by Schuyler Keenan Durham
With the sunny Spring day bringing out the radiant colors of blooming flower petals, individuals began to congregate at stone picnic benches on a Monday afternoon in Eugene.
Jinx (“no personal pronoun preferred”) trades sips from a 22-ounce bottle of Hammerhead Ale. After tipping back the head of short, dirty-blonde locks, the bottle is handed to the left. A man pauses his rolling ritual with Top tobacco to drag on the bottle, spilling small drops onto his cargo shorts and sandals – without socks, I’ll have you know. A young woman with blonde hair and a flannel shirt brandishes a loaf of bread upon her arrival. She slices the bread into small bites to accompany bits of cheese and scoops of guacamole.
Jason Gonzales, another group member, steps forward, picks up the armful of sliced bread, and leads the group from the benches near the parking lot to the gazebo within the Owens Memorial Rose Garden on Jefferson Street.
The group calls themselves Cascadia Forest Defenders, and they are the criminals in mind with Oregon’s recently-passed House Bill 2596.
Cascadia Forest Defenders don’t spend all their time trading snacks and booze. The group, which defines itself as the “last line of defense for Oregon’s forests,” participates in various forms of civil disobedience to block what they view as illegal use of public land. This includes road blocks, tree sits, and public demonstrations at Salem’s capitol.
HB 2596, which passed through Senate on June 10 with only 3 “no” votes (entirely from Portland Democrats), aims to bolster the legal strength of private companies contracted to log in Oregon’s forests. The bill explicitly states the rights of companies to sue environmental protestors for the “amount of actual damages.” This includes everything from damaged equipment, to wages lost by employees for days they could not work on-site. The bill also holds defendants responsible for attorney fees when found guilty.
The vague language of the bill, Gonzales said, would allow companies to sue, even if the logging contract is later found unlawful in court.
“You’re talking about a serious ‘David and Goliath’ here,” said Gonzales, a lifelong activist in social justice and environmental issues. “You’re talking about some of the most profitable industries in the world suing full-time activists.”
Oregon has a history of environmental activism. The ‘80s and ‘90s saw widespread participation in environmental protests. According to the Smithsonian Magazine, a two-pronged attack of protesting and lawsuits during the ‘80s resulted in strict protection laws for the Northern Spotted Owl by 1991. Northern Spotted Owls call much of Oregon forestland their home. Activism continued through the ‘90s. Demonstrations like the “mud people’s protest” in 1997, a treesit in the downtown Eugene area, and the WTO protest in Seattle 1999 tended to end in violence and chaos, with protestors and police both pointing fingers. By 2000, due to the successes and public support of environmental movements, timber harvesting in the Northwest dropped by 90%.
The timber industry claims protestors cast the issues in an unfair light.
“[Protestors] only hurt family businesses,” said Jim Geisinger, executive vice president of Associated Oregon Loggers, or AOL. AOL supports HB 2596.
Environmental activists believe they are protecting precious natural resources from large industries. However, logging protests can ruin the income and property of small-scale business owners who are contracted for jobs by larger companies, Geisinger said. The logging industry sees the bill as protecting the assets and livelihoods of small-business employees.
When it comes to protests, “the biggest issue [facing the timber industry] is the time off of work,” Geisinger said. Not wanting to kill people sitting in trees and blocking roads, loggers cannot cut down trees, meaning no paycheck for the day.
Demonstrations can deliver crushing blows to small-time players in an already dwindling industry. Members of the Seneca Family of Companies, which operate several saw mills in the Eugene area, wrote an open letter to The Register-Guard which blamed “radical activists’ propaganda” for the closing of Rough & Ready saw mills in southwest Oregon earlier in the year.
The logging industry denies any connection to the bill.
“It wasn’t our bill,” said Chris Jarmer, of the Oregon Forest Industries Council, or OFIC. “It was introduced by [House Representative Wayne] Krieger and we supported it.”
Krieger, who carried the bill through the House, may not have been told explicitly to push the bill, but he certainly wasn’t discouraged.
“Over the past five years [Krieger] has gotten over $35,000 [from the timber industry],” Gonzales said.
According to followthemoney.org, the timber industry was tied with the health industry for Krieger’s top campaign contributor in 2012. For the single campaign, the Oregon Forestry Industries Council donated $500 of the $56,345 it took to get Krieger into office. Geisinger and his AOL: $,2,500 (tied for highest donation from a single entity during 2012).
“Krieger… introduced the bill on his own,” Geisinger said, echoing his counterparts at the OFIC.
Krieger himself did not respond to questions.
Instead of lobbying factors, the bill could be the result of “quick politicking,” said Brenna Bell, attorney for Bark, an environmental group dedicated to protecting the natural areas surrounding Mt. Hood. Bell said that HB 2596 could have passed nearly unanimously as a political move from the Democrats to gain leverage on Republicans. Sort of an I’m-scratching-your-back-now-so-get-ready-to-scratch-mine-soon situation.
Another possible factor is the “myth of Oregon depending on timber,” Bell said. Even though the timber industry currently makes up a small fraction of Oregon’s total economy, Bell said stereotypical images of Oregon as a logger state put pressure on politicians to ease the public’s mind about the future of the industry.
But a legally protected future for the timber industry threatens the efforts of protestors.
HB 2596 could have a “chilling” effect on environmental protests, Bell said. The new legal responsibilities outlined would introduce a monetary risk to activists. Bell described the current model of protesting as a careful dance. Protestors toe the line of the law, arrests are made and select activists temporarily sacrifice their freedom to bring public recognition to their cause.
“[HB 2596] brings in unknown risk,” Bell said. The high amounts of money that could be awarded in a single case after HB 2596 passes could economically cripple protestors for life. Bell said successful cases could seize the wages of activists long after a single protest in order to recoup losses and attorney fees. This could turn many away from activism and stifle the voice of people too poor to risk a life of indentured servitude.
“Activists,” Gonzales said, “essentially work for free. .”
HB 2596 assures the timber industry the right to attorney fees in a successful case, but does not guarantee the same for activists. With cases costing around $30-40,000 in lawyer fees, environmental activists, often poor, face a huge risk, and a hard sell to lawyers who stand to make no money from the plaintiff in a successful defense, Bell said.
Activists recognize the impact they have on logging business and the danger it poses to some small-businesses. The aim of protesting is not to stop logging, Gonzales said, but to protect the forests from specific jobs they see as illegal while legislative organizations, like the Cascadia Wildlands Project here in Eugene, fight the contract in court.
“While this [bill] is the wrong thing to do,” Gonzales said, “there is a slightly less wrong way to do it.”
Right now, the bill awaits a signature from Governor Kitzhaber to put it into effect. Activists, Gonzales said, are not holding their breath for a veto from Kitzhaber. His relationship with the timber industry puts nature enthusiasts ill at-ease.
If there is a “chilling” of activists, Bell said she doesn’t think it’ll be long before others seek to cash in on the silencing.
“We’ll see what happens,” Bell said. “[If it’s successful] I won’t be surprised if copycat bills are introduced for other industries.”
To the small businesses, this sounds like heaven. To full-time activists, a frustrating and silent hell.