Category Archives: Zoe Blunt

Shaking the tree: an eco-defender’s ordeal

Thu, 25 Jan 2007

Sims Creek in the Elaho Valley. Photo: Western Canada Wilderness Committee.

“This is precedent-setting for any environmental direct actions in Canada in the future.” Dennis Zarelli sounds stunned by what’s happened.

The thirty-year-old activist (and comrade of mine) was convicted of obstructing justice in December 2006. A BC Supreme Court judge refused to believe police endangered his life in a tree-sit one hundred and fifty feet off the ground. He is facing nine months in jail at his sentencing in February 2007.

“Even had someone died six years ago, it seems the courts would have found that it was our own fault.”

The Douglas firs in the upper Elaho Valley are some of the biggest in Canada. Photo: Western Canada Wilderness Committee.

As the battle raged six years ago, it looked like the old-growth forests of the Elaho Valley were doomed. Eighty percent of the area had already been logged. A priceless grove of record-setting trees was about to fall. Wilderness advocates from the coast and across the province pledged to help defend the area. Hundreds visited and fell in love with the canyonlands along the Elaho River in British Columbia’s Coast Mountains near Whistler.

But International Forest Products (Interfor) kept marching on. Each year, chainsaws and bulldozers chewed through whole mountainsides full of cedar, fir and hemlock, leaving massive scars on the steep slopes and filling fish streams with silt.

Repeated appeals to the government and Interfor failed, so forest advocates took to civil disobedience and peaceful protests to stop the logging. I was with Zarelli and other forest defenders on the frontlines of Interfor’s logging operations for months at a stretch. We built a protest camp at the end of the road from downed trees and tarps, and took turns cooking communal meals, hauling water, and playing cat-and-mouse games with the loggers. By the end of July, two dozen people were camped at the road’s end.

We were holding the line to protect thousand-year-old firs and cedars north of Lava Creek. The previous year, contractors had punched in a logging road over fierce resistance and incredibly rough terrain. The battle front shifted to the new bridge over Lava Creek, which was the only way to access the upper valley.

The blockade on Lava Creek Bridge, July 2000. Photo: Zoe Blunt.

Using peaceful civil disobedience in this case meant putting our bodies on the line in such a way that the workers would have to risk killing someone to carry on with the logging. Normally, it’s an effective method for stopping traffic. But years of confrontations in the Elaho Valley taught us that blocking the road on the ground invited certain disaster. Loggers for Interfor had a deep and abiding hatred of tree-huggers, and they expressed it with death threats and violent attacks on protestors whenever they could.

In September 1999, a hundred loggers descended on the camp to make good on their threats to get rid of us once and for all. I was in Whistler that day, and others were in court. The eight remaining campers tried reasoning with the mob, but to no avail. Loggers beat and choked three people, who were teken to hospital after the attack. They burned the camp to the ground, destroying $30,000 worth of equipment, gear and personal belongings. Police took six hours to respond to 911 calls, and once they arrived, they arrested the tree-sitter and let the thugs go.

Peaceful civil disobedience is a real challenge in these circumstances.

But the violence by loggers – and what was seen as complicity by police – only made the protestors more determined to use peaceful means to stop the destruction.

“Everything we were doing kept getting more escalated,” Zarelli says. “We didn’t want to block the road for just a day or two.” He and three friends set out to create a hard blockade that would keep the road blocked for a couple weeks. They devised a system to block the bridge, put themselves in harm’s way, and stay out of reach of the police, all at the same time.

Lava Creek Bridge is wood, concrete and steel, 120 feet long and 12 feet wide, spanning a rugged canyon. A hundred feet below, the creek roars and foams. At the north end, high up in a pair of gigantic firs, Zarelli and three others perched on small platforms attached by ropes and conduits to a barricade on the bridge twelve stories below.

Two platforms, 150 feet up in the tree at left, are difficult to see from the ground. A yellow gear bag hanging below the canopy is more visible. Photo: Zoe Blunt

The tree-sit blockade was a calculated risk. The four tree-sit platforms were suspended from ropes anchored to the treetops and to the bridge blockade. The ropes ran from the top of one tree, down to the bridge, through a pipe wedged under the pickup truck, out the other end of the pipe, and up to the top of the second tree.

Click on the diagram for a full-size image. A traverse line (not shown) connected the two trees like a high wire, allowing the tree-sitters to move from one tree to the other. Source: Elaho Valley Anarchist Horde: A Journal of Saquatchology.

