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Earth First! and the IWW, Part 3 - Tree Spikes and Wedges

By x344543 - Industrial Worker, July 2013

When Greg King and Darryl Cherney cofounded Southern Humboldt County Earth First! in 1986, the principle target of their actions was the now Maxxam controlled Pacific Lumber Company. Sensing that the 800-plus Pacific Lumber workers--of which almost 350 had made it known in a full page ad that they opposed the Maxxam takeover--and the environmentalists shared a common adversary, King and Cherney tailored their campaign to the workers as well as the forest itself. Their earliest demonstrations conveyed the message that this particular Earth First! group at least, was concerned for the future of the loggers and millworkers as much as they were for the redwoods and the flora and fauna that depended on it.

A good number of the workers welcomed this show of solidarity, and a handful of them, including shipping clerk John Maurer, millworker Kelly Bettiga, mechanic Lester Reynolds, and company blacksmith (whose job primarily consisted of forging specialized logging equipment needed for the cutting of the unique redwoods), Pete Kayes--who would eventually join the IWW, engaged in regular, amicable dialog with the environmentalists.

At first, Maxxam largely ignored the protests and dissidents but as Earth First!'s efforts gained momentum and support, and as more workers began to grumble about their mandatory overtime and question the now rapacious timber harvesting efforts, the bosses began to take the growing grassroots resistance more seriously. An unprecedented spate of successful legal challenges by a local environmental watchdog group called EPIC under a hitherto inconsistently enforced California forestry practices act was the straw that broke the camel's back.

Using the PR Firm Hill & Knowlton and stoking the ego of the more conservative "scissorbill" employees, Maxxam fomented the creation of a "timber worker" front group known as Taxpayers for the Environment and its Management (TEAM). The organization initiated an intense propaganda campaign accusing the environmentalists of being "unwashed-out-of-town-jobless-hippies-on-drugs" whose sole aim was to destroy the economic well being of the humble residents of Humboldt (and Mendocino) county(s). TEAM claimed to be composed entirely of timber workers, but it was ACTUALLY largely made up of low level managers, gyppo operators, and assorted ranchers, many of whom belonged to other, similar front groups, such as one called WECARE, that had previously exaggerated the differences between workers and environmentalists.

To be fair, Earth First! had inadvertently set themselves up to be a prime target in such efforts. One of the most controversial tactics advocated by this militant direct-action movement was the practice known as "tree-spiking", the act of driving large nails into standing trees, followed by marking the affected arbors with a large, spray-painted "S" in white, and then making an anonymous call to the targeted logging operation in an effort to deter the timber cut.

Dave Foreman was an especially strong advocate of this tactic, but he also stressed that it should be done selectively, and great care taken to prevent any harm or injury to the frontline workers (hence the painted "s"). However, what Foreman didn't count on was that the employers, as a rule, placed profits above the workers' safety and cut the spiked trees anyway and sent them to the (often poorly maintained) mills, thus putting the millworkers at risk of injury or even death.

To make matters worse, Foreman had no way of knowing that folks who were NOT Earth First!ers, but willing to spike trees, might use the tactic, but neglect to use the recommended safety precautions. Further, he failed to account for the negative press that would result from tree spiking efforts gone awry, and the employers' willingness to use it to drive wedges between timber workers and environmentalists. Earth First! would quickly find out in May 1987 just how much they hadn't foreseen.

Early that month, in the Louisiana Pacific Mill in Cloverdale, California--in Southern Mendocino County, a millworker named George Alexander was nearly decapitated when his bandsaw struck a spiked log. The company waited ten days before issuing a press release, but once they did, they blamed the "tree spiking terrorists" (meaning Earth First!), and issued a $20,000 reward for the apprehension of the perpetrator.

What the company issued press release didn't reveal, however, was that the northern California Earth First! groups didn't use tree spiking as a tactic, that the spiked log had been sabotaged after it had been cut, due to the placement of the spike, and that the most likely suspect was not an Earth First!er, or even an environmentalist, but actually a right wing gun nut who bragged about spiking the tree in protest against L-P for illegally logging trees outside if their approved timber harvest area on his private property! (L-P had an established reputation for doing such things).

Furthermore, L-P also didn't reveal that Alexander was not a company man--indeed he was mildly sympathetic to Earth First!, though he opposed tree spiking, for obvious reasons), and he was actually very critical of L-P for its lax safety practices and profit mongering. The press and L-P also failed to mention that while the company offered a generous sounding $20000 reward, Alexander had to threaten a lawsuit in order to get even a paltry fraction ($9000) of his medical bills covered by the company! This didn't stop L-P from using the bloody images of an injured Alexander for their own propaganda purposes (a move Alexander resented).

The Corporate Timber front group, WECARE offered to pay Alexander to be a spokesperson for their anti-Earth First! propaganda, but Alexander refused. That didn't stop WECARE from using his image as well. And the odd timing of the delayed press release may have been calculated to coincide with an Earth First! protest against Maxxam (which is not unlikely since both Maxxam and L-P called upon the services of WECARE to create pro corporate timber propaganda.

Unfortunately, enough timber workers throughout the Pacific Northwest bought the propaganda, and by May 1988, were sufficiently convinced that Earth First! was a band of unfeeling terrorists. The willing collaboration of the capitalist press only further cemented this image in the minds of the general public. Worse still, careless Malthusian influenced statements made by Dave Foreman, Ed Abbey, and Chris Manes--whose views did not by any means represent the majority of Earth First!--only further added to the tension. Most leftists, including many in the IWW, saw no redeeming value in Earth First!

On the other hand, in the days before the Internet, many Earth First!ers knew nothing of Pete Kayes, John Maurer, Les Reynolds, or Kelly Bettiga and their openness towards environmentalism. They had no idea that George Alexander was very close in his own views to their own. Instead, their conception of the typical timber worker was the reactionary caricature of them provided by the likes of TEAM and WECARE.

Everyone assumed that the timber bosses had won, but no one could have anticipated how wrong that assumption was.

To be continued...

Next: Part 4 - I Knew Nothin' 'Til I Met Judi.

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