Hunting Tre Arrow: The Flight of America's Most Wanted Eco-Terrorist

Two years ago, he was the poster boy for the green revolution - America's most charismatic tree hugger. Today he's a fugitive from the law, the target of a nationwide manhunt, and the feds have branded him a terrorist

Tre Arrow
Greg Wahl-Stephens
December 12, 2002

Two years before the U.S. Justice Department branded him a terrorist, Tre Arrow was hailed as an environmental rock star. The young man literally ascended to that status on the afternoon of July 7th, 2000, when he freeclimbed the brick wall of a building in Portland, Oregon, then lived there for eleven days on a nine-inch ledge, outside the windows of the city's U.S. Forest Service offices. During what became known as Tre's "ledge sit," supporters cheered him from the sidewalks as a hero, while in court, attorneys compared him to Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.

After the ledge sit, Tre became the most visible figure in a largely underground movement that was spreading far beyond the forests of the Pacific Northwest to challenge assumptions about nearly every aspect of humankind's relationship with the natural world. These mostly young crusaders saw themselves as the only real opposition left to the forces of corporate greed, and they became increasingly convinced that radical, aggressive, even violent protests were the only way to achieve their ends.

Today, at age twenty-eight, Tre is a fugitive from the federal government. Indicted on the basis of an investigation conducted by the FBI's Joint Terrorist Task Force, he faces as many as eighty years in prison. Known to family and friends as a pacifist so extreme that he wouldn't step on ants, Tre may now be an armed soldier in the "revolutionary force" of the Earth Liberation Front, an organization that in September announced its members would "no longer hesitate to pick up the gun to implement justice."

"That isn't Tre," his fellow activists have said again and again since the federal indictment against him was returned on August 13th. But all they know for certain is that their friend is on the run in a world that offers fewer and fewer places to hide.

Part I: Eagle Creek

Tre's rise to fame was triggered by what the U.S. Forest Service regarded – at least for a few hours – as its most successful action ever against the "environmental extremists" who had been keeping loggers out of the Northwest's remnant old-growth forests for nearly a decade. It began before dawn on the morning of July 7th, 2000, when federal agents raided the Cascadia Forest Alliance "resistance camp" in the Mount Hood National Forest. The activists had closed two roads into an area known as the Eagle Creek timber sale by constructing a pair of floating pods – essentially giant hammocks made of plywood and rope webbing – in the towering conifers, then attaching them by support lines to the roads' main gates. Anyone who attempted to move or cut the support lines would risk sending the pods – and the thirteen people who lived in them – crashing to the ground.

"It was still dark, and we all woke to people shouting, 'They're here! They're here!'" remembers Tre's friend Brian Schulv. "The Forest Service had brought in officers from all over the Northwest, all wearing camo gear, riding ATVs and carrying assault rifles."

Though most of the activists gave up right away, seventeen-year-old Emma Murphy-Ellis, known to her forest friends as "Pitch," held the feds off for almost eight hours, at one point placing a noose around her neck and threatening to hang herself if they came closer.

Tre Arrow wasn't one of the tree sitters at Eagle Creek, but he had been providing ground support to his fellow Cascadians: helping to secure the pods, then shuttling supplies to the people who lived in them. Like just about everyone who had spent time there, Tre experienced life in the resistance camp as a sort of perpetual religious service conducted in an evergreen cathedral, a place where people discovered spirits in the morning fog and raptures in the afternoon sun. For them, the raid on the camp was not just an assault on a political action but the desecration of a sacred site; the mood of the Cascadians as they retreated to Portland, thirty miles away, to set up a protest outside the Forest Service offices was not just angry but mournful.

By later that day, nearly a thousand people had joined them at the demonstration, but no one seemed sure what all their marching and chanting was going to accomplish. "Tre was saying, 'Man, something else has to happen,' " says Samantha Waters, another forest activist. "I nodded my head, then turned away for a moment, and when I turned back, Tre was already halfway up the wall."

