Members of the ultra-exclusive Bohemian Club—2,500 of America’s richest, most conservative men, including Henry Kissinger, George H. W. Bush, and a passel of Bechtels, Basses, and Rockefellers—are known to urinate freely against the ancient redwoods that cover their 2,700-acre property. Have they been chopping down the trees as well? According to one former member turned whistle-blower, the San Francisco–based society may have logged some of its old-growth forest. Drawing on his own Ivy League ties, the author investigates, with a daring sortie into the ceremonial kickoff of the Bohemians’ annual encampment.
by Alex Shoumatoff
Is this really what I want to be doing? Sneaking into the exclusive Bohemian Grove, on the Saturday night when roughly 2,500 of America’s richest, mostly right-wing Republicans are kicking off their annual July “encampment”? The members of the San Francisco–based Bohemian Club are mostly all here, partying boisterously in this primeval stand of gargantuan redwoods 75 miles north of the city, or will be during the next 16 days. Over the years all the usual suspects have made appearances: Rumsfeld, Kissinger, two former C.I.A. directors (including Papa Bush), the masters of war and the oilgarchs, the Bechtels and the Basses, the board members of top military contractors—such as Halliburton, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and the Carlyle Group—Rockefellers, Morgans, captains of industry and C.E.O.’s across the spectrum of American capitalism. The interlocking corporate web—cemented by prep-school, college, and golf-club affiliations, blood, marriage, and mutual self-interest—that makes up the American ruling class. Many of the guys, in other words, who have been running the country into the ground and ripping us off for decades.
The summer high jinks begin, as they have for more than 100 years, with a macabre, hokey ceremony—with Druidic, Masonic, Ku Klux Klan, and Aryan forest-worship overtones—called the Cremation of Care, which is starting in 40 minutes down by the lake. I squeeze through a hole in a chain-link fence onto the 2,700-acre property and follow an old overgrown railroad bed. To my left, below a dense tangle of California bay laurel, big-leaf maple, and understory shrubs, the muddy-green Russian River is sliding by. I didn’t see any posting on that side of the property, but I know I am trespassing.
While many in the world see this gathering of the military-industrial high command as the bad guys—a sort of rogue state operating outside the constraints of democratic institutions, a favorite watering hole for what Peter Phillips, a Sonoma State University sociologist who has published extensively on the Bohemian Club, calls “the global dominance group”—this is not how the members imagine themselves. They see themselves as the moral underpinnings of America’s greatness, whose central tenets are the Protestant work ethic: work hard and prosper and you’ll get into that great club in the sky. The Bohemian Club is like the Opus Dei of the Protestant American establishment. Very few Jews have made it in, and even fewer blacks.
The encampment is more of a drunken blowout and an opportunity for bonding than a serious roundtable like Davos, although there is a series of lakeside talks that are enlightening about what the government has up its sleeve for the upcoming year. Kissinger is a perennial favorite. His speech nine years ago, “Do We Need a Foreign Policy?,” was music to the ears of the Bush administration. In 1942, Edward Teller is said to have planned the Manhattan Project here. There’s a lot of dark history in this forest retreat. It’s rumored that during the presidency of Gerald Ford one Grove employee was a charming, impeccably mannered ex-Nazi, who used to drive around in a jeep that had the decal—a palm tree with a swastika on it—of Rommel’s Africa campaign, which he had served in. Ford made him take it off.
The majority of activities take place in the 109-acre main grove, in about 120 separate rustic camps nestled under the biggest, most ancient redwoods on the property. Each member is assigned to a camp. The fanciest one is Mandalay. Then Hill Billies. Other camps have names like Derelicts, Five Easy Pieces, Poison Oak, Rattlers. Herbert Hoover, an enthusiastic Grover, called it “the greatest men’s party on earth.” Aside from the prostitutes who are rumored to be visited by randy Grovers at local bars and motels, it’s a guys-only affair, and, historically, there’s always been talk of buggery in the dappled shadows under the redwoods, particularly at Highlanders, perhaps simply because members wear kilts and nothing underneath. Richard Nixon (a member of Cave Man camp), whose 1967 lakeside talk kicked off his successful run for the presidency, was caught on one of his Oval Office tapes describing the Grove as “the most faggy goddamned thing you could ever imagine.”
Another hallmark of the encampment is the promiscuous micturition—guys standing up to the redwoods and relieving themselves everywhere you look. Maybe they’re trying to symbolically assert their primacy over nature. But the amount of drinking that goes on, plus the fact that many members are elderly and likely have prostate problems and can’t make it back to their camp fast enough, also plays a role in what has become, if not a formal ritual, a group-reinforcing collective activity. It must be said, to be fair to the old Wasp establishment, that the club has a rich history full of decent members with refined social graces. Mark Twain and the acerbic misanthrope Ambrose Bierce were early members. So was the socialist Jack London, who wrote a clairvoyant novel called Before Adam, about a time when humanity was ruled by a small group of idiots who were destroying the world.
I am here to investigate reports that the Bohemians have been desecrating their own bower. That nothing is sacred with these guys anymore. Everything is fair game. But how could the Bohemian Club, where California’s forest-preservation movement began, be logging its own land, which includes the largest stand of old-growth redwoods in Sonoma County? That’s what it did quietly from 1984 to 2005—11 million board feet, roughly 11,000 prime redwoods and Douglas firs. I imagine they don’t need the money. It costs $25,000 to join the club and $5,000 a year after that. A 150-foot redwood with a 27-inch D.B.H. (diameter at breast height) fetches only $850 these days, and a similar-size Douglas fir $450. Critics say to sacrifice these jewels for such small change is unconscionable. And for the last three years they have been trying to double the harvest.
