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Future of Bald Mountain remains uncertain

The birth of a movement

Stories Mail Tribune

Four men quietly stepped out in front of the rumbling D-8 Caterpillar punching a logging road into the side of Bald Mountain deep in the Siskiyou National Forest some 20 airmiles west of Grants Pass.

Locking their arms, they refused to budge that chilly morning on April 26, 1983.

Cat skinner Lester Moore dropped the heavy blade at their booted feet, climbed down in disgust and walked away to await action by a Josephine County sheriff's deputy.

So you are not going to leave? deputy Bud McConnell asked the protesters.

— No, we're going to stay, replied Steve Marsden.

With the arrest of the four protesters ' all were charged with disorderly conduct ' that day 20 years ago, the radical activists lit a fire under the environmental movement's formerly cold feet, at least when it came to direct action.

They had written letters, signed petitions, spoken out in an unsuccessful attempt to halt the road.

Now they were taking direct action, a controversial move that angered Uncle Sam, local residents and loggers while alarming many within the environmental community who had preferred a less confrontational approach.

It was the first significant use of a nonviolent civil disobedience protest in the battle over ancient forests, said Andy Kerr, senior counselor for the Oregon Natural Resources Council, a group he has worked with since 1976. There had been skirmishes before, but Bald Mountain was the defining moment.

You have to look at the fight over Bald Mountain as a turning point, he added.

Within the next two months, 44 people ' men and women ' would be arrested for blocking the road construction before a federal court injunction requested by the ONRC and others halted the project early in July of that year.

The Bald Mountain blockade became a rallying cry for direct action campaigns throughout the nation. Protesters began chaining themselves to machines; others perched their protests in trees.

The Bald Mountain action turned the environmental movement on its head, recalled Marsden, a former member of the self-described radical Earth First! movement that organized the protest.

It shook the very foundation of the movement, said Marsden, now 50 and a longtime Illinois Valley environmental activist. A lot of environmental organizations had serious doubts about Earth First! They felt the confrontational style wasn't a good idea.

Nobody had tried anything like that before, he added. This was before tree sitting. We hadn't evolved that far yet.

He describes the movement as a ragtag group without funding and no backing from the mainstream movement. Locally, the Rogue Group Sierra Club opposed the action, calling it illegal.

But the success of the blockade forced many in the mainstream environmental community to change the way they approached the fight to preserve uncut federal forests, said Mike Roselle, one of the protesters arrested that day.

Tactically, it seems so common now: road blocking, direct action protests, he said. It sure wasn't back then.

But it's not just about Bald Mountain, he added. We created a direct action movement. The other campaigns it caused ended up protecting millions of acres of old-growth timber that otherwise would have been logged.

Now 49 and living in Portland, Roselle was one of the founders of Earth First! along with fellow activist Dave Foreman. They were among the four young men drinking beer in a bar in Sonora, Mexico, who coined the name Earth First! after being influenced by the booze along with Edward Abbey's book, The Monkey Wrench Gang.

At issue in the Bald Mountain campaign was a 113,000-acre roadless area on the northern edge of the Kalmiopsis Wilderness, where the Forest Service wanted to begin logging some 221 million board feet of timber over an extended period.

Environmentalists wanted to preserve the roadless area and include it in the Kalmiopsis.

The Forest Service, noting that its studies as well as those by Congress did not support enlarging the area, disagreed. Officials said the road and ensuing logging activity would not degrade the environment.

Grants Pass resident Warren Olney, who retired from the Forest Service in 1990 after working for the agency for 33 years, recalled the Bald Mountain protests.

It was totally frustrating for us, said Olney, who was a spokesman for the Siskiyou forest during the demonstrations.

This is supposed to be a nation of laws, he said. We have ways in which everyone can get laws enacted or changed. They (protesters) weren't willing to do that.

The demonstrations were an affront to professionals in the agency who took pride in their work, he said.

They felt they knew best, because of years of research, how to manage the land, he said of co-workers. We were managing the forest according to the law and good forest practices.

We kept trying to tell people that, he added. We tried to play it straight. They didn't.

