SOUTH OF MOUNT Rainier is what environmentalists call "the forgotten forest," the 1.4-million-acre Gifford Pinchot National Forest. It hasn't been forgotten by timber companies, which would love to log it, or by environmental groups, which have tied up several potential sales in court. Instead, it's largely been ignored by the public in the Northwest, whose attention was focused on high-stakes fights to preserve old-growth forest near Portland, Ore., and to convert land near Snoqualmie Pass to wilderness area.
But soon the forgotten forest may be forgotten no more.
Two hours south of Seattle, the forest has many stands of old-growth Douglas firs. The U.S. Forest Service, now led by Bush administration appointees, wants to hear the sounds of summer—chain saws roaring. Environmentalists have a problem with that.
"It is a make-or-break summer," says Jasmine Minbashian, campaign coordinator of the Northwest Old-Growth Campaign.
Like other enviros, she predicts a long, hot summer of activists putting their bodies on the line to protect trees in the Pinchot Forest. And it's not just going to be mom-and-pop direct-action groups taking to the trees—come July 1, Earth First! will hold a large-scale rendezvous in the Giff, as it's called. That ought to make federal law enforcement agencies sit up faster than you can say "ecoterrorist."
What's turning the forest into a crucible is the Northwest Forest Plan. Signed in 1994, it was a compromise between timber companies and environmentalists. The plan called for 1 billion board feet of wood to be cut from Northern California to Washington each year, while carving into law protection for threatened species and ecosystems.
It hasn't worked out that way. Many enviros never liked the compromise and locked up timber sales in court, and the Clinton administration didn't make a sizable push to help timber companies out of their bind. What's more, where courts and political inertia didn't intercede, epic Oregon tree-sits by groups such as Portland's Cascadia Forest Alliance brought so much public pressure to bear that timber companies took their chain saws and went home.
But since George W. Bush's election in November 2000, lumber companies have pushed the administration to get the cut out of the Northwest's national forests. They point to examples like the Pinchot Forest, where no timber was cut in 2001, as indicators of how out-of-whack matters have gotten (the forest's yearly target is 52 million board feet).
"The timber companies have a legitimate gripe," says Tom Knappenberger, a Forest Service spokesperson.
"What we're asking for is for the Bush administration to implement the Northwest Forest Plan as intended," says Chris West, a vice president with the American Forest Resource Council, an industry trade group.
That's exactly what's starting to happen in the Pinchot Forest. Three sites are already being logged this year, and another four could be cut this summer, according to the Forest Service. That's in addition to approximately 30 more sales that could soon take place. Some of those sales are the result of timber companies that are blocked from logging in Oregon due to environmental restrictions being offered trees in the Pinchot Forest, says Susan Jane Brown, executive director of the Gifford Pinchot Task Force in Vancouver. She says that the companies had dibs on second-growth timber in Oregon and now get a crack at old-growth in Washington.
"We don't take kindly to that," she says, hinting at further legal action.
Brown and Minbashian agree that it may take flesh-and-bone blockades to stall the cuts for this year (neither of their groups participates in direct action), as does Ivan Maluski of Cascadia Forest Alliance (which does). Several court injunctions have run their course, so until new court cases are filed, direct action is a likely tactic, Maluski says.
Exactly how Earth First! will fit into this vortex is unclear. Phone calls to representatives of the secretive-as-Freemasons tribe went unreturned. Forest Service law enforcement personnel did not return a request for comment. In an online posting, Earth First!ers claim that they will not apply for an assembly permit, which is required for gatherings of more than 75 people on national forest land. They contend that they are merely practicing their right to gather on public land and don't need a permit.
As ominous as that may seem, a similar rendezvous in southern Oregon in 1997 went peacefully, says Knappenberger.
Still, in recent years, tensions between activists and law enforce- ment ran high at the tree-sits in Oregon (there have been no tree-sits in the Pinchot Forest). At one point, the feds literally yanked tree-sitters from their pods in the Mount Hood National Forest in Oregon.
"This summer is going to be different than any we've seen in a while," says Maluski.