Fighting Disaster Capitalism in Oregon’s Fire-Burned Forests

Matron Saint of Last Chances #climate #press release

Drawing of a massive tree with great detail

While communities across the West continue to rebuild from the literal ashes of fire seasons past, Oregonians are witnessing the timber industry hastily take what’s left of our fire- burned forests. Post-fire logging is the West’s brand of disaster capitalism. In the aftermath of wildfires, the timber industry turns a profit by advancing extensive logging programs in the name of “forest resilience” and “community fire safety.” Cloaked in nice- sounding euphemisms, post-fire clearcuts are still advancing on public lands and National Forests around Oregon.

Immediately after the historic 2020 Labor Day Fires, all fire impacted public land was closed to the public. In the name of public safety, gates were locked and no-trespassing signs were erected in front of well-loved national forest campgrounds, trails and backroads.

Then came the timber sales. Fire impacted private land was liquidated just weeks after the fires were out, and public land was soon to follow, with public land managers working hand in hand with Big Timber to advance plans to post-fire clearcutting. Now, post-fire so-called “salvage” logging is planned behind locked gates in the historic North Umpqua and McKenzie rivers, the Santiam State forest, and the beloved Breitenbush watershed— the site of decades of forest defense history.

The Breitenbush watershed is home to the beloved Breitenbush Hot Springs Retreat Center and surrounded by a majestic old growth forest that is home to spotted owl, salmon, and a myriad of predators. Before the forced removal of indigenous people by colonizers, this was a historic gathering place for fishing, hunting and soaking in the natural hot springs. Since the white people began managing this forest, it has seen an endless string of threats in the form of industrial logging.

In this very place on a snowy Easter Sunday morning in 1989, forest defense activists stood in the way of logging machinery in an attempt to save centuries old trees from the chainsaws. Using a multi-tiered creative blockade of the road, activists managed to hold off logging for five days before being forcibly removed by the police. Now known as the infamous “Easter Massacre,” the ultimately unsuccessful direct action resulted in the logging of ancient trees in Breitenbush. Since the Easter Massacre, the Breitenbush watershed has been the site of forest defense activism again and again.

Following the historic 2020 fires, the Willamette Forest Service clearcut old growth forest including spotted owl habitat along salmon-bearing streams around the Breitenbush summer home cabins. The Forest Service failed to notify the cabin owners before the cutting, and those who lost their cabins in the fires were forced to endure an even greater tragedy upon returning to find the surrounding old growth forest clearcut. Soon after, the Forest Service partnered with the Oregon Department of Transportation to clearcut massive 200ft corridors on either side of the road system that weaves through the area. Now, the Breitenbush watershed is once again on the chopping block as the Willamette National Forest advances another plan to clearcut century-old fire-impacted trees along the Breitenbush river. Even as conservation groups have filed a lawsuit to stop the cutting, the Forest Service (in keeping with its scandalous tradition of lawless logging), could very well move forward with clearcutting before the judge ever gets the chance to rule on the case.

One need only look to the devastating cutting that has already happened for ample reasons to oppose what’s to come. Post- fire logging turns fire resilient forests into tinder box plantations and sets the forest back decades along its natural cycle of post- fire rebirth. It also fuels climate change by releasing most of the forest’s stored carbon back into the atmosphere. The ongoing rampant post-fire logging in Breitenbush and across Oregon will forever alter the landscape of our bioregion. That is, if we don’t stop it.

Luckily, as long as there are forests standing, there will be those who stand in the way of the machines that seek to level them. In a beautiful testament to this fact, on a freezing morning this November, hours away from any city center, over fifty folks defied the federal closure order seeking to keep the public out of federal lands and took a stand to draw attention to the lawless post-fire logging proposed in Breitenbush. In an inspiring show of love for the Breitenbush watershed, community members blocked the logging road with an impressive slash pile and a repurposed fire truck, and behind the barricade held a day of storytelling, community building, teach-ins, live music and education about the forest at stake. After a confrontation with police, all 50 community members left without arrest, but promised to be back in a not-so symbolic action if the Forest Service moves forward with logging there.

As I have written here, this will not be the first or the last forest defense struggle to happen in Breitenbush. Our forest management agencies suffer from a powerful amnesia and will continue to introduce irresponsible timber sale after timber sale. Thankfully though, our movement does not suffer from the same memory loss. While the Forest Service will keep coming at our forests with chainsaws, forest defenders are building power, growing our networks, and looking to a better future. And thankfully, we need not look so far.

For thousands of years the indigenous peoples of Cascadia lived in harmony with fire, often partnering with it in cultural burning practices used across the landscape. These practices are being reclaimed by tribes like the Karuk in Northern California as a way to bring fire back where it belongs and reduce the severity of fire in places that have a history of industrial mismanagement.

We can also take leadership from indigenous land defenders working to rematriate land occupied by timber companies. Against most odds, the Mapuche people in Peru are waging an incredible asymmetric battle to kick Big Timber off their ancestral lands. They are setting logging machinery on fire and then working with fire to remove young homogenous timber plantations and initiate a process of ecosystem recovery and life-affirming land management. The Unis’tot’en in northern British Columbia have held off the construction of a network of fossil fuel pipelines through their traditional lands by occupying their historic forests and blockading the way with gardens, youth centers and homes for their people.

xamples are part of our path forward. They’re what we should remember when things feel intractable and hopeless. They are what I hold in my heart as I stand in front of the machinery of destruction.

Right now, some of the last remaining 3% of native, old growth forests are being targeted for post-fire logging. Forest defenders are mobilizing to oppose the logging planned in Breitenbush and plan to do everything we can to protect what’s left. But if we’re going to win, we need more of us. So join us in the Breitenbush watershed, or fight where you stand. BUT PLEASE, FOR THE LOVE OF IT ALL, FIGHT.