To me, redwoods are like whales. At this point, they shouldn’t be harvested under any circumstances. Virgin, old-growth redwoods are growing on only 4 to 5 percent of their original range, a 450-mile band along the Pacific coast, from Big Sur to southern Oregon. They are the tallest and among the most massive (sequoias beat them there, but they are not as tall) and longest-living organisms on earth. Some individual trees have been here for 3,000 years.
The family that redwoods belong to, the Taxodiaceae, is 250 million years old. We humans appeared less than half a million years ago. There were redwoods when Tyrannosaurus rex was the top dog and everything was gigantic. Sixty million years ago, there were more than 40 species in the Taxodiaceae, and their forests blanketed much of the world. Today, only three remain: the coastal redwood; the sequoia, in the southern Sierra Nevada; and the dawn redwood, in one valley in China. The biggest redwoods are up in Humboldt County, reaching 375 feet—about 35 stories. In my mind, redwoods are among the planet’s greatest glories, and all that are left should be protected.
My plan is to take in the Cremation of Care, to get a sense of what the club is all about, and tomorrow I’ll bushwhack into the forest to see what they have been doing to it and what they’re planning to do. Maybe after the ceremony, I’ll do some camp-hopping and try to talk to some members.
The security has been beefed up since 9/11, and the guards reportedly include retired C.I.A. and F.B.I. agents, practiced at spotting infiltrators. But having grown up and been educated with the old blue-blooded ruling class, I have the preppy drawl, and I know the dress code for such occasions: haute rustic. Ecco hiking shoes, Brooks Brothers khaki pants, a light-green Ralph Lauren Polo golf shirt, a blue Pebble Beach rain shell, and a blue Tilley’s safari jacket. My hair and beard are cut short and neatly trimmed. I told my Czech barber in Montreal to make me look like a Republican. She had no idea what I was talking about, but I could pass for the brother of H. R. Haldeman.
I was alerted to the logging in the Grove by my college classmate, John C. Hooper (or Jock, as I always called him), who was until a few years ago an enthusiastic, fourth-generation Bohemian Club member, and is now one of the strongest voices against the Grove’s forestry practices. Jock is old California money. His mother’s family had a 2,000-acre ranch an hour north of San Francisco, and his father’s family had a smaller spread an hour south. The Hoopers came from Maine in the 19th century and prospered, first in the lumber business, then banking.
After serving as a first lieutenant in the Army Adjutant General Corps during Vietnam, instead of becoming a diplomat, as he had planned, he ended up, in the spirit of the 60s, becoming an organic farmer. He and his wife, Molly, have a 330-acre organic farm called Oz up in Mendocino County, three hours north of the Grove. It used to be a hippie commune. Old geodesic domes lie in ruins in the woods, which have some huge Douglas firs and redwoods, which Jock does harvest, selling the wood to a local lumber company. A club spokesman says this fact compromises Jock’s position against their plans: “Mr. Hooper feels it is appropriate to log trees at an aggressive rate for his own personal gain while objecting to the Bohemian Club’s attempt to responsibly manage its own forest.” Jock says that he cuts very selectively and sustainably. He’s no hippie tree hugger. He and Molly are more like hip American landed gentry. Jock supervises the operation in a beret and black Wellingtons. They seem almost to belong in an earlier era.
Jack London, an early Grover, in 1904. From the Bancroft Library/University of California, Berkeley.
Apart from running Oz, Jock has devoted himself to preserving California’s extraordinary natural bounty. He helped write the regulations implementing the National Forest Management Act of 1976 and, while heading the Sierra Club’s national-forest-management program in the early 80s, was the principal author of A Conservationist’s Guide to National Forest Management. He’s the vice-chair of the California Tahoe Conservancy, and spends a couple of days a month up at Tahoe, doing what he can to alleviate that once gin-clear body of water’s massive problems. He’s also on an advisory board of the 23,000-acre Garcia Forest, which is near Oz and just sold $2 million worth of carbon credits, in the form of trees that will never be cut, to Pacific Gas and Electric to offset its emissions, and $3 million worth to Goldman Sachs, which will broker it to other big polluters.
Jock’s great-grandfather, grandfather, and uncle were all members of the Bohemian Club. His grandfather—who has a large redwood grove in San Mateo, California, named after him—used to take him up to the Grove when he was a boy during the off-season, open up the camp, and cook some stew on the woodstove while Jock poked around in the woods. The spell the towering redwoods cast on him was permanent.
In 1999, Jock joined the club. The waiting list was 15 years long, and it still is. Twenty thousand “men of talent” are supposedly waiting to join, although some say the club, like many venerable old men’s clubs, is having trouble attracting younger members. He joined Five Easy Pieces. Music and theatricals, including elaborate productions in makeup and drag, are a big part of the festivities. “Sometimes the homoerotic themes can get weird,” one member told me. Great jam sessions at one camp or another last late into the night. Steve Miller is a member. He wears dark suits and looks like a hedge-fund manager until he straps on his guitar. Two former members of the Grateful Dead, Mickey Hart and Bob Weir, are members—entertainment providers are fast-tracked. Hart is in the posh Hill Billies camp, with Rumsfeld, longtime Grove father figure Walter Cronkite, Papa Bush, and Christopher Buckley (whose father, William F., was also a Hill Billy, hard as that is to imagine). Weir is in Rattlers. Strange bedfellows, one would think. Weir and Hart played a benefit concert for Barack Obama last year, and the Grove of the Old Trees, a 28-acre redwood stand in Occidental, California, was saved from the ax a few years ago thanks in part to the passionate activism of Mickey’s wife, Caryl, who was re-appointed by Governor Schwarzenegger to the California State Parks Commission.
