Longtime northern California residents will remember the “Redwood Wars,” but younger readers may not.
The decades-long effort by environmental activists to slow or stop the mass-felling of some of the country’s oldest, most awe-inspiring trees, arguably reached its peak around 1990, the year of the Redwood Summer. That year, activists staged a series of demonstrations and sometimes escalating conflicts with their corporate opponents, in turn drawing media attention.
Over 30 years later, the world still consumes trees while some environmentalists, frustrated with the lack of response from elected officials, continue to scale towering Redwoods in protest. However, the ongoing conflict doesn’t generate news coverage like in the past.
A new documentary, Sentinels, co-directed by Derek Knowles and Lawrence Lerew, is an exception to this. The short “immersive observational film” takes viewers from the forest floor, into an activist’s tent on a platform 100 feet above the ground, and back down again several times as supporters arrive every so often with supplies and gifts.
Sentinels primarily follows Lupine, one of two full-time activists engaged in a years-long tree-sit protest intended to save the last 18.5 acres of a 100-acre tract Humboldt County forest from the extraction plans of the Green Diamond Resource Company. The area Lupine and their colleagues are defending is predominantly second-growth. In 2014, Green Diamond owned and managed nearly 380,000 acres of land in Humboldt and Del Norte counties, according to a forest management report from that year.
Knowles, a part-time Sonoma County resident, says that his focus was bringing the public’s attention back to the often-unseen costs of making some of the the products American consumers take for granted every day.
“We wanted to create an immersive experience for viewers, much like we had ourselves in the forest, and force us to confront the consequences of our decadent and destructive lifestyles,” Knowles says.
Unlike a fleeting newspaper headline, the documentary allows viewers to be temporarily absorbed in the grandeur of Humboldt County’s forests and then soak in the brutal scene created by a harvesting operation.
“Butchering forests might have built this country, but it’s also pushing us to the edge of an unlivable climate with less than three percent of American old-growth forests still standing. These are some of our best defenses against a rapidly warming planet, with coastal redwoods storing more than seven times more carbon than Amazon forests. And when you see our tallest living trees and the ecosystems they support—understories of ferns, huckleberries and alders; flying squirrels; stellar jays; and foxes—undone in seconds with cold, mechanical precision, it hits you on a level that goes beyond the rational and scientific,” Knowles says.
When Knowles and Lerew started filming Sentinels in 2020, the tree-sit they were following was the only active protest of its kind in the western United States. Now, according to the filmmakers, “more than a half-dozen other tree-sits have emerged, mostly youth-led campaigns in timber parcels across the Pacific Northwest.”
So, with the world spiraling out of control and meaningful climate change action by the government still as distant as ever, it seems that some young people are going back to basics: connecting with and endeavoring to protect the only Earth we’ll ever have.
“I suppose when you have this emotional connection with living things, and see that our conventional systems—writing letters to elected officials, publicly commenting on timber harvest plans—do little to prevent their destruction, the appeal of non-violent direct action, of sitting in a tree, becomes appealing,” Knowles says.
‘Sentinels’ will be shown at 4:15pm on Saturday, June 4 at San Francisco’s Roxie Theater as part of this year’s San Francisco Doc Fest. Find more information about showtimes and streaming options at www.sfdocfest2022.eventive.org.
It also streaming on the Los Angeles Times’ website here.