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Activists Under Siege: The Death of David 'Gypsy' Chain

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David 'Gypsy' Chain up a redwood tree | Photo courtesy Earth First! Media Center

December 15 is the birthday of Brazilian environmental activist Chico Mendez, who was assassinated at age 44 on December 22, 1988 in retaliation for his work to protect the rainforest. To honor Mendez, KCET's Redefine is using this week to profile Californians whose work on behalf of the environment has been met with retaliatory violence.

Northern California's ancient redwoods seem primeval, but in 1998 their days were numbered. A century of logging had removed 95 percent of the world's old-growth coast redwood forest. Much of what remained was protected in parks, but almost 200,000 acres was owned by a timber company intent on cutting it down to pay off loans.

It had been a tough decade for the Pacific Northwest's forests. In the 1980s, timber companies had extracted record amounts of timber from trees in California, Oregon, and Washington, and forest ecosystems were crumbling. Environmental oversight might as well not have existed. The tenor of the age was best expressed by Louisiana Pacific CEO Harry Merlo, who said, in public where people could hear him, "We need everything that's out there. We log to infinity. It's ours, it's out there and we need it all. Now."

A 1991 federal court ruling changed that, holding that the feds actually needed to obey the Endangered Species Act when approving public lands timber sales. Timber sympathizers made the spotted owl a symbol of everything they hated. The President of the United States convened a 1994 summit to craft a compromise in the timber industry, which made no one happy. And in California, legions of activists came to the redwoods to protest, to intervene, to put their bodies on the line to protect the ancient trees. David 'Gypsy' Chain was one of those activists. He paid with his life.

David Nathan Chain was 24 years old in 1998. A native of Pasadena, Texas, Chain was relatively new to environmental activism. He'd become aware of the campaign to protect California's old-growth redwoods a year or two earlier, had gotten himself arrested at a protest in San Francisco and engaged in a couple of sub-rosa actions providing logistical support for tree sitters, and the cause had infused meaning into his life.

Chain took the cause seriously. In his first year in the redwoods he'd sported the white-boy dreadlocks then prevalent among the Earth First!-oriented redwood defenders, opting for a more clean-cut look to which timber workers might relate better. According to writer Patrick Beach, who profiled Chain in his book A Good Forest For Dying, Chain's new-found mission was obviously transformative, and in his last visit to his family in Texas, he was a changed man:

His body had filled out from climbing. Most striking, the black moods that sometimes had beset him seemed to have fled. He practically vibrated with a sense of mission. The young man they knew as Nathan -- his middle name, used to distinguish him from his father, David Allen Chain -- had been transformed. [Chain's mother] Cindy [Allsbrooks] had understandable maternal worries about her boy climbing 200-foot trees, and she knew nothing of the fight to save the redwoods, but Nathan was now focused on saving the world, one tall tree at a time. He was an adult, and she saw that, for him, not standing up to the enemy was tantamount to hastening the extinction of life on earth.

For Chain and many others who joined the movement to protect the redwoods, that last line was no hyperbole. Redwood forests were being cut down at a staggering pace, and part of the reason was one of Chain's fellow Houstonians.

For decades, the family-owned Pacific Lumber company had been a more or less responsible steward of its redwood forests, cutting down the valuable trees at a rate intended to give forests time to recover. PL was a remarkable company by today's standards: its worker pension fund overfunded, and hundreds of thousands of acres of old-growth redwood "assets" waiting for the right time to be cut and sold, Pacific Lumber's business plan looked toward the 22nd Century more than it did the next fiscal year.

That made PL a tempting prize for the corporate raiders of the 1980s, and in 1985, in a deal financed by junk bonds sold through the notorious Michael Milken, a Houston-based conglomerate called Maxxam acquired PL in a hostile takeover. Maxxam's owner, Texan Charles Hurwitz, had to pay off those junk bonds. The traditional way to do that was to liquidate the new acquisition's assets. PL's assets were old-growth redwoods: by junk-bond logic, those redwoods had to come down.

Pacific Lumber had no direct connection to Harry "Log To Infinity" Merlo of Louisiana Pacific, but he might as well have written the company's post-Maxxam business plan. Redwoods started coming down faster than they ever had. In 1990 activists from across the country converged on the redwoods to protest in a campaign called "Redwood Summer," which featured actions ranging from massive peaceful street protests to civil disobedience, such as activists locking themselves to logging equipment.

Redwood Summer raised the profile of the forest preservation movement, in part because of a violent attack on activists Judi Bari and Darryl Cherney that May. (That attack will be the topic of another post in this series.) But the summer came and went with Maxxam still in control of PL's ancient redwood forests.

Protests continued throughout the 1990s. emotions ran high, and tactics used against protesters were occasionally brutal. In 1997, Humboldt County sheriff's deputies swabbed immobilized protesters' eyes with cotton swabs soaked in pepper spray on at least three occasions, which a jury eventually ruled was unconstitutional use of excessive force.

One of the frustrations forest activists felt concerned a lack of responsiveness by the California Division of Forestry, the state agency charged with overseeing timber harvest plans on non-federal land throughout the state. Maxxam-PL was logging many of its parcels without adhering to state environmental law, especially those laws written to protect endangered species. CDF's typical response was to issue a citation, which Maxxam generally considered part of the cost of doing business.

Grizzly Creek Redwoods State Park | Photo: Jason Hollinger/Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons License


In September 1998, PL crews started logging a parcel called Timber Harvest Plan 172, on steep slopes near Grizzly Creek Redwoods State Park, on the Van Duzen River upstream from Eureka. Activists were outraged. The parcel, owned by PL, hadn't been properly surveyed for the endangered marbled murrelet, a seabird that nests on the moss-covered limbs of ancient trees. PL had begun cutting before the state could assess the impact of the cut on the murrelet, and the steep slopes posed a threat of landslide into the van Duzen. Earth First! activists descended on the CDF office in Fortuna to cajole the agency to investigate.