The truck itself was filled with rocks, piled with logs and wrapped in barbed wire. Two signs warned that tampering with the structure would cause the platforms to drop, and the tree-sitters could fall to their deaths.

When the tree sits and bridge blockade were set up, the area was under a court injunction and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police were keeping a close eye on the protest site.The tree-sitters were confident the RCMP would heed the signs and be very cautious when they moved in to make the arrests.

They were mistaken.

From July 26 to August 2, dozens of RCMP officers laid siege to the blockade. An Emergency Response Team was mobilized, and footage of rifle-toting sharpshooters storming over the bridge was broadcast on national television for a week. But as the days wore on, the cops grew visibly frustrated that they could not evict the protestors in the trees.

They took it out on anyone within reach. From his perch in the tree, Zarelli watched three officers drag me by the neck from the woods, twist my cuffed hands up behind my back, and throw me headfirst into a police trailer. I ended up with damage to my arms, shoulders and neck. (The cops told a judge later that I injured myself, and she took them at their word.)

Zoe gets busted. Photo: Daniel Gautreau

By July 28, officers had partially dismantled the blockade on the bridge. Then, without any warning, Insp. Bud Mercer used a pruning rod to cut the ropes supporting the platforms. What happened next became the focus of police investigations and court battles for six years.

RCMP Cpl. Darik Schaap dismantling the blockade. Photo: Zoe Blunt

When the lines were cut, the platforms suddenly tilted. The tree-sitters panicked when they realized the main support lines were no longer holding them. A witness reported:

The platforms drop, catching in lower parts of the canopy. One of the sitters is hanging from a branch screaming at the cops until helped back up. The action on the line is frantic, the goons with the big guns are off in the bush, police climbers start to climb the connected trees to cut off traverse points. The climbers move slowly, another cop on the ground yells instructions through a megaphone. (Journal of Sasquatchology)

Philippa Joly, another witness on the ground, watched in horror as the lines were cut.

“I remember seeing them cut the rope and then there was this slow-motion feeling – everything slowed down,” she recalls. “I saw the rope fall out of the tree. It came falling down. I saw other things falling from the tree. We were all holding our breath, waiting to see what would happen.”

The four young people remained in the treetops, clinging to the now-unstable platforms.

Metal rebar and a 55-gallon drum cut in half prevented police from climbing this tree. Photo: Zoe Blunt

Later, the police climbers assaulted the tree-sit in earnest. As the climbers started up the un-armored tree, the two sitters in that tree scooted across the high-wire traverse line and joined their companions in the armored tree. The climbers backed off and did not try to pursue the protestors.

“It was like living in a war zone,” Joly says. A police helicopter circled and hovered overhead. “[The police] were totally insane, with full-on camouflage and sniper rifles. Then they disappeared into the woods. And we’re like, what’s going on? Are our friends safe?”

The standoff that followed lasted five more days before the four protestors climbed down and gave themselves up to be arrested. They later pleaded guilty and were sentenced to time served – one day.

Dennis Zarelli under arrest after nine days in the tree. Photo courtesy of Dennis Zarelli.

The shock of watching the officer cut the rope was too much for Zarelli to just let it go. In September 2000, Zarelli filed a complaint against Insp. Mercer, and a justice of the peace laid four criminal charges of aggravated assault against the RCMP officer.

It’s rare for police to face charges for acts they commit on the job, and Zarelli didn’t expect much to come out of it.

“I wanted to basically see attention drawn to the RCMP acting recklessly at the blockades,” he explains. “They were working with Interfor.” Officers stood by while a forest worker drove an excavator into the legs of a tripod that was occupied by a protestor, he says. The rest of us had witnessed similar incidents.

Protestors were hauled off and charged over minor acts of peaceful civil disobedience at the request of the company. But when loggers threatened us with guns and violence, we couldn’t even get the cops to take a report.

Two forest defenders were sentenced to a full year in the pokey just for standing in the road. Not one of the thugs who beat the campers and burned down the camp spent a day in jail.

Zarelli felt he had the potential to turn the tables and use the legal system to hold the police accountable, for once. But the charges against Insp. Mercer were stayed a month after they were filed. When the Crown prosecutor reviewed the police videotape, he said there was no evidence Zarelli’s life was in danger.

