Saving the Northeastern Woodlands

The Feeling of History

Hattie introduced herself to me in the courtroom pew. “I’m from Athol,” she said. “Nothing ever happens here.” Then Lawyer Luke gave his opening statement and I thought, “Whoa, this feels history-making!”

A cameraman from the local Channel 22 News (WWLP) was set up in the Orange District Court on February 4, 2020, livestreaming the event for defendants who conducted nonviolent civil disobedience to protect a biodynamically significant section of the Wendell State Forest (Massachusetts).

For the journalistic account by David McLellan, see Wendell Forest protesters in court for summertime arrests. The following is more of an ethnographic account, to provide a broad sense of the overall context.

The Necessity Defense

To present a necessity defense, one has to show that there is a clear and present danger, that the actions taken have had an effect, and that the individuals engaging in those actions exercised all legal options prior to engaging in the behaviors which have landed them in court.

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Mary Thomas provided the essential fact: “The media focuses almost entirely on tropical forests…people are not aware of the rate here [emphasis added]…their attention is drawn away…” She is talking about the rate of deforestation, which is higher in the United States than in Brazil (i.e., the Amazon) and is twice as much as in the Philippines.

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“The rate of deforestation there makes our rate even more significant.”

As deforestation picks up pace in other countries, our ability to slow down and even reverse the overall rate of deforestation in the United States increases in importance. In Massachusetts, based on work from Harvard University’s Wildlands and Woodlands project, the current projection is to lose 1.2 million acres of the Northeastern Woodlands in the next 40 years. The woodlands across Massachusetts are home to the largest intact forest in the United States proforestation here is vital far beyond the Commonwealth.

For the most part, the prosecutor did not cross-examine most of the witnesses, allowing their testimony to stand. The results with the few witnesses she did cross-examine were harsh. For instance, asking James Thornley — first if he can distinguish among red pine trees, white pine trees, and oaks (he can), and second, if he is able to assess whether one of these types of tree species was at risk of decline because of overpopulation of one of the other species? Her point was relative to the Brook Road section of the Wendell State Forest that the Commonwealth’s Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) had prescribed for logging. Mr Thornley’s answer, “The red pine stand was not part of the Brook Road section,” eliciting chuckles from the other witnesses and observers in the pews. The prosecutor’s remove from the life of the forest, from the livingness of the trees, was painfully apparent.

Earlier, in her cross-examination of Professor Bill Stubblefield about the DCR’s silviculture prescription. “Yes,” he replied, commenting on the “typical language” that they use and the “very familiar terms.”

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Professor Stubblefield’s point is simple: the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation is still following principles designed to promote profit at the expense of the planet. As Erik Burcroff explained:
these plans “all look pretty much the same” throughout the Commonwealth. Mr Burcroff is the Steward of the forest cutting plans for the town of Plainfield MA, and “sees about ten of these plans a year.” This cookie-cutter approach of copying and pasting the same logic into DCR plans no matter the unique characteristics of each forested area or the changing conditions of the climate is desperately out of date. This is the problem with the prosecutor relying on previous judicial rulings against the climate protectors — the thinking being applied is archaic, not contemporary.

Why this matters especially here in Massachusetts is that we are responsible for the largest intact portion of the historic Northeastern Woodlands — and this is the largest forest left in North America. As Mary Thomas explained, “The rate of deforestation there [in Brazil, in the Philippines and elsewhere, globally] makes our rate even more significant(emphasis added).

Thinking *and Acting* Against Climate Change

Listening to the witnesses, a more thoughtful group of committed citizens you’ll be challenged to find. Lawyer Luke opened the defense with Margaret Mead’s famous quote:

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The range of testimony was compelling. Most of the witnesses had scientific training. All of them had intimate experience and knowledge of forests: what forests feel like to human beings who appreciate them, how forests function — serving life of all kinds, and what forests mean to the quality of life on earth now, in the era of anthropogenic global warming. The witnesses had advocated for this forest, through every means available. At every turn they were disregarded. Priscilla Lynch summed up the efforts to prevent this act of deforestation through every legal means available as “trauma…that was not given any attention at all.”

The trauma is not solely to the human beings who have lived in or near the Brook Road section of the Wendell State Forest, but also to ecological diversity and the chances of a livable climate for this planet. As Professor Stubblefield explained, “All trees are not equal. The older and bigger a tree gets the better they are at capturing and storing carbon.”

Under these conditions, it is quite obvious that the citizens engaged in civil disobedience attempted to prevent this tragedy. They followed the prescribed channels for interacting with governmental decision-making (which were generally ignored), invented legal channels that didn’t exist (making appeals when no formal appeal structure was available), and otherwise exerted every effort to inform and educate the public about the terrible threat of deforestation. The nonviolent behavior they enacted as protest has had a range of effects (enumerated in testimony).

The threat of permanently changing the atmosphere of the planet such that the conditions of living become more hazardous for everyone through severe storms, fires, flooding, drought, and the extinction of species are becoming increasingly apparent on practically a daily basis. Not only does the Judge need to issue a ruling of “Not Responsible,” the rest of us need to build on this pivotal, landmark case to spark in immediate and urgent policy change toward proforestation.

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