On September 17, Chain -- who had taken the name "Gypsy" during the course of his time in the redwoods -- and several of his fellow activists scattered through the parcel to attempt to find and talk to PL's logging crews, to inform them that CDF was on its way to assess the legality of the cut, and to provide a disincentive to further logging by their very presence in the forest.

Even without that 1991 federal court ruling that made the spotted owl and the marbled murrelet headline news, timber jobs would have been in trouble in the late 1990s. Most of the northwest's available forestland had already been cut, much of it in a frenzy of logging lasting around a decade. That frenzy had to slow eventually: if anything, renewed environmental restrictions may well have prolonged employment for some timber workers by slowing the rate of cut somewhat.

But that fact got lost in much of the rural discussion of the timber industry in the 1980s and 1990s. Instead, environmentalists and the wildlife they supported were blamed for the slowdown in timber industry employment. Tensions were high in towns like Scotia and Fortuna, where simply standing on the sidewalk with long hair and Birkenstocks could get you harassed. In the woods, where loggers plied their intensely dangerous trade, tensions were even higher.

In theory, when activists and PL loggers encountered each other in the woods, both sides knew what they were supposed to do. Activists were supposed to make sure the timber fellers knew they were there, engage them politely and respectfully, and explain the specific reasons the activists were on that plot of land. The workers were, officially, under strict orders from PL to down saws when activists were present, to refrain from escalation, and to alert supervisors of the situation.

On September 17, Chain and a few of his comrades fanned out through the trees on Timber Harvest Plan 172, looking for loggers by following the sounds of tree-cutting. Most of their fellow activists were in Fortuna at the CDF office pleading with the agency to come out and inspect the site, so there were fewer activists on the ground than on previous days.

Also onsite, among the crew of PL timber fellers, was Arlington Earl "A.E." Ammons, who had spent at least some of that morning chasing activists away from his worksite, brandishing a tree branch and threatening the forest activists with grievous bodily injury when they showed up to inform the crew that CDF was on its way.

"I started cussin' and screamin' . . . I chased them up the mountain. Last time I was dead serious . . . if I'd a caught one of them I would have beat them," Ammons later told police.

Ammons wasn't an outlier. Stories were rife in those days of timber workers and their family members threatening forest activists, committing vandalism and assault, often without regard to witnesses or the presence of cameras and microphones. Such threats and assaults were carried out with a kind of impunity, the local police refusing to do anything to investigate -- or even to stop acts in progress.

Ammons later said he didn't intend to kill anyone, and that the reason he chose to fell a 100-year-old, foot-thick, 13-story tall redwood in the direction of the protesters was because the tree was on a steep slope. He said he chose to aim it uphill so that it wouldn't shatter as it fell. Activists had recorded a confrontation with Ammons that day, and in that recording Ammons can be heard vowing to "make sure I got a tree coming this way."

His rage noticeably ramping up in the activists' recording, Ammons continued: "I wish I had my fuckin' pistol! I guess I'm gonna just start packin' that motherfucker in here. 'Cause I can only be nice so fuckin' long. Go get my saw, I'm gonna start fallin' into this fuckin' draw!"

The group retreated for a time as loggers felled trees in their general direction, but decided after taking a quick lunch break to make one more attempt to persuade the crew to down tools until CDF could inspect the area. They had barely brushed themselves off and started walking when Ammons succeeded in felling that 135-foot redwood tree directly onto the spot where the activists had been sitting in a circle, eating.

"If we'd stayed there (at) lunch another minute it would have been all of us," Chain's fellow activist Carey Lee Jordan told investigators.

The tree landed directly on David Chain, splitting his skull open and killing him instantly.

CDF later determined that the logging crew's operations that day violated state law.

By all accounts, David Nathan "Gypsy" Chain was a great guy. There was no task too tedious or unglamorous for him to tackle if it was in the service of the trees, or a way to make a friend's day easier. Friends described him as "elf-like," good-spirited, with a wicked smile.

News media called the conflict over Pacific Northwest forests the Timber Wars, and Chain was a nonviolent soldier in that war, not too much older than the soldiers who give their lives in any war. At 24, there was no telling whether he'd have kept his devotion to the environmental cause into his later years. He'd be in his very early forties now, and pedestrian life can drain the idealistic fervor out of you pretty fast.

It would have been nice to find out.

The Humboldt County District Attorney's office decided not to charge Ammons in Chain's death, calling the tragedy an accident, and announcing that they had actually considered charging Chain's fellow activists in his death. Chain's mother Cindy Allsbrooks and father David Chain filed a wrongful death suit against Pacific Lumber, Ammons, and another logger on the site that day.

That suit ended in a settlement three days before going to trial in October 2001. PL agreed to pay Chain's family an undisclosed amount of money, preserve the site where Chain was killed and leave the felled tree in place, and sponsor a community roundtable to bring timber families and environmentalists together to find ways to heal the rift. And a memorial was created at PL's expense, a bas-relief of David Chain on a stone pedestal along the Van Duzen River near the road into Timber Harvest Plan 172, not far from where he died.

In 2007, with Pacific Lumber in the throes of a long-anticipated bankruptcy, a forest activist visited the David Chain memorial and found that it had been vandalized. A hole had been drilled in the bas-relief's forehead, and red paint slathered across Chain's face: a mockery of the fatal injury he sustained while trying to preserve the redwoods.

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