The Secret History of Tree Spiking - Part 1

By Judi Bari - Anderson Valley Advertiser, February 17, 1993, and the Earth First! Journal, December 21, 1994; reprinted in Timber Wars, © 1994 Common Courage Press.

In May, 1987, sawmill worker George Alexander was nearly decapitated when a tree-spike shattered his sawblade at the Cloverdale Louisiana-Pacific mill in northern California.

This grisly accident sent shock waves through our community, and eventually led Northern California Earth First! to renounce tree spiking. Southern Oregon and Southern Willamette Earth First! joined us, as well as a few Earth First!ers from Stumptown, but that's all.

The rest of Earth First! still endorses spiking, and many of them even today react to our no-spiking policy by denouncing us as traitors and dismissing us as wimps, without ever considering the reasons for our actions. Because of this, because there are so many new Earth First!ers who don't know this history, I think it is time to re-examine the issue of tree-spiking. A few years ago, George Alexander and his wife Laurie agreed to talk to me about the 1987 incident. The following account is based on my conversation with them.

"I was the perfect victim," began George Alexander, "I was nobody." George, a lifetime Mendocino County resident and son of an old-time Willits logger, was 23 years old and just married, with his wife Laurie three months pregnant at the time of the accident. George's job at the mill was called off-bearer. The off-bearer operates a huge band saw that makes the first rough cut on logs as they come into the mill, sectioning off slices of wood that will later be cut to standard lengths and planed for finished lumber.

Off-bearer is one of the most dangerous jobs in the mill. The saw that George Alexander worked on was sized for old-growth logs-52 feet around, with a ten-inch blade of high tensile steel. "That saw was so powerful that when you turned it off you could make three more cuts through a 20-foot log before it stopped," George told me. One of the dangers of working as off-bearer is that if the blade hits a hard knot or metal debris (from old fences, choker chains, nails, etc., embedded in the wood), the sawteeth can break. To protect against this, workers have to wear a heavy face mask and stay on the alert, checking each log as it goes through.

George knew the job was dangerous, but he also was confident of his skill. "I always figured that if the blade ever hit me, it would hit me on the urn." he said. He knew every sound the saw made, and could tell by listening when something was going wrong. He also knew to look for the tell-tale black stains that usually show up on the smooth surface of the de-barked logs if metal is present in the wood.

Although George Alexander was an LP employee, he was no company man. Louisiana-Pacific had earned his disrespect long ago through the callous way they treat their employees. "We're not even people to them," he said. "All they care about is production." The perfect example of this L-P management attitude was Dick Edwards, the day shift foreman. Edwards was always after everyone, but he seemed to go out of his way to harass George. In the months before the tree spiking, Edwards would often stand on the catwalk overlooking George's work station with LP Western Division head Joe Wheeler, just watching George work.

L-P has never been known to spend too much time maintaining equipment or worrying about worker safety. But in the weeks preceding the tree spiking incident, conditions had gotten worse than usual. The bandsaw blade was wobbling when it ran, and cracks had begun to appear in it. But when George and other workers complained, Edwards shined them on, saying the new blades were not in yet, and they would have to ma1ke do. "That blade was getting so bad," said George, "That I almost didn't go to work that day."

Normally when a big tree is sawed, they start from the outside and square off the edges first. But the tree that George was sawing on May 8, 1987 was a 12-inch pecker-pole, and because it was so small he took the first cut down the middle. Halfway through the 20-foot log, the saw hit a 60-penny nail. "That nail must have been recently placed and countersunk," George told me. He had checked the log when he started cutting it and had seen no sign of the metal. And because he hit the nail square-on, there was no warning sound. "Usually there's a high-pitched metal sound and you have time to get out of the way," explained George. "This time I didn't hear nothing but 'BOOM!'"

