Andy Kerr

Conservationist, Writer, Analyst, Operative, Agitator, Strategist, Tactitian, Schmoozer, Raconteur

Civil Disobedience for the Forest: The Time for Direct Action Has Come Again

Suggested Citation: Kerr, Andy. 1995. Civil Disobedience for the Forest: The Time for Direct Action has Come Again. Wild Forest Review. April. 14-15. 

By Andy Kerr

On March 27, Earth First! co-founder Mike Roselle and I were arrested for failing to leave the building where Senator Mark Hatfield maintains his Portland office. We were charged with a Class C Misdemeanor, punishable by up to a $1000 fine and 30 days in jail. We were seeking to draw attention to the Senator's effort to pass legislation placing the federal forest agencies above the law and ordering them to cut down massive amounts of forest in the name of forest health.

While Roselle has been arrested on such matters more than 50 times, it was my first act of civil disobedience. Until then, my worst run-ins with the authorities had been speeding tickets. Exactly two years ago, I was waiting to receive my invitation from the White House to participate in the President's Forest Conference in Portland. Oh, how far I have fallen. I chose to get arrested and to do so with such a notorious self-professed radical as Roselle to dramatize a major effect of the legislation: forcing straight people out of the system.

If enacted, citizen access to the courts will be effectively eliminated. If Senator Hatfield and his fellow timber panderers are successful in barring the courthouse door against citizens who want to hold the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management accountable to the same environmental protection laws that the rest of us have to obey, what choice do mainstream straight activists such as myself have, but civil disobedience?

I wore my usual business suit (with an American flag lapel pin). The Oregonian called it a "well-staged media event." That it was. Accompanying me were Roselle as my civil disobedience advisor and co-conspirator (I always like to consult with professionals), photographer (Elizabeth Feryl, Environmental Images), videographers Ralf Meyer and Karen Anspacher-Meyer (Greenfire Productions), publicist (Don Francis, consultant) and attorney (Gary Kahn, Reeves Kahn and Eder). Roselle arranged for our direct action coordinators (Trilly Cannon and Joe Keating), a civil disobedience term for people who negotiate with the authorities and manage the event. Perhaps a dozen supporters were also in attendance.

It is likely that this horrible bill or some other bill containing such language will be passed into law by the Republican Congress. The result is that lawsuits won't be a viable conservation strategy until the environmental movement remobilizes its public support.

The Pacific Northwest forest issue has a tradition of civil disobedience comparable to its tradition of lawsuits. From 1985 to 1990, Senator Hatfield, either as chair or ranking minority of the Senate Appropriations Committee, led the effort to attach language ("riders") to annual appropriations bills which limited citizen access to the courts. The last rider (until now), dubbed the "Rider From Hell," mandated a massive cut of old growth forest, and served as a major catalyzing event for the nationalization of the region's ancient forest issue.

Civil disobedience centered on the forest began in 1983 at Bald Mountain in the Siskiyou Bioregion. ONRC and the Sierra Club had brought suit to stop the Bald Mountain Road, designed by the Forest Service to prevent the potential doubling in size of the Kalmiopsis Wilderness. Since the Sierra Club was paying the bill, they were calling the shots on legal strategy. For political reasons, they were afraid to use the best legal argument, having to do with the legal inadequacy of the Forest Service's wilderness evaluation known as RARE II (second roadless area review and evaluation). The case was lost. Earth First!, in one of its first major actions, conducted a series of blockades and delaying actions to prevent the bulldozers from doing their jobs.

The civil disobedients brought such attention to the area and the issue that ONRC was able to raise adequate funds for another lawsuit, this time bringing the arguments that it wanted to bring all along. In honor of Earth First!'s role, we made them first name plaintiff (Earth First! v. Block) perhaps the only time Earth First! ever sued anyone (they, of course, have been sued). The suit was successful.

Later, other activities (particularly at the Millennium Grove in the South Santiam Basin) such as sitting in trees and blocking logging equipment served an important role in bringing media attention to the issue. The Pacific Northwest Congressional Delegation expended all the political capital they had to do the Rider From Hell in 1989. The result was they could not do it again, until now. The issue divides on party lines, with Northwest Republicans supporting such limitations on judicial review and Northwest Democrats opposing them.

The polls show that the American people still strongly support environmental protection. But as a movement, environmentalists have lost this political connection. Politicians don't pay a price for voting against the environment. That must change, and I have seen several positive steps into the repoliticalization of the environmental movement at all levels. As part of that repoliticalization, and as an interim defensive strategy until we take back our right of judicial review, civil disobedience must once again become a tool in the environmentalist's toolbox. All of us should seriously consider getting arrested for the cause. I would suggest that such actions not only take place in the forest where the destruction is occurring, but at the door of any politician who votes to bar citizen access to the courts. When I say all of us, I don't just mean young and idealistic students, or fringe-dwelling old hippies, but all of us in the environmental movement from the CEOs of the big nationals to volunteers who monitor timber sales to grandmothers and children.

It should be as politically correct to get arrested at Senator Hatfield's door protesting forest destruction as it was to get arrested at the door of the South African consulate protesting apartheid. Fortunately for some of us, it is Roselle's opinion that there is no better town than Portland, Oregon to get arrested in for such things. The police have a civil disturbance unit and are used to civil acts of civil disobedience.

When I considered the consequences of my act, I think I was mentally prepared to do the time for doing the crime. However, I also knew that for the first offense, it was very likely that I will be offered at arraignment, instead of a misdemeanor, an infraction (sort of like a traffic ticket) and a small fine of $50, which I will readily pay. It took longer to convince Hatfield's office, the building authorities and the Portland Police to arrest us than to be processed through the criminal justice system. In Oregon, a misdemeanor conviction can be expunged in four years. While it might make my confirmation to the Supreme Court problematic, I don't expect much other fallout. (The worse thing was telling my parents that I intended to get arrested, before they read about it.)

I don't intend to make it my sole form of advocacy for forests, but civil disobedience will be one of the tools. In these ugly times, however, we must all do what we can. A continuous string of civil acts of civil disobedience at the politician's door by a broad social range of environmental activists can make a difference. There is nothing better to publicize the fact that the Senator has barred the courthouse door than to be arrested at his door.