Aggravated assault. Reckless endangerment. Unlawful trail damage. Illegal logging. Obstructing a public thoroughfare.
At 82 years old, J.D. Protiva is no stranger to the court system. J.D. accrued his most serious charges over ten years ago after stringing a metal cable across the route of a motorcycle race on Arizona’s San Francisco Peaks—a race which he alleged was illegal due to its passage through Mexican spotted owl habitat deemed “critical” by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Some labeled him an eco-saboteur and terrorist. One commenter called for him to be “strung by the balls from his cables.”
Last August of 2016, J.D. was on trial again for felling trees across the route of a downhill mountain bike race and planting himself firmly in the center of the trail with his four horses tied together in a pack string. Shortly after the action, the Arizona Daily Sun published a scathing editorial entitled “Forest Protestor Needs a Timeout and More.” On his court date, J.D. showed up in a bathrobe and black armband—a tribute to Vietnam–era Supreme Court case affirming students’ rights to protest in public schools. Again, J.D. said he did it for the owls.
Intrigued by these events, I dug into J.D.’s past, feeling an undeniable, yet cautious adoration for this character. Indeed, the more I learned about him, the more he fit the bill of an emblematic environmentalist loon, born between the pages of an Ed Abbey novel. This anarcho-cowboy archetype, I believed, had been long-buried beneath the suburban rubble and evaporative reservoirs of the new sanitized West. But perhaps I was wrong. Perhaps J.D. was the real deal. I knew that I had to meet him.
I pull up to a ramshackle barn in Doney Park, a ranching community on the outskirts of Flagstaff. It’s 8 am and already hot. A familiar, lethargic haze hangs in the air—carbonized particulates from Arizona’s perennially burning ponderosa forests. J.D. comes bounding down the wooden stairs in faded overalls, a wiry white beard hardly concealing his wicked grin. Today we’ll be riding to Doyle Saddle, 16 miles and 4,000 feet up the mountain. He’s been meaning to retrieve some “equipment,” I’m told, left up there years ago.
We rig dusty saddles on four horses—J.D.’s trusty accomplices—and start our trek up the mountain into the Kachina Peaks Wilderness. An oil-stained chainsaw bobs precariously atop the formerly-feral burrow in front of me. We’ll need the saw to navigate through this spring’s blowdown of beetle-killed pines, J.D. informs me. I remind him that we will be in wilderness lands; saws are illegal. He grunts back at me. I gather he doesn’t give a damn.
As we traverse up the mountain I learn more about J.D. I notice how he toes that paradoxical line between being a socialist and a libertarian. I confirm that he’s certainly more of a monkey-wrencher than a letter-writer. A lifetime of direct action protests has landed him in “Coco-GitMo” (otherwise known as the Coconino County jail) more times than he can count. From speaking out against the Iraq war by hoisting himself atop a national monument flagpole in a rowboat, to stopping traffic with his horse and buggy in protest of the Forest Service’s refusal to implement a campfire ban, J.D. explains that often times, inaction is simply not an option.
When it comes to the issues, J.D. is usually right. Barely a week after his 2010 arrest for protesting the lack of a fire ban, an escaped campfire set 15,000 acres of fuel-loaded ponderosa forests ablaze, causing horrendous flooding, the evacuation of 650 homes and the tragic death of a 12-year-old girl.
We ascend into the wilderness through the scorched, dusty aftermath of that same fire. The landscape has barely begun to recover. Lines of alien tree cones, snaking mulch swales, and plowed earthen berms crisscross the landscape. The fire was so unnaturally hot that not even the old growth survived.
J.D. is no scientist. But he has an intimate understanding of the land that few agency professionals could ever grasp. I’d call it wisdom. His voice cracks and his eyes glisten as he describes his relationship with the San Francisco Peaks. He tells me that he truly felt the fire danger that June in 2010. He was terrified to lose what he loved best and knew he had to act. “It’s my Shangri-La,” he chokes. “It’s the only place for me.” Newly home from jail, he watched the mountain burn and cried. He felt he didn’t do enough.
We continue up the Weatherford Trail until a waist-high blockade of fallen beetle-kill pine stymies our passage. I watch J.D. wrestle with his chainsaw, ripping at the pull-chord repeatedly, to no avail. The machine growls and dies, growls and dies. Breathing too hard to speak, the 82 year-old tears at the old saw with dogged persistence, sweat gleaming on his flushed-pink forehead. I begin to wonder what would happen if he keels over here, ten miles up the mountain. I imagine writing an obituary rather than an essay.
The contraption roars to life.
Part of me cringes as I watch J.D. rip through the ponderosa trunk. I cough, inhaling the gasoline and sweet pine dust, admiring the old man so full of contradictions in front of me. I may not always agree with his means, but I can take lessons from his resolve.
I think about what my generation is up against. I think about how the people at the helm in Washington have made dismantling environmental protections, bullying the marginalized, and spreading a doctrine of fear their top priorities. I think about the fate of our public lands, about the spiritual, cultural and natural wealth that could so quickly be lost.
Moving forward, I will take a page from J.D.’s playbook. When you know what you love, and you know what you can’t stand to lose, inaction is not an option.
Laiken Jordahl currently works with the National Park Service studying trends in wilderness character in parks and monuments throughout the Rocky Mountain West. He is a University of Arizona Graduate and grew up in Flagstaff Arizona.