October 5, 2021 — Protesters in the Jackson Demonstration State Forest (JDSF), which is managed by CalFire, are facing increased hostility as the end of logging season approaches. Threats of legal action and at least one instance of what sounds very much like a casual death threat have emerged in the past few days. And a fight about activists’ First Amendment rights to document political activity is already underway.
Michael Hunter is the chairman of the Coyote Valley Band of Pomo Indians, one of several entities calling for a moratorium on logging in the state forest. On Monday morning, he was in Soda Gulch with about ten other activists, filming an interaction with loggers and another man, also filming, who identified himself as a safety officer. Hunter described the exchange a few hours later on a phone call from the forest.
“They started up the chainsaws,” he recalled, “revved them up, revved them up. A couple hours later, they came back to the same spot, and we were still here, waiting. And they walked down there and did the same thing, again, acted like they were going to cut those redwoods, and I said, hey, ah, please don’t kill me by accident today. And the old man says, oh, it won’t be by accident.”
Hunter shared the video with kzyx shortly after our interview. The logger’s response is off-mic, but clearly audible.
“What these folks are doing when they go out into the forest is very brave,” says Tom Wheeler, the Executive Director of EPIC, the Environmental Protection Information Center, “because they are going out peacefully, they are asking the loggers to stop and they are being met with hostility and threats.”
In addition to threats from loggers, Wheeler says protesters are facing CalFire’s mis-use of the law to quash their First Amendment rights. Last week, he sent a stern letter to CalFire Director Thomas Porter, detailing some examples. That was in response to a letter from Jackson State Forest program manager Kevin Conway, to the president of the Mendocino Trail Stewards, a group that uses social media to drum up support for anti-logging activities. In his letter, Conway told the Mendocino Trail Stewards president, Chad Swimmer, that he had been conducting activities in the state forest that require a special use permit. Swimmer has made several short YouTube videos about the beauty of the state forest and why he believes the trees should remain standing. They feature sweeping views of the forest, an action sequence with a couple of guys on mountain bikes and their dogs speeding along a trail, and a cellist playing a tune called “Requiem for a Fallen Tree,” while seated on a redwood stump the size of a small raised stage. Most of them appear to have been filmed with a drone.
This, according to Conway’s letter, is an “unauthorized special use, (which) is a violation of State law and continuing to do so will result in criminal and civil action by the Department.”
Wheeler argues that the permit requirement for filming is unconstitutional.
“The pretext of a need for a special permit to stop their recording is obnoxious to the First Amendment,” he stated. “This is something that is just weaponizing these permits to silence critics of the Jackson. And so that is a clear violation of the First Amendment. The First Amendment does allow for something called time, place and manner restrictions. What you can’t do, though, is you can’t use these time, place, and manner restrictions as a way to covertly regulate the content of speech. ”
Conway claims the protests can be hazardous, and that a contractor was injured last week after protesters came into the area that was being logged.
But Hunter says the area is dangerous because loggers are cutting deeply into trees and letting them stand for an unknown length of time before felling them completely. In a video he live streamed on Facebook yesterday, he filmed his efforts to get the safety officer to inspect a tree that had a deep wedge cut in it. “So it puts us at risk as we’re out here,” he explained. “And then they can turn around and say that we’re trying to prevent them from fixing that. They’re trying to play that game...the wedge was here before we got here. I wonder how long it’s been there.”
Wheeler identifies filming in the forest as journalism, a category of speech that enjoys extra protection. “Journalism is obviously changing,” he noted. “Local print media has significantly declined in the last two decades. And in its place we have citizen journalists that are starting to record and to document government abuses...and this is an important form of journalism...it is perfectly within their right to document abuses by the government.”
A few minutes after he was informed that his death in the forest would not be accidental, Hunter learned that he was unauthorized to document in the area. In the video he sent kzyx yesterday, the safety officer who is filming Hunter as he films him can be heard saying, “You are in an unauthorized area, recording something...document.” Hunter is talking over him, saying, “unauthorized in a state forest. So they can do what they want to do behind the scenes.”
To Hunter, the tribal chair, the idea that he would require authorization is especially galling, on grounds that are much older than the Constitution.
“We’re Pomo,” he said. “This is our homeland. This is where we’re from. So the safety guy with the logging came up and said, you have to leave. How ironic is that? I have to leave this forest so he can continue to destruct it, to industrialize it.”
Hunter’s video ends with the three loggers shouldering their chainsaws and walking away with the safety officer, up a hill and out of sight.