The television crews and newspaper photographers instantly trained their lenses on Tre. "His action had been totally spontaneous," says his friend Rolf Skar. "It wasn't until he was up there that he started thinking about how difficult it was going to be to stay on that ledge."

Down at street level, Tre's fellow forest activists set up a base camp, where they pitched a tent and formed a prayer circle. Tre spent much of the next two days giving interviews on a borrowed cell phone, trying to explain to reporters the "divine awakening" he had experienced several years earlier in which he realized that "the government and the corporations are lying to us" and that "we can no longer take the slaughter of our rights, the slaughter of our health, the slaughter of our planet in the name of agreed." Though he sounded silly to some and sanctimonious to others, Tre was a charmer. He blew kisses to the photographers in the street and, through a bullhorn, broadcast a seemingly unending disquisition to the crowd below. He told them how he refused to drive a car and never wore leather, bought only used products, wrote only on recycled paper and adhered to a strict vegan diet, because "eating lowest on the food chain has a minimum impact on the planet."

Each day, the media throng grew larger. Local TV stations led with Tre nightly. His photograph appeared in newspapers from Florida to Alaska. By the time Tre agreed to comply with a court order that he come down, he was more familiar to the people of Portland than were most of their elected officials.

On the morning of July 17th, Tre brushed and scrubbed the ledge where he had spent the previous eleven days and then rappelled down the front of the building – stopping his fall ten feet above the ground to flip upside down and flash the peace sign. "This is not over by a long shot," he said after dropping to the sidewalk. "Everyone get on buildings! Everyone get to the woods! I love you." With that, he surrendered to the police, who charged him with criminal trespass and contempt of court.

From a PR standpoint, Tre's action was so successful that within days the Cascadia Forest Alliance announced that its activists were going back to the forest to stage another action at Eagle Creek. While Forest Service officials warned that allowing anti-logging protesters to get away with blocking its roads would only invite further illegal actions, politicians sided with the activists. Within a few weeks of Tre's ledge sit, four of Oregon's five congressional representatives had sent letters to the U.S. Department of Agriculture asking for "further review" of the Eagle Creek sale. Sen. Ron Wyden went another step, persuading Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman to form an independent environmental-review panel to consider calling the whole thing off.

Even Al Gore would weigh in. His campaign hit Portland a few days before Election Day. Gore was determined to persuade voters leaning toward Ralph Nader that Gore would be "a president who will protect old-growth forests" like the one timber interests were trying to log at Eagle Creek. It was an awkward moment. Gore hadn't uttered a peep of protest five years earlier when his boss, Bill Clinton, had signed into law a bill that was supposed to have saved Oregon's old-growth forests from loggers but was swiftly proved to be a piece of legislative flim-flam. The offending law was known as the Salvage rider. Clinton had agreed to it to mollify a pair of Republican senators who were looking out for their friends in the timber industry. Purportedly designed to permit the thinning of damaged forests and to streamline timber sales by precluding lawsuits and limiting the scope of environmental-impact statements, the broadly worded Salvage rider had been exploited by both public and private interests to increase tree-cutting nationwide, but especially in the Northwest. In Portland, Gore apologized for his failure to publicly oppose the rider, then vowed to stop building roads among old-growth trees and restore salmon runs in Northwest rivers. Leaders of the area's mainstream environmental organizations ranging from the Sierra Club to the Oregon Natural Resources Council were on hand to join Gov. John Kitzhaber in welcoming Gore back into the fold. The next day, a front-page article in The Oregonian about Gore's visit included only a single dissenting voice: Tre Arrow's. "Garbage," he labeled Gore's speech. "A total lie."

Tre, by then, had been recruited by the Pacific Green Party to be its candidate for the Third District of the U.S. Congress. That November, Tre garnered a slightly higher percentage of votes than Nader did, despite the fact that almost nobody in the state knew his real name or where he'd come from.

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