Relatively few of the members ever venture outside the 109-acre main grove into the rest of the 2,700-acre forest, and Jock was one of them. Much of it had been logged in the 19th century and was in healthy stages of recuperation. Jock had a 1942 aerial photo that showed nine outlying stands and clumps of old-growth redwood that the early loggers had missed, and every time he visited the Grove he would hike out to one or two of them to see what they were like. In 2001 he reached the largest one, 54-acre Bull Barn, which the club’s trail map describes as containing “the finest hillside stand of old-growth redwood in the Grove.” In the heart of it he found that several dozen of the most awesome and enormous trees had been marked for cutting, with blue lines painted around their trunks. There must be some mistake, he thought. Who would cut these trees? Outside the main stand of Bull Barn, Jock says, he found freshly cut stumps of Doug fir and second-growth redwood. Someone was logging the Grove.
Jock brought his discovery to the attention of the Grove Committee and the club’s president and told them about the other old-growth stands on the property. As a new member, he was deferential and almost apologetic: “Gentlemen, I feel presumptuous in the extreme in bringing these matters to your attention. However, we would all hate to lose an irreplaceable part of our Grove, and I would personally hate to feel that a destructive timber-harvest operation went ahead because I did not get around to writing this letter.” He added that he “would be pleased to meet with the committee and serve in any capacity which helps protect our forest legacy.”
Through a friend, Jock was politely told that he was not on the board and to mind his own business, but the Grove Committee voted to cancel the 2001 harvest until the matter was looked into. In 2002, cutting resumed, not in Bull Barn, but old-growth redwoods were felled elsewhere. Jock learned that, every year since 1984, 500,000 board feet of fir and redwood (most not old-growth) had been logged from remote parts of the property, unbeknownst to all but a few members, if any. He was flabbergasted. He thought, This has to stop immediately, and told other members who he knew would be as upset as he was. At the end of 2002, he presented to the committee a paper called “Whither the Grove? The Future of Bohemia’s Forestland,” and distributed it to interested members. In May of the following year, John Bickel, the club’s president, wrote him a letter saying, “We have received complaints from members that you are sending unsolicited views contrary to our timber management plan which is in effect. This promotes disharmony in the club. In a word, it is ‘unbohemian.’”
In the Bohemian Club, “bohemian” means something completely different from the free-living, poverty-stricken artist that the word usually conjures. It means toeing the party line, United We Stand. Unbohemian means being disloyal, betraying the pact, the global-dominance group. It’s the worst thing a member can be called.
These attempts to deter him only made him dig in. In September 2003 he circulated “Impacts of Logging on the Bohemian Grove: The Future of the Forestland of Bohemia,” the third and most sharply worded of his occasional correspondences to the club leadership and interested members. He pointed out that with the 247-acre harvest in Bull Barn nearing completion (its central old-growth redwood stand was not touched), and the 235-acre harvest in nearby Kitchen Creek about to begin, “a naturally recovering redwood and Douglas fir forest is being transformed into … a tree farm. If this continues the Grove will no longer be a place of wonder and inspiration, a place for spiritual fulfillment, for education and oneness with Nature.”
In January 2004, the chairman of the Grove Committee responded, “We have devoted extensive time to the issues you have raised. For over a year they have been an agenda item for almost all our meetings. And our decision is that our forest management practices will remain in effect.”
Still trying to work with the committee, Jock showed them photos he had taken in Kitchen Creek of old-growth redwoods marked for cutting, but this only earned him another reprimand, for violating the rule against taking photographs outside your camp. The club manager tried to get Jock’s hiking privileges revoked. Jock replied that it was inappropriate for an employee of the club to prevent a member from walking.
Club etiquette fell by the wayside, and it began to get nasty. Jock couldn’t understand why they were doing this. And what happened to the money the logging had so far netted? The club insists that the millions of dollars made from the timber harvests was all put toward the management of the forest. But, according to Jock, the forest outside the main grove was in terrible shape. Hiking trails had been turned into logging roads, footbridges had been bulldozed and not repaired, and there was massive erosion in some places, some of it washing down into the Russian River, which once hosted the most abundant spawning runs of coho and king salmon and steelhead in California.
Up to now, the logging had been done on the basis of renewable three-year Timber Harvesting Plans (T.H.P.’s), issued by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire. But Jock discovered that the Grove was applying for a Non-industrial Timber Management Plan (N.T.M.P.), a permanent permit that would allow the yield to be more than doubled to 1.13 million board feet, going up to 1.8 million by the end of the cycle, to be harvested on a rotating 15-year basis. He got a copy of the application and was alarmed to see that the club hadn’t even acknowledged any old-growth stands—that section of the application was left mostly blank, with only a short quote noting that “the property has no special or unique values.”
Cutting old-growth redwoods on your property is not illegal, but if the stand is 20 acres or more, there are strict guidelines. California Fish and Game has to come in and make sure there are no endangered species. There are few restrictions at all when it comes to cutting second-growth redwoods, some of which have gotten so big that they are indistinguishable from old-growth trees. As a result, old-growth is sometimes cut under the radar. But many Californians love the charismatic trees and are almost fanatically protective of them, and when word gets out that old-growth redwoods are going to be cut, they become very obstreperous.
Plaque outside the Bohemian Club’s San Francisco clubhouse. Photograph by Karen Kuehn.
A fellow club member smuggled Jock an internal report from the Grove’s forester, Edward Tunheim, that concluded the N.T.M.P. was not going to fly, because only properties of 2,500 acres or less of timbered land were eligible. The Tunheim report, which put that figure at 2,501, also said that the new harvest plan was not sustainable and that 500,000 board feet was the maximum that could be cut a year without damaging the forest. Tunheim was soon replaced by a new forester, Nick Kent, who went along with the Grove’s plan. Kent says that Tunheim had overestimated the timbered acreage and underestimated the harvestable acreage and that his proposal of sustainable harvest “was based on limited or no management” of nearly 1,000 acres that could be logged.
In 2004, Jock came to the conclusion that, as he told me, “club leadership had no particular interest in protecting this gorgeous property,” and he resigned from the club to fight for the trees. It was not an easy decision for him, because he loved the camaraderie of Bohemia. But soon he had formed a new club, the Bohemian Redwood Rescue Club, with eight activists and local residents.
The Rescue Club’s biggest victory so far, besides preventing any harvesting for the last three years, has been to save the old-growth redwoods in Bull Barn and Hollowtree, which the Grove’s leadership, after resisting every step of the way, finally agreed not to touch in perpetuity. But there are still thousands of redwoods and Douglas firs that the Grove is applying to cut, and the leadership is intent on going ahead with it.
In January 2008 the Bohemian Club announced that it was going to give the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation the 109-acre main grove and 54 nearby acres as a conservation easement. A Grove captain, Pat Gilligan, was on the elk foundation’s board. The Rescue Club’s lawyer, Paul Carroll, a veteran of many California environmental wars, sees this as a clever ploy to get the size of the property down to where it qualifies for an N.T.M.P. He wrote the club’s president, Jay Mancini, who had taken over in 2005, that this was a cynical and inappropriate use of a conservation easement to facilitate commercial exploitation, and not at all what it is intended for, and he promised to fight it.
When Flacks Attack
In late spring, I left a message for Mancini at the Bohemians’ stately clubhouse, in San Francisco, and a few days later got a call from Charlie Goodyear, who said he was working for Sam Singer, who was handling the Grove’s media requests. Charlie belongs to the family that used to own the San Francisco Chronicle, and Jock told me that he was a good guy. Singer & Associates’ Web site says the firm does among other things “hands-on … crisis communications for some of the nation’s leading corporations.” It takes care of the P.R. fallout from situations like layoffs, bankruptcy, or an explosion at a factory.
Last year Singer was hired by the San Francisco Zoo in the wake of the mauling of a 17-year-old by one of its tigers. Chevron had hired Singer to help it deflect responsibility for the cleanup of the massive toxic contamination from 356 wells that had been drilled in the Ecuadoran Amazon, and to question the reputations of two rain-forest activists, Pablo Fajardo and Luis Yanze, who were trying to hold Chevron accountable for it. (Fajardo’s heroic David-and-Goliath struggle was profiled in the May 2007 issue of Vanity Fair by William Langewiesche.) Sam Singer paints Jock as “a disgruntled former member who doesn’t want a single tree cut.” (Jock maintains all he wants is for the timber in the Grove to be managed according to accepted scientific practices. His big concern, he says, is about sustainability.)
I met Charlie at his office, and we had a conference call with Singer. I told them that I had learned about the logging controversy from Jock, who was an old Harvard classmate, and I was fully aware of his point of view and needed to hear the club’s side of the story. There’s good forestry and bad forestry, and maybe what the club wants to do is perfectly reasonable, but I would like to find out for myself.
Charlie said that the chances of getting a tour of the Grove were slim to none, but he would put in the request. He maintained that only 10 percent of the trees on the property are redwoods. (This contradicts Tunheim’s assessment that 60 percent of the board-footage in the Grove is redwood, which was included in one version of the N.T.M.P. application.) He said he thought Jock’s problem with the Grove was political, not with the forestry plan. “He’s made it his personal crusade to impose his will on the club,” he said. “There’s a level of obsessive-compulsiveness Jock has about this that’s not healthy for him.”
Singer, on the speakerphone, said the first thing I should do is go to Cal Fire’s office in Santa Rosa and look at the public record. The N.T.M.P. application (which I had, but which, as the club was in the process of preparing another revision, was obsolete) was on file there along with all the endorsements it had received. He gave me the names and numbers of two of Cal Fire’s bureaucrats to get in touch with. I should also talk to Nick Kent, the Grove’s current forester, Singer said.
When I then told him I’d rather not talk to the people who are doing publicity for the club, but directly to Mr. Mancini and the club’s management, Singer shot back, “I don’t do fucking publicity. I do public affairs. I’m not trying to sell you a bill of goods. There is no flackery here. We handle difficult issues for people. The issue here is how to preserve the Grove, and Jock and his merry band have acted in an ungentlemanly manner and gotten the members angry.”
It was worth a try, but I was unable to get Singer and Goodyear on board.
Two weeks later, the editor of Vanity Fair received a letter from Singer requesting, “in the strongest possible terms,” that I be removed from the story because I was a friend of Jock’s and that was a conflict of interest that violated journalistic ethics and would reflect badly on the magazine. (It would have been a conflict of interest if I hadn’t disclosed the relationship, but I had been completely open about my friendship with Jock.)
I sent Singer an e-mail that said, Nice try, but if you think I’m going to be taken off this story, it isn’t going to happen, and it was only because I am rigorous about being objective that I had contacted him. Singer fired off another letter to the magazine accusing me of “threatening” them. He closed by saying, “In the 21st Century, these are not the actions of a credible and responsible journalist.”
That’s when I decided to sneak in.
Fire on the Mountain
A few hundred yards into the property, I enter a stand of astounding redwoods. The trees are not old-growth, but, having sprouted in a thick layer of soil that slumped down from Lookout Mountain after the savage logging in the 1890s, they are already just as tall and thick. It’s so dark beneath them that little is growing besides chest-high sword ferns and huge clovers known as redwood sorrel. A few shafts of dusty light, in which small white moths are shimmering, have broken through the canopy, lighting up the open, needle-strewn floor like flashlight beams. My eyes widen as they take in, right next to my left shoe, a 10-inch banana slug, shiny, moist, and green with black spots.
The canopy starts at about 200 feet up and is so thick I can’t see how tall the trees are, but they look like they go up much higher. What happens with redwoods is that eventually the lead shoot, after extending straight up for several hundred years and feet, breaks off. Lateral shoots sprout below it and bend up toward the light, forming a torch-like tangle of interlacing needle-feathered branches. The flora and fauna of this rarefied, epiphytic mini-ecosystem, one of the last to be gotten to by scientists, include specialized creatures like the clouded salamander and the red tree vole, a minute crustacean related to the lobster, lichens, mosses, and two endangered bird species, the northern spotted owl and the marbled murrelet.
Two owls’ nests have been found on the property, and two more just off it. The hunt for them by California Fish and Game (which has been doing its job, although a critical report of the N.T.M.P. by its field biologist was politicized by the club) has contributed to the lengthy N.T.M.P. review process. Ironically, the Bohemian Club’s totem is the owl.
The most far-out thing about redwoods is that they don’t just stand there passively in their rain forest. They actually create it. Each of the millions of narrow, pointed needles in their crowns acts like a miniature condensation panel, capturing the fog that blows in off the Pacific. When their moisture reaches a critical point, the crowns cut loose with drenching downpours, even when the sky is cloudless and there are drought conditions nearby. A relatively small, 100-foot redwood can capture the equivalent of four inches of rain in a single dry evening. Large redwoods release hundreds of gallons daily, twice the average water used by a household of three. These regular precipitation events keep the forest perpetually damp and play a key role in protecting the coast from drought and fire. Fire is very rare in a mature redwood stand. Sometimes a fire will blow in from the neighboring chaparral, but it quickly loses velocity and strength in the moist, open understory, where there is little fuel to keep it going. The thick, fibrous bark of the redwoods is fire-resistant. The flames almost never reach the crowns of the trees, 200 feet up. They are usually stifled by the moisture in the air long before then.
Grovers gather at an encampment in 1941. William Randolph Hearst is fifth from left, seated.
One of the justifications Mancini, Kent, Singer, and the Grove Committee are using to obtain the new N.T.M.P. is that the big trees have to be thinned to reduce the danger of crown fire. There is, in fact, a direct connection between the new, ambitious timber-harvest plan (and the way it’s being represented as good for the forest) and the Bush administration’s “healthy-forest initiative,” which had been using fire-hazard reduction as the reason to cut trees in our national forests. The most conspicuous authority on the Grove’s forest-management plan and a proponent of the Bush initiative is Thomas Bonnicksen, professor emeritus of forest science at Texas A&M University. Bonnicksen has a big following at the club and spoke at the Bohemians’ San Francisco clubhouse last year in response to the intense criticism of the plan.
But Rule No. 1 of sustainable, responsible forestry is you do not take out the biggest, strongest trees, according to Jock and other critics. This is counter to the practice known as “high-grading.” Instead, you cull the weaker stems, and if you’re worried about fire, you clear out the understory. This is a big concern in the Grove at the moment, because there are some 25,000 dead tan oaks in its understory, killed by a fungal blight known as “sudden oak death,” which has swept across Northern California in the last five years, and with their shriveled dry leaves they are like tinderboxes. If fire is the worry, shouldn’t the priority be to take them out? Removal of trees for a noncommercial purpose does not require an N.T.M.P. Mancini and his supporters are saying that what they want to do is to restore the original redwood forest, but this is sort of like the famous Vietnam quote about how we had to destroy the village in order to save it. Cutting big redwoods isn’t the way to restore a redwood forest, say the Grove’s critics; it sets back its recovery however many years the trees have been growing. At the time, Mancini et al. were saying that none of the big redwoods would be touched, but now they acknowledge that in areas of “dense crowding … a few large trees are harvested to increase growth potential and health of the remaining largest redwood trees.”
Charlie Goodyear also told me that there are 100 big trees per acre in the Grove, a density that increases the risk of crown fire and has to be reduced. But what I can see growing on the slopes of Lookout Mountain, which rise steeply from the riverbank, is way below that, 10 to 15 per acre max. Mancini has been taking local residents and influential environmentalists to the top of Lookout, where there are almost no redwoods. The sun, soil, and moisture conditions on hilltops are generally not favorable for redwoods. Most of them grow down in canyons. So Mancini was able to say—I got this from someone who took the local-resident tour—“See how few redwoods there are outside the main grove? Only 20 percent of the big trees in the Grove are redwoods.” Charlie told me 10 percent, and Sam Singer, in his last letter to the magazine, wrote, “Old growth redwood … comprise 5 percent or less of the total trees at Bohemian Grove.” Another figure he has briefed the media with is that only 1.5 percent of the trees in the Grove are going to be cut. What has already been done appears to be “really shitty forestry,” says a former valet at one of the camps, one of two people I spoke with who have gone out and seen it. “They just laid waste to Kitchen Creek”—site of the last T.H.P. harvest. The other, a local resident, says he found big redwoods in draws marked for cutting.
The top of Lookout, my informant told me, looked more like a park than a forest, because most of the big firs had been taken out, several within the last few years. Mancini portrayed it as typical of the rest of the property. (There are actually six different forest types on it, some of them dominated by redwoods.) This is what we’re up against if we’re going to restore the redwood forest that used to be here, Mancini told the tour, waving at the dense jungle of understory trees and shrubs that had shot up in the absence of the big trees. “We have to clear out the dead tan oak and the rest of this stuff. It’s very labor-intensive and expensive. It’s going to cost $7,000 an acre, so to finance it we have to take out a few big trees.”
