February 09, 2023

An Unexpected Journey:  Can Tree Sitting Drive Policy?

Posted on February 9, 2023 by Karl S. Coplan

Gandalf’s Staff tree, Styx Valley Tall Trees Reserve, Tasmania
(photo by author)

A year ago I retired from the active practice and teaching of environmental law to pursue a lifelong dream of sailing a small boat around the world. For me, it is a way of seeing some of the great places on earth while avoiding the outsized climate impact of air travel. One of the joys of letting vagaries of cyclone seasons, wind direction, and opportune ports of refuge determine your travel plans is the special places you discover that you never heard of before. One of these unexpected gems is the Gandalf’s Staff tree in the Styx Valley Tall Trees Reserve of Tasmania.

We are currently sitting out the South Pacific cyclone season in Hobart, Tasmania, where my spouse scored a five-month Fulbright fellowship for her polar science research. We are taking the opportunity to explore some of Tasmania’s national parks and wilderness areas. Last week found us in the Styx Tall Tree Reserve looking for the path to a tree known as Gandalf’s Staff, which our Top Walks in Tasmania guidebook featured as the site of a consequential Tasmanian conservation battle.

Gandalf’s Staff is an 85 meter tall Eucalyptus Regnans, or Swamp Gum – the tallest deciduous trees on earth, and second only to the coastal redwoods as the tallest trees of any sort.  This old growth forest was slated to be logged for paper mills. In 2003, Greenpeace and the Tasmanian Wilderness Society launched what they called the “Global Rescue Station” – an international team of tree sitters who would live on a platform high up on Gandalf’s Staff in an effort to prevent loggers from harvesting the tree.

Tree sitting as a form of direct action environmental advocacy has a long history – starting with the Battle of Waller Creek in 1969, where University of Texas students climbed campus live oak trees in an unsuccessful attempt to prevent their destruction for football stadium expansion. Old growth forest protectors in the Pacific Northwest adopted and expanded the tactic by building living platforms and setting up permanent encampments in the tree canopy, effectively daring loggers to harm the human protestors along with the trees.

The Global Rescue Station on the Gandalf Tree continued that tactic. Public attention to the plight of the ancient trees reached Japan, and convinced paper companies there to cease buying wood chips from old growth swamp gums. The old growth grove where the Gandalf Tree stands became part of the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area in 2013 – a successful conclusion to this particular direct action effort, which lasted ten years.

Tree sitting campaigns may be uniquely effective in moving the politics and policy needle. The drama of a standoff and the bravado of the ordinary folk in the canopies  focuses attention on the very environmental value at stake. It is a hostage standoff, but where the outlaws seek to protect the hostage from destruction by law enforcement. The public understands the connection between the locus of the civil disobedience and the unique environmental resource at stake, for they are one and the same. The same cannot be said of other forms of environmental civil disobedience, such as the public desecration art masterpieces in the name of fighting climate change, which may leave most members of the public scratching their heads.

The Global Rescue Station was successful in preserving the Styx Valley old growth forest, and there is now a Big Tree Preservation Area on the Styx River, with boardwalks and informational plaques. Perhaps reflecting official ambivalence to the historical protest, there is no publicly marked and maintained trail to the Gandalf Tree itself. An indistinct trail maintained by the environmental community leads deep into the woods to the site. The hand-made sign marking the trailhead has disappeared, making this particular piece of environmental movement history hard to find.

“I found it is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay.”
— Gandalf from The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey