By Erin Grady, Cascadia Forest Defender
When it comes to the fight for old growth forests in the state of Oregon, Cascadia Forest Defenders (CFD) have recently been enjoying the sensation of winning. The fight for the Elliott State Forest, which has been escalating since 2009, has had all the elements of a successful grassroots campaign. Multi-tiered woods blockades at the point of extraction, a series of escalating direct actions at the point of decision, coalitions built with interested parties all over the spectrum of environmentalism, and relationships forged with the communities that will be most affected by horrific clear cutting. The projects that CFD has contested were enjoined by a lawsuit brought by conservation groups in Oregon declaring the cutting in the Elliott illegal under the Endangered Species Act. As I write, the Elliott is protected under legal injunction and not a single old growth tree has been felled there since early May. We have been celebrating our victories, growing in numbers, plotting our next moves in the Elliott and expanding our focus to include other campaigns– all the things a healthy campaign should be doing.
Unfortunately, with increased escalation, success, and support comes increased state repression. Now, forest defenders in Oregon and all of their allies are facing a bill that would create a felony out of forest defense protest tactics. HB-2595, which specifically mentions the Elliott State Forest, clearly intends to stop CFD in their tracks. This nasty bill, financially backed by the shameless timber industry, requires a MANDATORY MINIMUM of 13 months in prison for a first offense of “interfering with state forestland management”, with a second offense earning protesters a full 5 years in prison! Interfering is defined as, “The person, while on state forestland or an access road, intentional hinders, impairs or obstructs, or attempts to hinder, impair or obstruct, the performance of the forest practice.” In practical terms this means– tree sits, road blockades, and anything that costs Oregon Department of Forestry, logging companies, or law enforcement money.
On Monday, members of Cascadia Forest Defenders went to Salem to attend a House of Representatives hearing about this bill and deliver their testimony. They report that the only supporters of this bill were — surprise surprise — lobbyists from the timber industry. Those opposing the bill included a lobbyist from the ACLU, members of Occupy Salem and Occupy Portland, CFD and even a union lobbyist from the timber industry, who gave testimony that this bill could be used to take away their right to go on strike.
This isn’t the first time that a law has been written to specifically target Earth First! activists. In 2000, a law called Criminalized Interference with Agricultural Operations was passed and 99% of the times it was used was to prosecute forest protesters. In 2009, the Civil Liberties Defense Center lawyer Lauren Raegan (savior of those who take risks in the woods) had that law declared federally unconstitutional under the Equal Protection Act. This time around, CFD has the ACLU on our side. Lobbyist Becky Strauss testified at the hearing that this law, among many other problems, violates Article 1 Section 16 of the constitution that calls for the punishment to be proportionate to the crime. She calls this punishment “very unbalanced”.
Mandatory minimums are a tactic that is popular with lawmakers because they want a quick fix to the problem of a certain crime. They leave no room for individualized sentences and are exorbitantly expensive to taxpayers. It costs $28,000/year dollars to incarcerate a federal prisoner. Looking at a list of the crimes that have mandatory minimums, most of them are related to drug and weapons possession, robbery, assault, child pornography and other violent crimes. Nonviolent direct action has no place in the mandatory minimum category, and this will not be a quick fix. Says Jason Gonzales of CFD in his testimony, “Creating a mandatory minimum prison sentence won’t stop us from fighting these projects but it will change the way we have to fight them. My very genuine concern is that it will force large sections of our movement to take their actions further underground. Indeed, instead of stopping us, it may encourage us to accomplish more when risking so much. Ultimately it will further clog an already burdened court and prison system with peaceful protesters who clearly do not deserve such an outrageous mandatory minimum sentence.”
A novel could be written about all the things that are frustrating about this bill and what it could mean for the work that CFD does. For starters, if this bill had been in place in 2011, three of our members would just be getting out of prison right now. “I don’t think that I’m the kind of person that the State of Oregon wants to see behind bars at any cost to the state. And having a law that elevates a simple protest crime to a felony, that would require the state holding me for 13 months, seems absurd and a waste of public time and money,” says Grace of CFD regarding being a target of this bill.
Further, CFD and other forest defenders in Oregon have been specifically choosing above ground tactics so that we can avoid the prison industrial complex and enjoy the luxuries of being active participants in our larger communities. We choose civil disobedience because it is a tactic that allows us to escalate our campaigns while still participating in reasonable public discourse. Says Jason Gonzales on this issue: “The people this bill targets are not violent criminals. I’m a parent. I coach kindergarten soccer. I spend my days chopping firewood in the woods and meeting with my neighbors. We have students, we are professionals, we meet with governors, we present at panels. And when its the last resort we put our bodies on the line. We’re regular citizens who care. Isn’t this what our democracy is for? I don’t understand why we want to see less of this instead of more.”
Will this law pass in the chambers of our lawmakers who supposedly represent us? Will they use their legislation powers to erode democracy and box activism into a corner of petitioning and standing on street corners? CFD is inclined to say they won’t be able to. As we organize against this, the striking thing is how many different types of people support us. We have many allies who believe that direct action is an important tactic in what has become a very widespread struggle for the forests we love. Luckily for us, we are supported by fellow activists, lawyers, environmental non-profits, journalists, the citizens of the towns we live in, our friends and families; all who want us to keep kicking ass in the woods! We will not be intimidated by this state repression, and we will continue to confront this bill, the chainsaws, and whatever else they throw at us. We are still winning, after all.
Said Grace after the hearing, “The silver lining of this bill is that politicians finally have to admit that we are costing our enemies unmanageable amounts of money. I was really scared in that hearing room, but at least now I finally know that we are doing the right things.”
If you support forest defense, civil disobedience, and want to keep Oregon’s old growth standing tall, call Oregon’s House Judiciary Chair Rep. Jeff Barker (503) 649 1767. Tell him to drop HB 2595.