Then the harassment started: phone calls to Zarelli’s parents, his friends, and their employers from people identifying themselves as agents with the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS). His house was under surveillance for months.

Finally, the penny dropped. Word came that the RCMP had issued a warrant for his arrest – the Crown was charging him with obstructing justice for filing a false police report. (The perjury charge was added later.) Zarelli turned himself in.

The court drama that played out in December 2006 was surreal, Zarelli says. The Crown lawyer argued the protestors were trying to entrap the police. The blockade and the connected tree platforms were an “elaborate ruse,” according to Crown prosecutor Ralph Keefer. The claim that they were using civil disobedience to stop the logging was a charade, he said. The four forest defenders just wanted to get the cops in trouble on national television. The prosecutor accused Zarelli of planning the whole thing just so he could lay false charges against Insp. Mercer.

Incredibly, BC Supreme Court judge Sunni Stromberg-Stein agreed. In her reasons for judgement, she stated, “This was not an act of civil disobedience; this was a criminal act.”

Joly attended Zarelli’s trial because she wanted to witness the proceedings. “It felt really important to be at court because I was there when it happened.” She says the cops all told the same story, but on examination, their testimony actually underscored Zarelli’s complaint that they were negligent.

“All the cops said they couldn’t see how the ropes were set up,” Joly tells me. “All the cops gave statements affirming they couldn’t see the ropes from the ground, but the reaction when the ropes were cut led them to believe the setup was a ruse.”

“But the fact that they cut the ropes without knowing if it was safe to cut them just showed their negligence – which was Dennis’s original complaint.”

“The Crown was trying to show we hate the police,” Zarelli says. “He was bringing up stuff from ten years ago, things that happened in the Walbran [Valley] and Clayoquot Sound. I wasn’t even at those protests.”

Joly finds the Crown’s arguments unbelievable. “They were playing up this thing about us having a vendetta against Bud Mercer. Until that day he hadn’t even been there. We didn’t even know him.”

Zarelli was convicted of obstructing justice. He escaped a perjury conviction on a technicality, because the original complaint against Insp. Mercer was not taken under oath. Zarelli faces nine months in jail at his sentencing February 20, 2007.

Zarelli says the trial’s outcome is deeply disturbing, and not just for him.

“If people put their lives on the line to protect the environment, and the cops come in and take them out with reckless regards to their lives, the cops will now be able to refer to my case saying that environmentalists hate the cops and will lie in court for their cause,” he says bitterly.

The view from Lava Camp. Photo: Jeremy Williams, Wilderness Committee.

Today. the thousand-year-old firs and cedars still stand north of Lava Creek. Facing beatings and brutality, long prison sentences and death threats, the forest defenders held the line. We were forced out and hauled off in handcuffs, but we would not give up, and we kept coming back.

Interfor finally began serious negotiations with the Squamish Nation and a moratorium on logging in the Elaho Valley went into effect in 2001. The logging rights to the whole watershed now belong to the Squamish Nation, and the area north of Lava Creek is set aside as a Wild Spirit Place – to be protected in perpetuity.

Update: In February 2007, Dennis was sentenced to time served and probation – no jail time.


Filed under Environment, Politics, Zoe Blunt

Underground? You could be on national TV!

Attention secret eco-warriors: the CBC wants to interview you for a program on the Earth Liberation Front.

Wed, 4 Oct 2006

Producers Tim Sawa and Theresa Burke of the fifth estate are keen to talk to a real, live ELF saboteur, and they’re prepared to go to great lengths to protect the identity of anyone willing to go on camera.

The fifth estate (spelled in lower-case letters) is a one-hour investigative news journal broadcast weekly on Canada’s public-funded television station. Last month, the show’s producers in Toronto dispatched Sawa and Burke to Vancouver on a mission to track down and talk to anyone connected to the Earth Liberation Front

They found me instead. I came home to a voice mail message: “Hello, Zoe? This is Tim Sawa of the CBC. I want to talk to you about eco-terrorism.”

He looks serious, but fifth estate producer Tim Sawa is a charmer. And very persistent.

What a surprise! I had to call back and ask how he got my number.

Apparently Sawa searched the web for “Earth Liberation Front” and found my article on GNN. There was no contact info there, so he went through my blog looking for clues. Long story short, Sawa hunted down a campaigner I know who gave up my home phone number.