The next thing he knew, George was lying on the floor covered with his own blood. "I knew I was dying. And all I could think about was Dick Edwards, and all the shit he gave me when I complained about the saw. I tried to get up, but they pushed me back down. I tried to beckon to Edwards so he would come close enough for me to get my hands around his throat in a death grip. If I had to die, I wanted to take that bastard with me."

A 12-foot section of the huge sawblade had broken off and hit George in the throat and face, ripping through his face mask and cutting into his jugular vein. His jaw was broken in five places and a dozen teeth were knocked out. The blade was wrapped around him, and his co-workers had to blowtorch it off while they tried to keep him from bleeding to death.

"The saw hit me flat," said George. "If it had hit me with the teeth I'd be dead. I'm only here because my friend Rich Phillips held my veins together in the hour before the ambulance came."

LP didn't call the press right away, but when they did they had a field day. "Tree Spiking Terrorism," screamed the headline in the Santa Rosa Press Democrat. And even though there was no evidence that Earth First! was involved, the Eureka Times-Standard proclaimed, Earth First! Blamed for Worker's Injuries." Mendocino County Sheriff Shea put out a widely quoted press release that was almost gleeful in its condemnation.

"This heinous and vicious criminal act is a felony offense, punishable by imprisonment in State Prison for up to three years," he wrote, "Still undetermined in the investigation is the motive of the suspect or suspects, to deter logging operations or inflict great bodily injury and death upon lumber processing personnel," Even Louisiana-Pacific President Harry Merlo got into the fray, blaming "terrorism in the name of environmental goals" for George's injury.

Meanwhile, George and Laurie Alexander had a different take on the incident. "I'm against tree spiking," George told the press from his hospital bed. "But I don't like clearcutting either." Laurie also tried to include L-P in the list of culprits. "I hate L-P," she told me. "I like trees." But the press wouldn't print a word Laurie said, and George's comments about mill safety and clearcutting were mentioned in only one news article, by Eric Brazil of the San Francisco Examiner.

Earth First!, on the other hand, was much less generous in their reaction, displaying practically no sympathy for this innocent man who had just been through such a terrifying ordeal caused by a spiked tree. And after advocating the tactic for years even putting out a manual on how to do it and teaching tree spiking workshops at [the] Earth First! Rendezvous, when the shit came down they tried to disassociate themselves from it. "This is probably the first time we've made international news, and we weren't even involved in it," was one comment attributed to Earth First! in the San Francisco newspapers. Dave Foreman came off sounding even more flippant, as he was quoted as saying, "I think it's unfortunate that somebody got hurt, but you know I quite honestly am more concerned about old growth forests, spotted owls, wolverines, and salmon - and nobody is forcing people to cut those trees," This moral arrogance didn't win Earth First! many supporters in our area. In fact it discredited Earth First!'s claim of non-involvement, and made it even easier to tar us with the incident and portray us as unfeeling "terrorists."

But did Earth First! spike that tree? The answer is almost definitely no. Back in 1987, Earth First! was just getting started in Mendocino County, and the only issue at the time was old growth. There was no consciousness yet about baby tree logging, and the spiked tree was only 12 inches in diameter, There were signs that this may have been the work of a disturbed individual. LP traced the tree to a cut on Cameron Ridge Road near the coastal town of Elk, where neighbors had been complaining about LP's liquidating the forest and threatening their water supply. One of the local residents was a strange 50-year-old man with bleached blond hair, who drifted in and out of the area and mostly kept to himself. He liked guns, and was described by neighbors as a survivalist. Before the tree spiking incident, loggers reported finding mutilated animals around the site--a beheaded deer hanging from a tree, a skinned dog draped over a bulldozer - hardly Earth First! tactics, to say the least.