Congress had approved the 1978 Endangered American Wilderness Act which had enlarged the Kalmiopsis Wilderness from 76,900 acres to 179,655 acres. But it stopped short of including the roadless area immediately north of the wilderness.

At the time, Foreman, who is no longer involved in Earth First!, described the direct action as a way to subvert the mainstream environmental movement.

It's a test case ' it's an experiment, Foreman told the media.

The Oregon Sierra Club and the ONRC had attempted to halt road construction the previous year, but a U.S. District Court judge in Portland rejected their request for an injunction.

A Republican now living in New Mexico, Foreman continues to be involved in the environmental movement. He did not return telephone calls from the Mail Tribune.

Pedro Tama, now 60 and a mental health counselor in Josephine County, recalled his feelings as one of the four protesters that distant day 20 years ago.

Pumped. Scared. Excited, he said. I remember standing in front of the bulldozer with locked arms, elbow to elbow. The bulldozer pushed dirt up to our boots.

But I felt I was in good company, he added. We were all totally dedicated.

A Navy veteran with a degree in physics from Cornell University, Tama eventually returned to college, earning a master's degree in mental health studies from what is now Southern Oregon University.

I'm kind of an armchair environmentalist now, he said. My work and my family take up most of my energy now. But most of my feelings and beliefs about the environment that I had back then are still with me.

The fourth protester arrested that day, Kevin Everhart, now 43 and living in Florida, is traveling in South America and could not be reached for comment. Friends say he remains supportive of the environmental movement.

When we went out there, we didn't have any resources, Marsden said. But we felt someone had to do something to stop that road.

He will tell you the protesters were about as popular locally as today's SARS carriers. His life was threatened.

No one would believe we would go out there voluntarily and protect that roadless area, said Marsden, a biologist by training. They thought there must be something else we wanted.

About three miles of the road had been punched in the previous fall. The contract called for a little more than seven miles to be built.

The activists' goal was to halt the construction while another attempt was made to stop it in court, Marsden said.

Acknowledging claims to the contrary by opponents, Marsden said the group was dedicated to non-violent civil disobedience.

We knew when we stepped in front of that cat that we would be putting ourselves in jeopardy, he said. We wanted to keep it non-violent.

Yet the action had to be outrageous and confrontational enough to draw attention to the Bald Mountain issue, he said.

Of course, the opposite edge of that sword was that it made it easy for the government to marginalize Earth First! as a radical, violent group, he said.

The Bald Mountain campaign became a rich learning ground for young activists, he said.

It was all grass roots, Marsden said. The environmental movement became more localized, less dominated by organizations in (Washington) D.C. And we brought attention to the issue.

The ONRC joined Earth First! in asking the federal court for a restraining order to halt the road construction based on an earlier U.S. Ninth Court of Appeals decision that Forest Service environmental impact studies on Northern California roadless areas were inadequate.

U.S. District Court Judge James Redden in Eugene agreed. He also said that the road contractor, Plumley Inc. of White City, was caught in the middle. The firm may have cause for action against the Forest Service, he noted.

Roselle, who later spent time in Russia working with Greenpeace and in the Rain Forest Action Network in Washington, D.C., looks back on the Bald Mountain campaign as a valuable learning experience.

People are always afraid of confrontation, and saying what you mean and doing what you think is right, Roselle said. But it's something you have to do if you really believe in your cause.

Although the Bald Mountain campaign ended early in July 1983 with a court's restraining order, the mountain's moment in the spotlight wasn't over.

Former college professor Lou Gold kept national attention on the mountain with 10 consecutive summer vigils he spent there, beginning in 1983.

After the 1987 Silver fire burned through a portion of the area, a congressional exemption allowed another mile of road and a helicopter landing to be built as part of a timber salvage project. (A portion was also burned by last year's Biscuit fire.)

Environmental activists haven't given up their fight to preserve the roadless area, which they estimate includes 80,000 acres on Bald Mountain.

However, Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth last week declared that logging and road building are yesterday's issues. He maintains that fire and invasive species pose a much greater threat, making forest thinning and controlled burning imperative in modern land management.

Four protesters, from left, Steve Marsden, Mike Roselle, Kevin Everhart and Pedro Tama, stop a bulldozer from carving a road at Bald Mountain on April 26, 1983.