Sawa said he needed my help for “deep background” on the ELF. I wouldn’t appear on camera, they wouldn’t quote me or use my name. What a relief, I said.

Since then I’ve been trading calls and emails with Sawa and Theresa Burke, the other newshound on the case. It’s been a bit of a tussle. I was hostile to the idea of talking with them. Sawa was persuasive, responding to my criticism of mainstream media and its treatment of the ELF and individuals associated with it. The fifth estate is better than that, he said. The segment was a whole hour and he was dedicated to getting “our side” of the story, not just the sensational secret underground terrorist cult angle.

But a quick web search of my own turns up a fifth estate segment that ran a few years ago. “Sensational” doesn’t begin to describe it. “Venomous,” maybe.

January 26, 1999
CBC News and Current Affairs

FRANCINE PELLETIER: Welcome to the fifth estate. We begin tonight with a shocking report about a love that goes beyond all reason. Most of us take it for granted that when it comes to living things, humans are tops and animals, love them though we might, are a distant second. But for some people animals hold a far higher place in the scheme of things and must be protected from any and all harm.

In Britain that urge to protect animals has taken a violent turn, with attacks on property, arson, bombs, and even death lists. Tonight we go inside the British animal liberation movement, with an animals rights campaigner who became horrified by the extreme nature of what his allies were doing. Wearing a hidden camera, he penetrated the secretive upper ranks of the movement. What he found was a shocking disregard for property and human life, a disregard taken for granted all in the name of love.

(Full transcript here. Warning: It’s an appalling example of fascist journalism. The hidden camera footage was turned over to police to prosecute those implicated by the reporters’ sting.)

Sawa was apologetic but unapologetic. “Yes … I’ve read about that. That was a programme that the fifth [estate] bought from the BBC and ran. It wasn’t produced by us. But we did run it. What can I say other than I didn’t produce it.” He insists the segment they’re working on now will be much, much better.

There was no way I could give Sawa and Burke what they wanted – details about the secret lives of individuals indicted for ELF actions and info about two fugitives on the run from the FBI: Rebecca Rubin and Joseph Dibee. Rubin lived in the Vancouver area and the two are rumoured to be hiding in Canada.

Instead, I pointed the two reporters to resources like Eco-Defense: A Field Guide to Monkey-wrenching and the Animal Liberation Front Press Office, and gave them a lecture on security culture. I told them no one involved with an illegal action should ever talk to anyone about that action, outside of the members of their affinity group or “cell.” I mentioned that phoning up strangers and asking them where the fugitives are sets off alarm bells.

Sawa didn’t give up, though. More phone calls. “You know, if you change your mind about going on camera, we could disguise your identity. We could change your voice, too. There’s no way anyone would know it was you.”

But what they really want is to interview an actual eco-saboteur. “Maybe you could use your contacts to put the word out to people that we’d like to interview someone who’s in the ELF,” Sawa suggested. “We can set it up so it’s completely anonymous. We wouldn’t even know who they are.” The CBC’s legal team would fight like wolverines to protect their sources, he said, and in any case the police can’t subpeona info the reporters don’t have, like the identiities of anonymous individuals.

From Burke: “There’s a number of possibilities. It’s a question of what they (ELF saboteurs) would feel comfortable with. There’s masks, there’s having someone read their words so they don’t have their face on tape, or the possibility of doing it through some form of written communication. Maybe even a web cam or something like that?” A one-time anonymous webmail account would work, she said.

Sawa and Burke are in a bind – the Earth Liberation Front Press Office has closed down, and the anonymous press officers I interviewed by email long ago are silent. The pressure is on from their bosses to find and interview genuine ELF warriors (and their supporters) on camera.

This is your opportunity to tell your side of the story, they tell me. We’re as appalled as you at the Green Scare.

I’ve declined their offer, since I’m not prepared to go on national television as a spokesperson for “eco-terrorism.” And much as I’d like to believe their assertions that the program will be sympathetic, what television producer can resist the lurid aspects of the case: arson, conspiracy, betrayal, and so on?

Or maybe I’m just chickenshit. Anyone out there with balls – or tits – of steel? If so – if you’re not afraid – step up to the mike. Put on a mask, set up a web-cam, record an interview, zip it and send it via an anonymous remailer to Theresa Burke: theresa.frances (at)

Be careful out there!

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Filed under Animals, Environment, Politics, Zoe Blunt