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Remembering David Nathan “Gypsy” Chain

Photo credit: Penny Andrews/ James Ficklin HAVOC

In the waning months of the Campaign to Save Headwaters Forest prior to the consummation of the March 1, 1999 Headwaters Forest Agreement, known among environmental activists of the time as “The Deal,” tensions between Pacific Lumber Company loggers, private security, and Earth First! forest defenders using their bodies to slow the logging of the old-growth redwoods were on edge. Over a decade of tension and conflict—punctuated by events like the Owl Creek Massacre, the massive non-violent civil disobedience actions of September 1995, 1996, and 1997, and the violent use of Q-tip swabbed pepper-spray in the eyes of immobilized Earth First! protesters by Humboldt County Sheriffs Office—had created a power-keg waiting only for a spark to ignite and fully explode.

That spark was eventually generated by a face-to-face conflict between timber fallers and Earth First! forest defenders. On September 17, 1998, David Nathan “Gypsy” Chain was killed when irate Pacific Lumber Company timber faller, A.E. Aemmons, cut  and felled a tree directly at a group of Earth First! forest defenders on a logging site above Grizzly Creek, adjacent to Grizzly Creek Redwoods State Park.

Although video tape footage recorded by Earth First! forest defenders clearly showed the angry A.E. Aemmons verbally threatening to kill the forest defenders, then-Humboldt County District Attorney, Terry Farmer, refused to bring charges against the Pacific Lumber Company timber faller, threatening to file manslaughter charges against the forest defenders instead.

Soon after Gypsy’s death, it was revealed that the California Department of Forestry & Fire Protection had charged Pacific Lumber with at least 250 violations of the California Forest Practice Act between 1995 and 1997. These violations continued to accumulate in 1998, and in November of that year, Pacific Lumber became the first company ever to lose its logging license in California. Within less than six months, the Headwaters Forest Agreement between Charles Hurwitz’s MAXXAM Corporation and its subsidiary Pacific Lumber Company, and the State and Federal governments was signed, sealed, and delivered, transferring what is now the 7,500-acre Headwaters Forest Reserve into public ownership for the price-tag of $480 million.

To the surprise of no one, the MAXXAM Corporation eventually ran Pacific Lumber into the ground, and by 2008, PALCO had filed for bankruptcy, marking the close of nearly two decades of protests and conflict between environmentalists and the company.

Gypsy, only 24-years-old, found his way to the California redwoods all the way from Texas, and like so many of us, was captivated by the majesty of the redwood forest, but heartbroken by its ongoing destruction. The hillsides above Grizzly Creek where Gypsy was killed were an important connectivity corridor and buffer between Grizzly Creek Redwoods State Park, and old-growth redwood on then-Pacific Lumber Company property that has since been acquired by the State and added to the park. Like so many of the places at-risk in the MAXXAM-era old-growth liquidation logging days at Pacific Lumber, Grizzly Creek was a lesser-known and out-of-the-way place that remained on the chopping block until an option for purchase was included in the Headwaters Forest Agreement by the California State Legislature at the 11th hour.

This September 17, 2017, commemorated the 19-year anniversary of Gypsy’s death. March 1, 2017, marked the 18-year anniversary of the creation of the Headwaters Forest Reserve. On September 17th, EPIC sponsored and led a hike into what is now the Headwaters Forest Reserve on the Salmon Pass Trail, accessed via the Newburg Gate in Fortuna, once the site of massive demonstrations against the destruction of Headwaters, in honor of the memory of David Nathan “Gypsy” Chain. 17 local citizens joined the three-mile loop hike, which includes a traverse through a patch of remaining old-growth redwood now spared from the destructive MAXXAM-era Pacific Lumber Company chainsaws, but many of which still bare the scar of the blue-paint-stripe mark that signified the logger’s intent to cut.

Thanks to David Nathan “Gypsy” Chain and the thousands of others who came to northern California from all over the country and the world to protest the destruction of the last remaining old-growth redwoods on private lands, there today stands a Headwaters Forest Reserve, inside which stand many trees that would have otherwise surely fallen for repayment of junk-bond debt.

This article was published in the EcoNews.


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