That’s the other new rationale for the N.T.M.P. It’s like Tanzania’s wildlife service selling permits, at thousands of dollars a pop, to blow away an elephant or a lion in order to finance its elephant-and-lion-protection program. Why not just charge the members $80 a year?
Mancini told the local-resident tour that the annual timber harvest is going to be scaled down to about 750,000 board feet, but this is still “dead on arrival,” as far as Jock is concerned. “It’s like negotiating how many military bases you are going to be allowed to keep in Iraq,” he told me. “They start with a high figure, a million board feet and counting, as a bargaining position, so we can feel O.K. with their upping the harvest by 100 to 150 percent. But look at the damage that the past harvests have done.”
This is exactly what I am planning to do. Tomorrow, if all goes well, I am going to hike to the scene of the last timber harvest, which was in 2005, at Kitchen Creek. The former valet, who liked to walk in the woods, stumbled onto it and told me it was a massacre: “It turned my stomach, and my whole attitude about the club, that it could be letting this happen.” From there I will go to Bull Barn and Mount Heller, where the first harvest under the N.T.M.P. is slated to take place. This should take four to six hours, during which I’d be able to survey enough terrain to form a ballpark impression of how many big redwoods there are overall.
As I continue toward the Cremation of Care, I can’t help but think it’s in the interests of California that these trees continue to live, so they can remove carbon and water vapor from the atmosphere and mitigate global warming. They are worth more, actually, standing. So why doesn’t the Grove get a conservation easement for the entire property, then sell carbon credits, emissions offsets, for all the trees? They could in fact make a lot more money than they would from cutting them. But they don’t want to do that. Caryl Hart reportedly floated that idea and got nowhere. The latest version of the club’s N.T.M.P. states that they have no interest in exploring this option. Nick Kent says that “preserving dense second-growth forests in their current condition would not be the best way of restoring the forest or making greater contributions to carbon sequestration.”
Penetrating the Old-Boy Network
I proceed warily up the river toward the main grove. Above the swimming hole is a guardhouse, which I avoid by scrambling up the steep side of Lookout Mountain on a skidding trail. The trail is flagged with ribbons. It looks like it’s going to be brought back into use. One member of the Bohemian Redwood Rescue Club, who has been living nearby for the last 18 years, told me that every year during the off-season, after the encampment, when the members had all left, there was a constant stream of trucks with “big-ass trees” driving right out of the club’s front gate. This trail is not that old. It must have been put in during one of the recent harvests.
The trail comes out onto Osprey View Road, which I follow down for several hundred yards until, abruptly, right below me is the main grove. The sound of raucous male laughter drifts up from the camps, which are staggered on the steep slopes of a deep canyon, from which titan redwoods are rising.
A cook in the kitchen of one of the camps looks up and spots me, and studies me curiously. I give him a reassuring smile, and the cook, apparently deciding that I must be a member, coming back from a hike up Lookout, returns his attention to whatever he is whipping up on the stove. The road bends to the right, and I take a little footpath that winds down to the canyon floor, passing several empty camps on the way. Most of the members are having dinner in the main dining hall, on the other side of the Grove, past the lake. In a few minutes they will all pour out and sit on the lawn in front of the lake and the Cremation will begin.
Several small groups are already making their way along Edwards Road, passing one humongous redwood after another, to the lake, and I fall in with them. After a few minutes we reach the lake, which was donated, along with the original sewage system, by the Bechtel family. The lake is small, an acre or so, and on the other side of it a looming four-story statue of an owl casts its reflection on the water. The statue is a little creepy. It has a slightly diabolical vibe. It was sculpted by Haig Patigian, a great pal of Jock’s great-grandfather’s. In front of the Owl there is a stage. This is where the effigy of a child called Dull Care will soon be mock-sacrificed by a group of men wearing red robes with sharp-pointed hoods, then placed in a little boat with a carved skull on the tip of its prow, set on fire, and sent across the lake.
Bohemian Grove memorabilia. Photograph by Karen Kuehn/memorabilia courtesy of Mary Moore.
I’m a little early. Only a dozen men are sitting on the lawn. Dinner has not yet let out. Two rows of blue canvas folding chairs have been set up facing the lake. Only one elderly gentleman has arrived, so I plunk myself down two chairs away from him. It turns out he is the retired coach of the U.C. Davis football team. We talk football. I tell him about the crucial sack my son, a six-foot-six-inch defensive end for the Yale Bulldogs, made during the 2003 Harvard-Yale game. He says Davis plays in Division I-AA, same as the Ivy League. He couldn’t be nicer. “You sure have a good time in here,” I say as I study the program for this year’s encampment, and the old coach says with a blissed-out smile, “Yes, we sure do.”
All kinds of events have been lined up: on the great pop hits of World War II, Gypsy music, mushrooms, Hollywood and its global audience, Sam Cooke, National Geographic’s Genographic Project, Cajun music. The talks at the lake and the museum reflect the growing anxiety in the Grove: “America, We Have a Problem,” by Bohemian Norman Augustine; “The Future Isn’t What It Used to Be,” by Ken Jowitt. Other offerings: “The Role of Nuclear in America’s Energy Choices”; “Always Present—The Role of Religion in American Politics”; “Past Ideals—Future Strategy,” by James Billington, Bohemian and the Librarian of Congress. Tony Snow, a Bohemian and one of George W. Bush’s more effective press secretaries, is scheduled to talk about “Life in the Press Room,” but he will die today, I will find out later, after a prolonged battle with colon cancer. They must not have been able to change the program.
