Forrest Gray is a logging protester, an Easterner by birth and likely the kind of college kid who sets a timber worker’s jaw tight and his teeth grinding.
Gray comes from a dying Virginia coal mining town. He is a creative writing student at Antioch University in Ohio - no doubt another strike against him among rugged, independent Westerners.
He came to Idaho in June, on assignment from his university, which demands six months of classes and six months of community service work from its students each year. Gray spent his first three months washing dishes and preparing food in a Rhode Island homeless shelter. Then he came to the Nez Perce National Forest to help protesters fighting one of the most contentious and long-running battles in recent Idaho logging history: 81 million board feet of logging and 140 miles of road construction known as the Cove-Mallard timber sales.
A few weeks ago he was arrested there, the final touch to a profile that timber industry and government people say is typical of the “foreign” protester with no business in the region’s woods.
Cove-Mallard was Gray’s homework of choice because his grandparents are from Idaho. His grandfather worked for the Forest Service during the Depression.
“My grandfather’s ashes were spread on Priest Lake,” Gray said. “And everything I read was about the National Forests and how it was being cut for ‘forest health’ and I couldn’t understand why a forest couldn’t take care of itself.”
He understands why some Idahoans might not welcome his views, but argues his experience offers a glimpse of their future. “I came from a small coal mining town and I know how the industry can ravage the land and then pull out,” Gray said. “Where there were mountains before, now there’s a plateau of mud, and the town is dying.”
Simultaneously, Gray has no ready solutions for timber workers who potentially would be out of work if Cove-Mallard isn’t logged. “If this is the last resort for timber, what are they going to do when it’s gone?” he answered.
Gray’s visit to Idaho sparked a three-week nostalgia tour for his father, Jerry Gray, that included a trip to the Earth First! camp near Dixie, Idaho. Jerry Gray first went to Glenns Ferry and found his mother’s third grade class picture and his dad’s name on the delinquent tax rolls.
There also was a trip to the house in Idaho Falls, where Jerry Gray grew up, and the gift jar of crab apple preserves from the the woman living there who was still nurturing the Gray family crab apple tree.
Gray’s parents also picked up a copy of a newspaper story talking about how a Cove-Mallard protester was sentenced to 90 days in jail. “I took it up there to show him that this could happen,” Jerry Gray said.
Fourteen hours before Gray’s parents arrived at the Jack Creek logging road, he and four other activists were arrested. When federal and state law enforcement showed up at 4 a.m. to clear the way for loggers Aug. 7, Gray was chained to a logging road gate, as he had been for several nights.
After a contractor threatened to break his arm and the federal cops warned he was courting more than misdemeanor charges if he held out, he freed himself. Now Gray faces as much as six months in jail and a $5,000 fine if he’s found guilty of violating Forest Service regulations.
His father, a former prosecutor now in private practice, followed him to the Grangeville and Boise jails. Now, the father may end up representing his son.
Not that he wants his son to get off, if guilty. “If he gets a jail sentence, it will break my heart,” Jerry Gray said. “But that’s what it means to truly stand up for what you believe in.” And if there’s a fine, dad and mom won’t be opening their wallets to help.
While Jerry and Denise Gray are proud of their son they are surprised by his activism. “His entire interest, up until he went to college, was his rock-n-roll band,” Jerry Gray said.
They also are worried, angry, apprehensive. “The biggest problem is he’s willing to love the woods so much that he’s willing to risk getting a criminal record,” Denise Gray said.
Although she and her husband were Vietnam War protesters, Denise Gray wouldn’t take up the cause of Cove-Mallard. Over time she’s decided to only fight the battles she can win.
Still, she understands the urge to take up causes and doesn’t buy the argument that the protesters are irritating, naive out-of-staters. “We’ve seen, in our area, what happens when people pin all of their hopes on one industry,” Denise Johnson said. “You can get rich, relatively quick, and pretty soon the coal is gone and the timber is gone and you are back to poor-paying jobs and welfare,” she said.
Denise Gray also is skeptical of using approximately 6 million taxpayer dollars to subsidize federal timber sales. “If it’s not profitable to cut them, we could just leave them - it’s better than cutting social programs,” she said.
Hard feelings on both sides will remain long after winter snows chase protesters out of the Idaho high country and back to college or court dates. And there’s $10,000 worth of damage to a logging road that coincidentally happened during this summer’s Earth First! rendezvous.
The damage is “done at the expense of the environment, the American public and the taxpayers,” said Ihor Mereszczak of the Nez Perce National forest.
“It’s done, just to make a point,” Mereszczak said. “It’s classic terrorism.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo