Old-growth forest
(Photo credit: Ian Collins / Flickr)

Most visitors to California’s Humboldt County forests go there to camp and fish, leaving behind the problems of every-day life. Olive didn’t do that. Instead, she found herself fighting for a cause with worldwide consequences.

“I was arrested in the woods,” said Olive, a name she uses for privacy concerns. “A few times.”

The 24-year-old was arrested while trying to protect what activists call the last undisturbed stand of old-growth Douglas fir trees in California. The Rainbow Ridge trees are part of a temperate rainforest that stores more carbon per square acre than the Amazon. Experts say old-growth forests are one of Earth’s best bulwarks against warming temperatures. While both activists and Humboldt Redwood Company, the organization logging the land, agree that old-growth forest should be preserved – they don’t agree on a definition of old-growth forest.

There’s no universally accepted definition.

The way Olive tells it, she fell into the subject of old-growth forests by accident. She was visiting Arcata, California, and mistakenly went to a meeting aimed at organizing protesters to go out to Rainbow Ridge. Since then, their cause has become central to her life.

“As a kid I read about Julia Butterfly Hill and was like ‘Mom, I want to be a tree sitter. My mom was like you can’t – you’re seven. So, I lost track for, like, 15 years.”

What’s so good about ‘old growth’ anyway?

Old growth forests are like a giant bank account of carbon – they store an enormous amount of carbon in their trunks, and allow even more to be stored in forest soil. Although scientists long had thought old trees can no longer absorb carbon, recent studies suggest they continue to capture large amounts into old age.

Carbon in the atmosphere is one of the main causes of climate change, so preventing carbon emissions is more important than ever. Despite that, old growth forests continue to disappear globally – victims of land clearing for industrial agriculture and logging.

One reason: the lack of a single accepted definition of what constitutes old growth.

In the 1970s, researchers started using the term “old growth” to describe complex, biodiverse forests at least 150 years old. Environmentalists prefer using the term to describe forests with large, old trees undisturbed by human impact. Under the environmentalist’s characterization, much more forest would qualify as old growth. The tension between these two definitions remains unresolved.

Tom Spies, an emeritus scientist with the U.S. Forest Service research division and professor at Oregon State University’s College of Forestry, says old growth is defined by varying subjective values.

“If you approach the issue with a particular agenda,” Spies said, “you can take a really narrow definition that would exclude a lot of forest from being defined as old growth. Or you can have a very broad definition which would capture a lot of forest conditions.”

That variability makes it harder for forests to earn protection, and also contributes to a lack of recent research on the amount of old-growth forests left in the U.S. A 1992 U.S. Forest Service study pegged the amount of old growth remaining in California at 2.5 million acres, down from 9.5 million acres in the 1940s.

In Humboldt County, where Olive and other activists are determined to protect trees they define as old growth, data show that overall forest cover – including old and new growth – decreased by 7 percent between 2001 and 2018.

UC-Berkeley cooperative extension specialist and forest health expert Jodi Axelson said this decrease is especially significant as climate change has accelerated.

“There’s such a period of uncertainty around climate change,” she said. “We don’t know how forests are going to adapt.”

In March, the United Nations announced a goal to restore approximately 865 million acres of forest globally by 2030. One study made the case that tree planting can provide one-third of the climate mitigation needed to meet objectives set in the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement.

But experts like Axelson say scientists cannot anticipate how these new forests will fare with warming temperatures. They do know that old growth trees are more resilient than younger forests to drought and wildfires, conditions that are growing more severe in California.

‘They make up their own definitions’

Humboldt Redwood Company owns over 200,000 acres in Humboldt County and is certified sustainable through the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). That certification requires the company to prove that it abides by the council’s principles, which include boosting the long-term social and environmental benefits of forests, avoiding negative environmental impacts, and maintaining high conservation value areas. FSC standards also require that any area that has never been harvested be left intact.

“What we do is set the standards,” said Brad Kahn, a spokesperson for the Forest Stewardship Council. But he said that the standards are “a judgment call; if you ask Greenpeace, it’s going to be a different answer than a timber company.”

In two separate phone interviews, Humboldt Redwood Company director of forest policy John Anderson said the company does not log any old-growth trees. And that view conforms with that of Robert Hrubes, an inspector who audited the company on behalf of the Forest Stewardship Council in 2018.

“It’s not old-growth. Most of this area was meadows 120 years ago. Whatever old-growth trees are there, the company is not cutting,” Hrubes said of the trees on Rainbow Ridge.

In a 2018 response to a complaint activists registered with the FSC, Hrubes’ company, SCS Global Services, acknowledged that its representatives did not visit many of the stands activists had highlighted as being worthy of preservation based on FSC standards. The SCS response stated that auditors asked Humboldt Redwood Company to update its assessment of high conservation value forest in the area. The company’s response also said activists were conflating forest that has never been logged with old-growth forest.

Although SCS Global Services auditors wrote in the response that they identified one of the large trees in one contested stand as over 300 years old, they did not designate the stand as old growth.

“That’s why the term old-growth is limiting,” said Olive. “They make up their own definitions.”

“We’re auditing against the FSC standard,” Hrubes said.

A long struggle … ‘Losses are permanent, victories temporary’

Activists have been trying to protect Rainbow Ridge since 2014, when Humboldt Redwood Company filed a timber harvest plan on the land with CalFire. Over the years, forest defenders have set up blockades, organized protests, and risked arrest on numerous occasions in an effort to stop logging. One activist, who goes by the name Rook, this past summer lived for 60 days 100 feet up in the canopy of a Douglas-Fir tree on Rainbow Ridge. One of Olive’s arrests occurred while trying to resupply Rook in the tree.

Another strategy, which the group deployed on June 17th, was to vertically lash a 30-foot extension ladder to neighboring trees and the gate of the logging road. Olive herself sat atop the ladder, just above a flag that said “leave Rook alone” and “Protect Rainbow Ridge.” At least three protesters were arrested that day by the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office.

A week earlier, on June 10th, four activists over the age of 70 were arrested trying to prevent logging trucks from entering Rainbow Ridge.

“Elders defend elders,” the group reportedly said.

The goal of all these strategies was to impede the harvest as much as possible, but activists acknowledge that a large portion was still logged. Anderson said all of the trees that were marked for harvest were still harvested, regardless of the protests.

One of the company’s three timber harvest plans on Rainbow Ridge expired on September 12. Another is active until 2021, and a third was approved in May. Logging could restart any day.

Unless, that is, activists, scientists, logging companies, and environmentalists are able to find a shared definition for what constitutes old growth. Until then, the struggle will continue.

“When you’re doing forest defense all your losses are permanent and all your victories are temporary,” Olive said.

Will McCarthy is a freelance audio/print reporter and master’s candidate at the UC-Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.