Loggers, environmentalists collide in rural Gold Rush community
Eds: Disregard second version of story that moved on state lines; stands as state version; a version also moving on West wire
With AP Photos RJGX801,CAGRV801
By SCOTT SONNER
Associated Press Writer
NEVADA CITY, Calif. (AP) - Timber industry officials say an environmental group trying to halt logging on private land in the Sierra Nevada is a fringe outfit with little public support.
But the Yuba Nation protesters who were arrested this summer and will be in court Friday insist they'll be even more of a force when the winter thaws, agitating in the nonviolent footsteps of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.
''My crimes are to halt the bigger crimes,'' said Heidi Starr, 36, one of the five arrested in June.
Either way, local prosecutors in this Gold Rush town want to try to block the migration of anti-logging activism from the Pacific Northwest and California coast to their quiet community 50 miles west of Lake Tahoe.
So on Friday, the Nevada County district attorney will try to persuade a superior court judge to force the militant band of environmentalists to pay for the cost of their own arrests on the property of one of the area's biggest landowners, Sierra Pacific Industries.
It's believed to be one of the first attempts anywhere to punish protesters using restitution laws normally reserved to reimburse law enforcement agencies for such expenses as searching for lost skiers and hikers.
And it's drawing attention to a skirmish in the Sierra that could be the environmental battleground - increasing pressure to scale back logging not only on national forests and other public lands but on privately owned forests, too.
''It's a symptom of the extreme environmental movement,'' said Rep. Wally Herger, R-Calif., a conservative ally of the industry.
''They are moving from the federal lands because with the help of the Clinton-Gore administration, they have pretty much shut down the federal lands,'' said Chris West, vice president of American Forest Resource Council in Portland, Ore.
An eclectic group, Yuba Nation includes former Earth First! activists, local teen-agers and an ex-lobbyist for the National Audubon Society in Washington D.C.
''This is not your local mom and pop in tennis shoes who are sincerely concerned about the environment,'' said Tom Nelson, Sierra Pacific Industries' director of forest policy.
''These are more on the fringe. They had some people come in and give them training on civil disobedience,'' he said.
Yuba Nation targeted Sierra Pacific because of its plans to clear cut 1 million acres in various rotations over the next 100 years. The Sacramento Bee calculated that amounts to about one of every 40 acres of forest in California.
''They have been very clear in stating they want to convert 70 percent of their 1.5 million acres of native forests into tree plantations,'' said Kevin Hoeke, a lawyer for American Lands.
''They are sort of the Wal-Mart of the timber industry,'' Molly Pettit said.
Pettit was one of those arrested and charged with trespassing and resisting arrest for blocking Sierra Pacific logging operations near the Yuba River. During ''Sierra Summer'' the protesters chained themselves to logging equipment and temporarily closed a private logging road with huge, wooden tripods.
Starr, who moved to Nevada City five years ago, said the bid for restitution is ''designed to deter people in the future from exercising their rights - an attempt at suppression.
''They perceive us to be organizers and leaders. They think if they can take out the leaders, everyone else will be afraid to step up,'' she said.
It won't work, said Brian Vincent, the former Audubon lobbyist now working for the American Lands Alliance in Nevada City.
''When the chainsaws start up again next year, Sierra Pacific Industries can bet Yuba Nation will be on the front lines again defending the forests from the company's logging rampage.''
Nelson said the protests have become commonplace on the California coast, where environmentalists battled Pacific Lumber Co. over the Headwaters forests.
''But it is a relatively new phenomena inland,'' he said from company headquarters near Redding.
Vincent is one of those helping to orchestrate the new stronghold. He grew up in rural Maryland and got a job as a lobbyist for the National Audubon Society in Washington D.C. He worked there from 1988-93, lobbying primarily for protection of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Later, he joined efforts to halt logging of old-growth forests in the Pacific Northwest for the Western Ancient Forest Campaign, which led to his role with the nonprofit American Lands Alliance.
''I had never heard of Nevada City in my life,'' Vincent said.
''I just wanted to get out of D.C. I wanted to save places I could go visit.
''If all you do is look at a map, you can fall victim to compromising too easily because you have no relationship to that area. It's just a spot on the map.''
This spot is among some of the last unspoiled stretches of the Sierra, where other conservationists won a temporary settlement suspending logging on 12 national forests until the Forest Service completes an environmental review.
Local residents rallied to help win federal protection of the Yuba River as a Wild and Scenic River in recent years but hadn't paid much attention to the logging plans on public or private lands around them, Vincent said.
''People were taken by surprise. They woke up one day and found our community was being clear cut,'' he said. ''And playing by the rules wasn't working, so we decided we had to take direct action.''
The tension heightened when Nevada County District Attorney Michael Ferguson charged Starr and Vincent with conspiracy, based in part on an opinion piece they wrote for a local newspaper encouraging participation in nonviolent protests.
Their April 22 op-ed in The Union of Grass Valley said that ''thanks to SPI, nonviolent direct action is now thriving in Nevada County.''
Under the conspiracy charge, Starr and Vincent faced up to a year in prison.
''There was an alarming zeal on the (prosecutors)' behalf to really take an aggressive stand on this initially,'' Hoeke said.
Vincent said, ''To spend a year in jail for exercising our right to free speech and writing an opinion piece in a newspaper is like something that would happen in Yugoslavia.''
Ferguson later dropped the conspiracy charge and agreed to a plea bargain that will keep the protesters from jail.
But he's adamant about collecting $4,500 in restitution for the logging contractors for lost work and $1,000 in reimbursement for police.
He won't say what he will do if the defendants are arrested again.
''We'll just have to pass that bridge when we come to it next summer if any similar acts occur,'' Ferguson said.
''That's one reason I'm being aggressive on the restitution and the emergency response expenses for law enforcement,'' he said.
Conservationists are pressing for legislation in California that would allow counties to implement their own logging restrictions on private lands.
Hoeke acknowledged that halting logging on public land is one thing, stopping a private land owner from logging his trees is another.
''Clearly, our nation has a strong property rights ethic,'' he said.
''No forest activist I know of has ever implied that a forest land owner isn't allowed to make a reasonable profit on their land through forestry.
''But what is allowed under forest practice rules and what they are planning to do is nowhere in the middle of the spectrum. There is great room for improvement without trampling on their property rights,'' he said.
West, whose trade group represents more than 100 forest products manufacturers in 12 Western states, said California protects private forests with the most comprehensive regulations in the nation.
''There is a responsibility for protecting some public resources on private land. But it can reach a point where the protection of those private land makes the value of the land drop to the point it is unusable,'' West said.
''It opens up a whole can of worms and I think we are all trying to see how it pans out.''