George Atiyeh Was the Hero the Forest Needed

The 72-year-old activist, who passed away last month, used mining claims, scenic flights, hiking trails, and occasionally outright confrontation to protect the Opal Creek Wilderness.

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A young girl in Oregon sits cross-legged on the sidewalk, armed with a piece of chalk. She engraves images of trees and mountains into the pavement, accompanied by the words, “RIP George Atiyeh.” That image is just one of many, as kids all over Salem and Portland drew similar chalk art remembrance of the activist who passed away in the Beachie Creek Fire last month.

Atiyeh, 72, touched generations of Oregonians both young and old with his work. The Opal Creek Ancient Forest Center, which George founded in 1989 to promote environmentally conscious practices, now receives some 20,000 visitors every year. But his legacy began well before then.

“When I first heard about George, it was that there was this hurting, reclusive Vietnam vet, the Governor’s nephew, up in the woods trying to live life away from everyone and everything,” said Charlotte Levinson, a former board member of the Save Opal Creek Council. For much of the 1960s and 1970s, that was the case: Atiyeh had returned to live with his family in Jawbone Flats where he grew up, spending much of his time alone. But in the 1970s, the Forest Service began preparation for a massive logging operation at Opal Creek, and George wasn’t having it. So he got to work.

George Atiyeh portrait
George AtiyehCourtesy Michael Donnelly

In one of Atiyeh’s most devilishly clever moves, he established the Shiny Rock Mining Company in Jawbone Flats in 1972. By digging up enough rock from the old mining tunnels in the Flats, Atiyeh could theoretically get a permit for the land under the General Mining Law of 1872, blocking any claims by the Forest Service using the very law that permitted exploitation of the land in the first place.

“It was just downright genius of George to be able to use the 1872 Mining Law to actually protect land,” said Michael Donnelly, a longtime friend and colleague of Atiyeh’s. The two met 40 years ago at Breitenbush Hot Spring, where George was restoring an old hydroelectric dam. A friendship blossomed, and the two men started to build a network of activists, often flying across the country together to raft and hike.

In an ironic turn of events, Atiyeh himself began working as a logger in the late 1970s; however, he never stopped fighting to protect Jawbone Flats.

“It just dawned on him that, ‘hey, [timber] isn’t an endless supply,’” said Donnelly.

In addition to his other ventures, Atiyeh was a pilot, and starting in 1986, he began using a small plane to fly politicians and members of the media over Opal Creek so they could witness firsthand the destructive impact of nearby logging operations.

“It was just palpable, and you could see that people could get it that way,” explained Donnelly.

George—the nephew of former Oregon Governor Vic Atiyeh—had a knack for the political arena. “George enjoyed that part of it a lot – way more than I did,” Donnelly said. Atiyeh and his disciples fought the timber industry tooth and nail, going to hearings, lobbying in Washington D.C. and talking to thousands of groups, from churches to the Chamber of Commerce.Slowly, politicians, media figures, and activists began to rally around his efforts.

“His confidence in the mission made others feel confident,” said Levinson. “His fighting spirit turned ordinary people into warriors. His laughter, his generosity, the twinkle in his eyes made it fun.”

Those efforts, however, made him a pariah in the logging town he called home. By the late 1980s, he’d become the face of the ancient forest protection movement and had sacrificed his anonymity and the goodwill of many of his neighbors.

“He’d go to football games to watch his sons play, and nobody would sit with him. He’d have a whole set of bleachers to himself,” Donnelly recounted. “He always would like to say, ‘You know, I didn’t do this on purpose, but I did it because I had to. It was the only thing to do.’ And I consider that the definition of honor.”

But the greatest test was still to come. In the late 1980s, the Forest Service began stapling clear-cut boundary markers to trees in Opal Creek, preparing for a devastating logging operation. Atiyeh was enraged.

“Legend has it that George jumped out from behind a tree, ammo strapped across his chest, and told that Freddie he better get down on his knees and start reciting the Lord’s Prayer, and never come back,” said Levinson.

At the Shiny Rock mining camp in Jawbone Flats, George and his friends deliberated over what to do next. One man joked that they should build a trail in order to get more people on their side.

“We all got up in the morning, and George was already up, drinking coffee. And he’d already come up with a list of all the tasks everybody had to do to get the trail built,” said Donnelly. The 7.5-mile Kopetski Trail was completed in the summer of 1988.

But trouble arose when the district ranger confronted them, claiming that the trail was illegal. When threatened with arrest, Atiyeh retorted that whatever destruction the group had inflicted paled in comparison to the Forest Services plans, which included 11 miles of road and 1,700 acres of clear cut. In the end, he and Donnelly were never charged.

In 1992, Atiyeh’s Shiny Rock Mining Company finally received patents from the Forest Service for 151 acres of land, which he then transferred to activists with Friends of Opal Creek. In 1996, federal legislation established the Opal Creek Wilderness and the Opal Creek Scenic Recreation Area. George had won.

In place of the old mining camp at Jawbone Flats, Atiyeh, Donnelly and others constructed the Opal Creek Ancient Forest Center, which runs family backpacking expeditions and nature workshops.

“I think it really changed the political climate of Oregon,” Donnelly said. “There’s a younger generation of Oregonians that have a whole different worldview on it now.”

Even though the Center was severely damaged by the Beachie Creek Fire, Atiyeh’s friends haven’t forgotten his legacy so easily.

“A beautiful soul who will forever be one with the forest he loved,” said Levinson.