John “Tree Angelo” Barksdale can’t say exactly how many days he’s spent on a plywood platform 100 feet up a Douglas fir in a northern section of the Capitol State Forest, but he said Thursday he isn’t coming down until the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) makes a deal to prevent 20 acres of maturing forest from being clear cut.
“Most of the Capitol Forest was clear cut by the 1950s. It was like a moonscape, with nothing left,” said the 34-year-old outdoor educator who lives in Tumwater. “That this is an exception, I think, is special.”
According to a news release issued Thursday by the Cascadia Forest Defenders, a 25-year-old, Oregon-based environmental activist group, a blockade was established Sept. 29 by Barksdale and a couple of friends to stop logging equipment from being brought onto the site.
On Wednesday, law-enforcement officers from DNR, the Thurston County Sheriff’s Office, the Washington State Patrol and the state Department of Fish & Wildlife “raided” the blockade and ordered three activists to leave, the release says. Two on the ground gathered their belongings and walked away, but Barksdale refused to budge from his perch, which is rigged with ropes to an abandoned Ford Explorer parked across a proposed logging road, according to the release.
Barksdale, who isn’t a member of the Cascadia Forest Defenders, said his 4-foot by 8-foot platform is rigged in such a way that if the vehicle is moved or the anchor line is cut, he’ll tumble down a steep slope or be pulled higher into the canopy.
The Explorer is filled with cement, said Barksdale, who is wearing a harness attached to a safety lanyard. He said he’s got plenty of food and water and has a stockpile of camping and rain gear.
He said the 20 acres he’s trying to protect is comprised of 90- to 100-year-old Douglas firs, the kind of trees old enough to sequester huge volumes of carbon, a necessary protection against climate change. Older forests are also considered naturally more resistant to wildfires than younger forests because they shed their lower branches as they grow, eliminating “fire ladders” to the upper canopy, he said.
“One of my friends pointed out there’s starting to be wild ginger, and down the way, there’s a large stand of hemlocks,” both signs that a forest is maturing and becoming healthier, Barksdale said.
About 40 people gathered Thursday for a rally at a gate that stretches across a logging road leading into the area, one protester said in a text message. Barksdale said he’s about a quarter-mile northwest of the gate.
In February, DNR auctioned off 187 acres in eight sections or “units” of the 110,000-acre forest, which together are known as the Chameleon timber sale, to Murphy Company, said Bobbi Cussins, DNR’s communications director.
“It’s state trust land that’s been harvested and regrown for many years,” Cussins said.
Cussins said Thursday she didn’t know the sale price, but online records show the opening bid for the timber was a little over $3.3 million. She said DNR holds the land in trust, and money from the timber sale will be paid to Thurston County, where the land is located.
The average age of the trees in the 187 acres sold to Murphy Company is 66 years, she said, though Cussins didn’t know how old the oldest trees are.
She said the activist who remained in the tree was verbally cited for trespassing on Wednesday.
“We have a negotiator (at the scene) to hopefully get him down peacefully,” Cussins said. “All work on that timber sale was paused on Oct. 1 because of the person in the tree. No cutting, as far as I know, has happened.”
Though some downed tree branches and other debris have been removed from around the cement-filled Explorer, the vehicle and apparatus supporting the platform have remained undisturbed, she said.
Murphy Company was founded in 1909 and is run by members of the third and fourth generations of the Murphy family; the Eugene, Oregon-based company manufactures veneer, plywood and engineered wood and has five mills in Oregon and a sixth in Elma, Grays Harbor County, according to the company’s website. A phone message left with a receptionist Thursday was not immediately returned.
According to field notes included in DNR’s notice of sale for the Chameleon timber sale, five of the 8 units are dominated by large Douglas firs, and Unit 1 — which is where Barksdale is located — “contains a large amount of oversized high quality logs.”
The notice of sale also says the purchaser cannot log the land between Nov. 1 and April 30 without express permission from the contract administrator, with all work scheduled to be completed by Oct. 31, 2022.
The sale area falls within the Medicine Creek treaty area, and DNR has intergovernmental agreements for vehicle access with the Squaxin Island, Puyallup, Muckleshoot and Nisqually tribes, according to the notice.
The Treaty of Medicine Creek, signed by territorial Gov. Isaac Stevens in 1854, was the first in a series of treaties that would cede most of present-day Western Washington to the United States, The Seattle Times has previously reported. South Sound Native people, including the Nisqually, Squaxin and Puyallup tribes, signed away some 4,000 square miles of their homeland, from the South Sound all the way north to Vashon Island.
DNR’s Chameleon timber-sale notice says the purchaser is also required to notify the contract administrator if habitats or nests are discovered for several species, including bald eagles, peregrine falcons, murrelets, Aleutian Canada geese, wolves, grizzly bears, Oregon silverspot butterflies and bull trout.
A YouTube video posted about the Chameleon timber sale in July shows the diverse plant life found in the Capitol State Forest and notes there are few stands like it left in Southwestern Washington.
For Barksdale, he sees logging operations in the Capitol State Forest as a continuation of colonial infringement on South Sound Native people.
“The land is still being taken away from them,” he said. “This isn’t even old growth (forest), but this is something that’s starting to be like that if we just leave it alone.”
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly quoted DNR’s Bobbi Cussins as describing the auctioned land as “capital” for the state.