Two talks are relevant to the logging controversy: “Protecting Your Right to a Grove Shower [i.e., fog-drip precipitation],” by Jack Blackwell, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation’s vice president of lands and conservation. (This is about the controversial conservation easement for the main grove.) And “Tomorrow’s Grove in Progress,” by Ralph Osterling, the original proponent of taking a more hands-on, commercial approach to managing the club’s timber assets. Another man, in his 40s and extremely obese, sits down in the row in front of us. He gives me an icy look, then turns to the retired coach and says, “Isn’t it nice that there is a section only for the members.” Not picking up on what he’s driving at, I try to break the ice with him and make stabs at conversation. “I hear McCain might be coming next weekend,” I say, and he says, “There is no way McCain would come here, ever.” Right behind me, two men are relieving themselves on some redwood roots.
At this point an ancient trembling man, supported by a man in his 20s, makes his way to the long wooden bench I have just noticed in front of the canvas chairs and sits down. The obese man greets him obsequiously (“Mr. Bass, come and sit closer so I can talk to you”) and freezes me out. I finally realize that I have made a terrible faux pas and sat down in the V.I.P. section, reserved for the most venerable old Grovers, and get up and say, “Well, I guess I’ll be moving along. Awfully nice to meet you.”
Suitcase on the Loose
As I turn to leave, I am accosted by a man with a mustache, who is wearing a plasticized identification card around his neck. He asks me, very politely, “Excuse me, sir, are you a member?” I say no, I’m a guest. “May I see your chit?”—something guests are issued at the front gate and are supposed to have with them at all times. I say I’m afraid I’ve left it at the camp. “Which camp is that?” Midway, I tell him. “And who are you a guest of?” Laney Thornton, I say with just the right amount of haughty irritation. “Excuse me, who?” Laney Thornton, I repeat, enunciating each syllable slowly and succinctly.
(Laney, a member, doesn’t know about this. We haven’t laid eyes on each other in 40 years, but we were on The Harvard Lampoon together, and I’m sure he won’t mind a good prank for a good cause. Or maybe he will.)
“And may I have your name, sir,” the guard continues. Roger Austin, I tell him. (Roger was a kid I grew up with in the 50s and the name has just the right Anglo-Saxon ring to it. He died of a heart attack 20 years ago.)
The security guard is beginning to think I could be for real. “If you’ll just have a seat on the lawn here, sir, while we do our thing,” he says, and starts to transmit the information on a walkie-talkie.
While he is scrunched over his receiver, I crawl along on the grass ever so discreetly for about 50 feet, slowly get up, and nonchalantly walk around the lake, past the band shell, where a large orchestra is tuning up, and behind the Owl, and steal a glance behind me. He’s following me. But when I get all the way around the lake, passing a group of young men in maroon elf costumes, tights and all, and start back up Edwards Road, I turn and he’s gone. I reach the path I came down on and take it back up to Osprey View Road undetected.
At this point, I could leave the Grove, bag the Cremation of Care, and still salvage tomorrow’s bushwhack, and no one would be the wiser, but I start thinking how I’ve gone to all this trouble, and I’d at least like to catch a glimpse of the ceremony. Maybe if I continue on Osprey View until I get above the lake, I can watch it from there, and maybe even, after it’s over, circulate among the camps.
Great. No one is up here, I tell myself, but just as I am approaching the lake, I round a bend, and there are four guards standing in the road. They see me. Not good. What would anybody be doing up here when the Cremation is about to begin? There is nothing to do but to continue. “Evening, gentlemen,” I say with a congenial smile. “I seem to have overshot the path down to the lake. Could you possibly point me in its direction?” One of the guards asks me my name and radios it in, and I can hear a voice on the other end, saying, “We just had a query for Roger Austin down at the lake 15 minutes ago.”
After what seems like an eternity, during which I am thinking my goose is cooked, the guard gets a transmission which I can’t hear, and tells me, “It’s all right, Mr. Austin, you’re cleared,” and shows me a path down to the lake, which I take. Then I realize that the other security guard is going to be waiting for me at the bottom. Down below, hundreds of men are sitting on the lawn. The Cremation is getting under way. I duck between two redwoods, thinking I will lie low until the coast is clear, but then a flashlight shines on me. One of the guards spotted me from above. It’s like that moment in a nightmare where you’re chased by some monster into a room with no exit, and the monster closes in and you wake up in a cold sweat, breathing heavily.
The guard takes me back up to the road, and I come clean. “My name is not Roger Austin. I’m a journalist, and I’m here just trying to do my job, like you are. I’m just trying to get a sense of what this place is all about, and if you like I will leave the property immediately.”
A golf cart arrives, and the guard from the lake, who has walked up the path, sits beside me as I am taken to a little conference room in the office building of the club, where the guard tells me to empty all my pockets.
The club manager, Matthew Oggero, arrives. He appears to be in a foul mood. I tell him my name, and he says, “I know. Vanity Fair.”
It seems they had been expecting me.
Oggero takes my notes and photocopies them, and a red-haired deputy sheriff pats me down and cuffs me. A young employee of the club takes pictures of me with my rain shell folded up and showing my potbelly, which is actually not that bad these days. I’m six feet, 225 pounds—par for a sybaritic 61-year-old. (This humiliating Abu Ghraib portfolio is later distributed, undoubtedly by Sam Singer, to media outlets, among them an army of right-wing knucklehead bloggers, who post it all over the Web. The story makes the New York Post’s “Page Six” and the San Francisco Chronicle.)
The Dining Circle, 1924. From the Bancroft Library/University of California, Berkeley.
