmentalist knows all too well the dangers of going on record in favor of direct environmental action. Doing so in the past, he claims, has resulted in his home being shelled with bullets on five separate occasions—events he prefers not to talk about. Still, Campbell appreciates what the new crop of Earth First!ers do, particularly the group’s weekly forest monitoring trips.

Campbell and Friends of the Bitterroot met with Undersecretary for Natural Resources and the Environment and former timber industry lobbyist Mark Rey about a year ago to negotiate a settlement regarding logging in the Bitterroot.

“We signed off on the agreement, and the fact that Earth First! was looking for violations of the settlement was a really valuable contribution,” Campbell says. “Because of them being out there and discovering infractions early on, the Bitterroot Forest Service was pretty much on notice that they were being watched. It’s one of those things you can never measure, but I think it did a lot of good in terms of saving trees.”

While his organization opts for different methods, Campbell believes that civil disobedience becomes important when all else has failed.

“People who break the law right in the light of day for purposes of conscience, I have to admire that courage of conviction,” he says.

Wyatt emphasizes that Wild Rockies Earth First! takes direct action only as a last resort. Before his tree sit, Wyatt and fellow Earth First!ers not only went on monitoring trips, but also collected signatures on petitions and postcards and sent in comments during the environmental impact comment period.

“We try to do what [the Forest Service] says is going to be effective to see if it works so that they can’t say, ‘Well, you could have sent in a comment.’ Well, we did send in our comments. Or, ‘well, you could’ve written your Forest Service person.’ Well we did…I’ve sent letters to Conrad Burns. I’ve sent e-mails to Judy Martz. I’ve never received a reply. So in a democratic society, what’s a person supposed to do?”

Campbell understands this frustration all too well. These days, he feels betrayed by a Forest Service that he doesn’t feel is living up to its end of the bargain he signed off on last year. The deal was that Friends of the Bitterroot would agree to logging if widespread restoration work was done. But after logging was well underway, the Bitterroot National Forest Service announced last month that it was being hit with a $25.5 million bill to help pay for nationwide fire suppression. No funds will be available for restoration work any time soon, if ever.

“I dug deep and it was a difficult decision to sign off on allowing this humongous amount of logging, but I thought the whole package was as good as we could do,” Campbell says. “But without the restoration, it’s nothing but an old-fashioned timber sale and they’re leaving a dramatically increased fire hazard out there. It’s all just take, take, take and no give.”

This perceived breach may lead future environmentalists away from legal channels to more direct action, Campbell theorizes. Particularly, he feels that the Bush administration’s Healthy Forests Initiative, which seeks major restrictions on the filing of environmental lawsuits, may send those who would otherwise work with more mainstream groups over to Earth First!

“The Bush administration is creating a tremendous amount of polarization and the people…are left having to either swallow this bitter pill of watching species and forests being destroyed or go hang in a tree.”

Campbell laughs with frostbitten cynicism as he says, “So maybe these Earth First!ers will have a lot of work being consultants when they get out.”

Family and inheritance

Chris Bergman takes a break from his conservation studies homework at UM and his efforts with the university’s Environmental Action Committee (EAC) to volunteer his beat-up Subaru and trail guidance for a tour of the area where the tree-sit took place. Bergman wasn’t at the tree-sit, but he has obtained a map with an “X” to mark the spot. Though he refers to himself as a hick, Bergman speaks eloquently about environmental matters. He explains that it wasn’t until the birth of his daughter that he became truly interested in what kind of planet he would leave for future generations. Whether Wyatt and Smith might like to join in on this visit is irrelevant, as the court has ruled that they must stay out of the Bitterroot as a term of their release (on their own recognizance). Approaching the snow-capped mountains, the voice of Bob Dylan croons softly from the car stereo: “It’s a hard rain a-gonna fall.”

After a four-mile hike through deep snow to the site of the Big Bull sale, Bergman stands in front of a tributary to Rye Creek. To his left, a hillside full of healthy ponderosa, lodgepole, white pine and spruce provides shade. To his right, the sun reflects off the snow, illuminating countless stumps. From this vantage, it’s easy to imagine Wyatt and Smith up in their trees, waking to a breathtaking view of the Bitterroot’s verdure each morning.

Bergman looks up at the hill, barren save for some small, young trees, then looks down to the frozen tributary. After a deep breath, he explains exactly what he thinks will happen when Dylan’s hard rain falls.

Bergman says that without the roots of the larger trees to keep soil erosion in check, the soil will wash down into the creek, causing the creek’s bed to spread out into muck. Fish will not be able to breathe in the dirty water, nor will they have a place to lay eggs in the silted bed. Meanwhile, Bergman says, the hillside’s topsoil will heat up without a canopy of taller trees overhead to protect it, which might eventually contribute to future fires.

Banned from the Bitterroot, Wyatt and Smith remain busy. Wyatt tends to the daily office chores of Earth First!, a task less glamorous than direct action, but equally necessary. Smith volunteers at the Tom Brown tracker school, a nature camp in Florida where she helps others gain an appreciation of the wild, natural world. They await an April 18 sentencing. Each could end up serving as long as two and a half years in jail.

As they look back on their actions, both of these young people see a thread of connection between themselves and those patriots of the American Revolution who cried “No taxation without representation” at the Boston Tea Party. Wyatt says that taxation without representation is still happening today as American taxpayers foot the bill for timber sales of which they are becoming less and less a part. Smith’s strong voice remains optimistic and cheerful as she says that if being a patriot means loving your country, then she considers herself a patriot—dedicated enough to disrupt commerce and risk the penalties in order to redress Earth’s grievances.

But Wyatt stresses that this is not about he and Smith. “When I came down from the tree-sit, people were saying things like, ‘Wow, that was so great that you were able to do that,’” he says.

He pauses for a long moment to collect his thoughts, and then it all comes out in one gushing waterfall of words: “My constant response, inwardly, was, ‘You could do it, too.’ Anybody can do it. I’m not special in that sense. It was just that it needed to be done.”

And it needs to be done now, Wyatt adds.

“Time is running out to make these changes,” he says. “We can’t continue to wait for tomorrow or someday, because someday never comes. The changes that need to happen need to happen today. I feel very much like the voice of an upcoming generation that is inheriting an absolute mess—a disgrace, really. And I think that the generations that came before me should feel disgraced by what they’re leaving us.”

Driving back to Missoula with the Bitterroot Mountains in the rearview, Bergman speaks of a time for logging and a time for restoration. He believes that the time for the latter is now, but that logging can continue to exist in a sustainable fashion if American notions of progress are redefined.

His thoughts are interrupted as he pulls over to the side of the road to pick up a hitchhiker, reeking of alcohol, who wants to get from Hamilton to Missoula. Bergman tells him to hop in. A long silence follows as Bergman’s eyes slowly meander from the road to the mountains, from the rearview mirror, wherein he spies the hitchhiker passed out in the back seat, to the passing timber companies at roadside. He is trying to remember what he was saying before the hitchhiker came along. Eventually, he shrugs his shoulders and decides that his point is simple.

“If we take care of mom, she’ll take care of us,” he says.

  • Email
  • Favorite
  • Print

Speaking of Features

Tags: , ,

More by Mike Keefe-Feldman

Today | Wed | Thu | Fri | Sat | Sun | Mon
Artist Lecture: Patrick Zentz, bi/cycle/extrapolated

Artist Lecture: Patrick Zentz, bi/cycle/extrapolated @ Missoula Art Museum

Tue., Oct. 17, 7-8 p.m.

All of today's events | Staff Picks

© 2017 Missoula News/Independent Publishing | Powered by Foundation