Eight years ago this past July, a 17-year-old balanced with a noose around her neck in the canopy of a tree, 60 feet above the ground in Oregon’s Mt. Hood National Forest. Supported only by a net anchored by five small ropes, she drew a knife as a cherry-picker approached. Terrified, yet willing to sacrifice her life for the sake of the forest around her, she cut each line until only one remained. And then, suddenly...silence. The vehicle stopped.
After hours of questioning by the U.S. Forest Service and the FBI, the exhausted teen—known as Usnea—finally descended from her perch, bidding farewell to the forest she had called home for two years. Her near suicide was just one in a series of nonviolent protests staged by impassioned environmentalists struggling to protect some of the nation’s oldest forests from logging in a flashback to tactics used by the notorious Earth First!ers in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In his new book, Forest Defenders (powerHouse Books, $39.95), photographer Christopher LaMarca offers an intimate documentary about activists like Usnea as well as the stalwart loggers, unflagging Forest Service personnel, and dogged law enforcement officials they confront.
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Armed with a camera and a love of Oregon wilderness, LaMarca spent five years living off-and-on in the Siskiyou National Forest, a million-acre expanse stretching from the southwestern part of the state into California. Centuries-old trees, such as Douglas firs and western hemlocks, soar upwards of 200 feet, supporting northern spotted owls and other threatened denizens of the ancient forest. Technically, the Clinton administration’s Northwest Forest Plan and Roadless Rule both conserved parts of the Siskiyou. But with the help of the Bush administration and the Forest Service, timber companies have exploited rules that allow “salvaging” of trees burned in forest fires to log in roadless areas that were legally off-limits under Clinton-era legislation. One potent example is the case of the Biscuit Fire, which burned a 500,000-acre area in the Klamath-Siskiyou region in 2002. Shortly after, the Forest Service proposed a massive salvage-logging operation. The result: multiple timber sales, clear-utting in areas previously off-limits to logging, and numerous lawsuits.
It took three years before LaMarca’s subjects would reveal their full identities in photos. Many hid behind handkerchiefs concealing half their faces because they were under constant surveillance by the Forest Service. Federal officials were known to infiltrate camps undercover. LaMarca recalls the appearance of one curious “biker” who, a few days later, turned up in a Forest Service uniform. (LaMarca was once arrested for interfering with a timber sale while photographing, taken to jail for a night, and labeled a “flight risk” until the charges were dropped a week later.)
To an outsider, forest defenders—who range in age and occupational history—might seem extreme, maybe even ludicrous. They often bargain with their own lives to buy time for the woods, engaging in civil disobedience by roosting in a precariously placed tree “sit” or by lying across logging roads while locked to pickup trucks that, if bulldozed out of the way, would drag them along, too. As LaMarca points out, “What else can be done besides people literally living in the forest to bring awareness to it or stop it?”
Forest Defenders digs at the raw reality, lending a compassionate and humane perspective not only on the activists but on the loggers whose livelihoods depend on the very forests they’re cutting down. “It’s so easy to get caught up in the politics and the stereotypes,” says LaMarca. “[But] what no one wants to talk about is the simple fact that this is one of the most biodiverse places left on the planet, and [it’s] being destroyed, even when [it’s] supposedly protected.”
*This story was updated to correct an error that appeared in the print edition.