The Mendocino County Sheriff was certainly aware of the survivalist tree spike suspect, but they were strangely quiet about him, and the case was eventually dropped without any charges being filed. Recently, when I got my FBI files, I found out why. The sheriff's reports on the spiking were included in my file, and I learned that the suspect's name was Bill Ervin. He lived in southern California, but he owned property in Elk and sometimes stayed there in a crude cabin. Ervin freely admitted spiking trees on his own side of the property line, and he did it because L-P is well known in this area for cutting a few feet past their property line and taking their neighbors' trees. "I may get crucified for this," Ervin said when questioned by the sheriff. "I may be in error, but I understand that one can spike trees on one's own property."

Bill Ervin made no secret of the trees he spiked. He marked them with yellow flagging and left the spikes sticking part way out of the trees. He borrowed the hammer from his neighbor and told him what he intended to use it for. He also told a truck driver at the LP logging site, and he told a California Highway Patrol cop. So it is reasonable to assume that LP may have known in advance that there were spiked trees in the area. But if this was the work of a lone crazy person, that still begs the question of where he even got the idea of spiking the tree. The answer is probably Dave Foreman's book, Eco-Defense.

There is also reason to believe that the tree that broke George Alexander's sawblade was not spiked on Bill Ervin's property, but rather was hit while lying on a log deck after it was cut. The saw hit the spike about nine feet up the tree. If you figure a foot for the stump, that means it would have to have been spiked ten feet off the ground. Bruce Anderson described the technique like this in the May 27, 1987, Anderson Valley Advertiser: "One average-sized person teams up with a midget. The midget gets up on the shoulders of his partner to hammer in the spikes. LP can nail those pesky terrorists before they nail the trees by arresting any stray midgets they spot roaming around Mendocino County."

Bill Ervin also insists that he used only 16-penny (approximately six-inch) nails on the trees he spiked. No other size nail was found when the sheriffs and LP security cops inspected the trees in the area, and there is no evidence that Ervin ever possessed either any larger nails or a hammer big enough to pound them in with. Yet the nail in the log at the Cloverdale mill was a 60-penny, 11-inch spike. The sheriffs gave Bill Ervin a lie detector test, however, and they claim he failed on the following questions: "Did you spike the logs at the log deck on Cameron Road?" and "Did you spike any trees outside your property?"

So all in all, it's still unclear who was at fault in the Cloverdale tree-spiking. We don't even know if the tree was spiked to keep it from being cut, or to create a martyr and make Earth First! look like terrorists. But it really doesn't matter whether an Earth First!er, a lone survivalist, or L-P president Harry Merlo himself spiked that tree. The point is that if you advocate a tactic, you had better be prepared to take responsibility for its results. And I don't want anything to do with causing the kind of injuries suffered by George Alexander.

While George was convalescing from those injuries, he was contacted by someone from the yellow ribbon gang of pro-timber stooges. George doesn't remember her name, just that it was "some woman from Humboldt County." She asked him to go on tour with her denouncing Earth First! for tree spiking. And George refused.

No matter what you think of LP's forest practices, this much should be clear: George Alexander is not the enemy. He has no say over his bosses' policies, either in or out of the mill. I have heard Earth First!ers say that doesn't matter, he shouldn't be working at an LP mill. Well, I shouldn't be driving a car either, but that doesn't make it okay to put a bomb in it.

After George refused to go on tour denouncing us, he was forced to return to work at L-P before his injuries even healed. His and Laurie's baby was about to be born, he needed money, and there were not many jobs where he and his family live. George got worker's compensation for the time he was off work, but LP didn't offer him a cent for the trauma and hardship he suffered. They made a big public show of putting up a $20,000-dollar reward for the information leading to the conviction of the spiker, but George Alexander had to file a lawsuit against Louisiana Pacific to get anything at all. And while the company was crying crocodile tears over his injuries in public, in private they were fighting him tooth and nail over his damage claim. He ended up with just $9,000 and an involuntary transfer to night shift. "They used my name all over the country," George told me. "Then they laid me off when the mill closed down."

"LP is just sorry I didn't die," said George Alexander. "Yeah, I know," I replied. "They're sorry I didn't die, too."