Treetop protesters try to halt rape of the redwoods

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SECURITY GUARDS from the logging company appeared in the forest at breakfast time. A hundred feet up, environmentalists were camping out in two redwoods in a last-ditch effort to save the ancient trees from destruction. But the Pacific Lumber Company had decided enough was enough.

Experts scaled one of the redwoods, hacking off limbs and branches as they went, so none of the demonstrators could follow them up. When they reached the top, the activist known as Soma fled his perch by shimmying across a rope slung between his tree and another occupied by his friend Midnight. Rather than follow him, the security men tossed his tarpaulin covers, sleeping bag, food and water to the ground. They then descended and waited to starve out the pair.

Pacific Lumber is in the process of destroying some of the last old- growth redwood groves in the world, logging its way through vast swathes of Humboldt County in northern California. Only the ardour of environmentalists, volunteering to live in the treetops for months on end, appears to be slowing down the company.

Aside from Soma and Midnight, who eventually returned to earth without a struggle, there were tree-sitters dotted all around the Headwaters Forest. Julia Hill, known to her friends as Butterfly, has been tree-sitting for more than 10 months - longer than anyone else. Nearly all belong to the environmentalist group Earth First!

A fortnight ago they were joined by two friends from the village of Freshwater who became so appalled at the logging near their homes that they quit their jobs to set up home in trees, too.

What the protesters want is to safeguard the groves of the oldest redwoods, the world's tallest trees, some of which are more than 1,000 years old, and stop Pacific Lumber from stripping the hillsides without regard for endangered wildlife, soil erosion, or even the risk of landslides that have engulfed one village and are slowly silting up salmon streams.

The company, meanwhile, sees the struggle as merely an infringement of private property. It has shown little compunction in its attempts to expel the tree-sitters. Butterfly says the loggers have threatened to cut down her tree while she is still in it. They have blown horns all night to try to deprive her of sleep. A helicopter once flew within a few feet of her tree to try to blow away her tent.

"They underestimate the power of human commitment," she said in an interview over her cellphone. "We weren't brought into this world to hate, but to appreciate the incredible gift of the web of life."

Attempts to evict the tree-sitters have grown noticeably softer since the death of an activist on the ground a month ago. David Chain, known as Gypsy, was crushed to death by a falling redwood as he and a group of seven others tried to talk loggers out of clearing a habitat for the marbled murrelet, an endangered local bird.

The company and the sheriff's department insist Gypsy's death was an accident, and that the loggers had no idea the protesters were nearby. But a videotape shot at the scene shows one of the loggers threatening the environmentalists and shouting: "Get outta here, otherwise I'll f-ing make sure I got a tree coming this way!"

Furious at the police's failure to investigate the death, the protesters blocked the logging road by chaining themselves together. Company employees threw bottles at them and fired a paintball gun. Three weeks ago, the police tried to break the chain, and squirted pepper spray into two woman protesters' eyes. Again, the environmentalists demanded an official investigation into the use of excessive force, but nothing happened.

California has lost 97 per cent of the redwoods it had a century ago, but the anger directed at Pacific Lumber dates back just 13 years, when the company was taken over by the Texas tycoon, Charles Hurwitz.

The mechanics of the takeover, as well as Mr Hurwitz's involvement with the junk-bond king Michael Milken, are subject of a federal investigation. On the ground the company ended its policy of sustainable logging to increase the clearance rate threefold of the company's 210,000 acres. The wood is sliced up and turned into San Francisco sundecks.

Mr Hurwitz agreed to hand over 7,000 acres of the Headwaters Forest - barely one-ninth of the whole - to the federal government in exchange for $480m (pounds 287m). However, the Justice Department originally valued the land at just $20m.

Meanwhile, Pacific Lumber loggers have admitted that the frenetic current workload is likely to dry up in a few years, because all the trees will be gone. "There's nothing we can do," said one."If we were to protest, we would all get fired and replaced in two minutes."