My treatment in that little conference room was legally questionable, as was the distribution of the humiliating pictures. The whole arrest wasn’t handled properly, according to my local lawyer; if you are caught trespassing on property that isn’t posted, you don’t even have to give your name, and all they can do is tell you to leave immediately, and if you do so, end of story. I should have told them my name was Suitcase, the name I perform music under. It would have gotten a lot of publicity for my new CD, Suitcase on the Loose, now available online.
Many people thought what I had done was just great. Later another cop observed, shaking his head, after I told him why I had no choice but to go into the Grove because I had a strong suspicion of criminality and was being given false information, “These elites get away with everything.” And a local businesswoman said, after the Chronicle came out with its story about my arrest, “Make them walk the straight path. Don’t let them walk the crooked path.”
Lipstick on a Corpse
A simple case of trespassing, by someone who had no criminal record and was cooperative and did no damage to the property, was not going to bring me any jail time, although it took six hours to get bailed out. I was told that if I ever set foot in the Grove again I’d really be in trouble. My case was transferred to Adult Diversion Services, an alternative to the judicial-system setup for misdemeanor offenses. With the intention of avoiding criminal charges, I have to write a monthly report on how I’m doing, whatever I feel like writing, for four months.
A supper menu from 1897. From the Bancroft Library/University of California, Berkeley.
So the opportunity to see Bull Barn, Kitchen Creek, and Mount Heller didn’t pan out. I wasn’t going to be able to get an idea of how many big redwoods there are on the property. But you can see the damage to Kitchen Creek, still horrendous after three years, on Google Earth. And there is a way of using infra-red to sense vegetation types by satellite. The conservationist Iain Douglas-Hamilton is using it to understand the movements of radio-collared elephants in Kenya, so an aerial census of the redwoods and a computation of their density per acre should be possible.
I spent four hours at Cal Fire’s Santa Rosa offices going over the club’s old T.H.P.’s and the latest N.T.M.P.’s on file. The last T.H.P., for Kitchen Creek in 2005, which the former valet had described as a massacre, had been signed off on. The director had certified that all requirements of the Forest Practice Act and rules of the Board of Forestry and Forest Protection had been complied with and “no violations were observed during the inspection.”
“Very rarely does Cal Fire issue a violation, and only after we rub their nose in it,” Rick Coates, the executive director of Forest Unlimited and a veteran of many redwood battles, told me. “They let the landowner determine what is sustainable. It’s all a joke, a bad joke, a lot of paperwork that means nothing.”
For the next eight months Jock and his merry band waited for the new, revised N.T.M.P. It was reportedly hung up by the Grove’s lawyers, who were trying to make the language of the conservation-easement conveyance, which the Rescue Club was fighting, unassailable. Apparently there was an internal debate on the elk foundation board about accepting the conveyance.
Meanwhile, copies of the new N.T.M.P. were circulated among a few selected opinion-makers and received some important endorsements. Among them was that of Stephen Sillett, the pioneering ecologist of redwood crowns and tree-climbing madman celebrated in Richard Preston’s 2007 book, The Wild Trees. Sillett holds the Kenneth L. Fisher chair in Redwood Forest Ecology established in 2006 at Humboldt State University. Fisher, a Bohemian, runs a huge hedge fund, writes a column for Forbes, and is outspokenly pro-logging. Sillett’s letter said that the Grove has already planted 60,000 redwood saplings. Bob Weir, of the Grateful Dead, has also written glowingly in the new N.T.M.P.’s favor, and I spoke twice with Caryl Hart, and she defended it both times and tried to persuade me that there wasn’t really a story in this little contretemps. Caryl did make the valid point that when the crown is opened and sunlight strikes the saplings that have sprouted in circular patterns called “fairy rings” around old stumps, and from fallen stems on the forest floor, they take off and start to grow in leaps and bounds. But more often, according to Philip Rundel, a professor of biology at U.C.L.A., who has written in opposition to the last N.T.M.P., the sunlight causes an explosion of other understory vegetation, including flammable shrubs—as the jungly, big, treeless top of Lookout Mountain illustrates dramatically.
According to copies of its I.R.S. statements posted on a Web site tracking nonprofits, the Bohemian Club has been operating in the red, reporting gross losses of $600,000 in 2005 and $290,000 in 2006. This is about what they have not been making since the harvests were suspended, so maybe one motive for cutting the trees is simply to keep the club up and running. But couldn’t this be achieved by minimally increasing dues on its members?
This February, the Bohemian Club finally submitted the new N.T.M.P. to Cal Fire. For Jock, it was not good news: the club is asking for a permit to cut 875,000 board feet a year to start with, rising over time to 1.7 million board feet. During a 20-year cycle every stand that is not protected would be hit. The operation would cut up to 40 percent of the conifers over 24 inches D.B.H. After the first cycle is complete, they would go in and cut a similar percentage of trees in another rotation. This is a little lower than the previous application, but it is still, Jock tells me, “commercial timber harvesting disguised as fire-hazard reduction.” He calls it “lipstick on a corpse.”
The very day the N.T.M.P. was made publicly available, Rick Coates got a letter from the I.R.S. asking him to provide all kinds of tax documents for his outfit, Forest Unlimited, which has tax-exempt 501(c)3 status and through which Jock flows all donations for his own effort. They also asked for Coates’s donor list, which he’s reluctant to divulge, because some contributors donated money on the condition of anonymity. And, he says, the I.R.S. asked for all of Forest Unlimited’s e-mails and correspondence, which he considers protected by the First Amendment. His accountant told him it’s a lot more than the feds usually ask for in an audit. The timing is probably a coincidence, but some opponents of the Grove’s forestry plans believe it’s a creepy indication of how far the web of collusion might spread.