Actor Woody Harrelson isn’t one to tread lightly when it comes to environmental issues. Acts of civil disobedience have him awaiting a response from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and facing charges in a Kentucky court. In his 1995 tax return, he withheld money from the IRS and sent them a letter airing his grievances with the government’s disregard for the environment in its spending policies and legislation. His concern about deforestation has led him to promote industrial hemp as an alternative fiber source for paper and building materials. With the planting of four French industrial hemp seeds in a Kentucky field, he is challenging the constitutionality of a Kentucky law that fails to distinguish between industrial hemp and marijuana.
Since his involvement with the hit TV series, Cheers, Harrelson has had a successful, if somewhat notorious, film career, appearing in such movies as Indecent Proposal, Natural Born Killers, White Men Can’t Jump, and the Oscar-nominated The People vs. Larry Flynt. In private life he follows a strict vegetarian diet and practices yoga. He spends much of his time with his family in their Costa Rican home, set in a pristine mountainous region. It’s a place, he says, where he can scoop up water from a stream and drink it.
The energetic 34-year-old actor is a dedicated environmentalist. He continues to network with a variety of environmental organizations, including the Turner Foundation, Surfrider Foundation, Earth Island Institute and Rainforest Action Network. This year, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) is presenting him with its Humanitarian Award. When E Magazine first caught up with Harrelson on campus at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, over 40 students were gathered around him, seeking autographs. He played easily off of the crowd with his quick sense of humor, and urged students to attend a meeting on campus that night at which he would announce a nationwide industrial hemp essay contest for high school and college students.
E got in a few questions before Harrelson was whisked off to the opening of the Hemp Museum in Campbellsville, Kentucky, a project he had funded. The interview continued the next morning in a conference room at a Lexington TV station where Harrelson had just taped a local talk show. The actor, clad entirely in hemp clothing, from shoes to causal jacket, spoke passionately about environmental issues.
Shortly after our interview, on November 23, Harrelson was arrested in San Francisco with eight other forest activists for scaling the Golden Gate Bridge and unfurling a banner calling attention to the planned logging of the since-protected 60,000-acre Headwaters Forest in northern California. Harrelson and the others were charged with trespassing, creating a public nuisance and failure to obey a police officer. “We did it to save the redwoods,” Harrelson said as he was being led away in handcuffs. “All 60,000 acres, we’ve got to save them all.”
E: In The New York Times Magazine, John Tierney wrote that for trees being cut down, even more trees will probably be planted in their place, and that America’s supply of timber has been increasing for decades, with the nation’s forests having three times more wood than in 1920. What’s your reaction to these arguments against tree conservation?
Harrelson: That sounds to me like a bunch of industry bullshit. They’re cutting down 1,000-year-old redwoods in the Headwaters area of California. Now, how long do you think it’s going to take those trees to regenerate? A thousand years. You can’t cut down a forest and expect there to be the same biodiversity by planting one species of some fast-growing tree that you plan to cut down in another 12 years. It just doesn’t happen. You cannot get the same biodiversity that you have in old growth. There are a lot of old-growth forests that the timber industry is going into right now and clear-cutting, in Montana and Idaho. The clear-cutting is completely sanctioned, owing to the Forest Salvage Rider passed by the government.
How is it that you became active in environmental issues?
I’ve been concerned for years. When I was in the seventh grade I did a report about the environment and the loss of species. It was supposed to be only a few pages, but ended up being nearly 50. I’ve always had an intense relationship with nature, something which I think all of us have somewhere inside of us. Getting involved environmentally, really stepping out there, happened when I was doing Cheers. Ted Danson couldn’t make it to a couple of his meetings with the American Oceans Campaign, and he asked me if I would step in for him. You know, they need a token celebrity at those events.
Would you talk about your involvement in the protection of Montana forests from the 1992 Montana Wilderness Bill?
That bill just flew through Congress. It concerned six million acres of old-growth national forests, and was opening it to the timber industry and the various extractive industries. I remember reading a little article about it in the back pages of a newspaper. The more I found out about it, the more upset I became. I hooked up with my friend Peter Bahouth, who at the time was with Greenpeace. He is now running the Turner Foundation. We organized, and ultimately stopped them. Of course, with bills like the Logging Rider, whatever we did then doesn’t amount to much. Which really puts into question what kind of President Clinton is. When you think about it, when he ran for president, it was a bottom-heavy ticket with Gore. A lot of us environmentalists were looking forward to the environmental influence, but unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to have panned out that way.
Clinton now says he made a mistake in letting the Logging Rider pass.
Well, that’s nice. If he really thinks it’s a bad thing he should have issued an Executive Order and stopped it.
How is it that the Logging Rider, which gave the timber industry access to damaged or threatened trees, made forests so vulnerable?
There was no judicial review. The writers of the law made sure that the language was in there so that nobody could challenge the timber industry in court. If there’s just a potential for damage to trees by fire or insects, they could go in there and cut them down. And once they build roads into the middle of a wilderness to cut down the trees, it’s no longer wilderness. The Salvage Rider did the worst possible thing for our forests.
In Montana, what were the arguments that the timber industry used to support their agenda?
Their argument is always the same: jobs versus the environment. A lot of people in Montana have timber-related jobs. I remember doing some calculations in which I took the hundreds of millions of dollars in subsidies given to the timber industry in Montana alone, and divided it by the number of timber workers in the state. Just by dispersing the tax dollars handed to the timber industry, each worker could stay at home, not cut a single tree, and get $80,000. So we have this artificial price for paper. Paper should be much more expensive. Anyway, public opinion in Montana was pretty much split.
A lot of people live in Montana because of its beauty and don’t want to see it spoiled. I think the jobs versus environment argument is a phony one. The timber industry doesn’t care that much about job creation. They’re continually mechanizing things and reducing the number of jobs. Look at what happened: The timber industry started on the eastern seaboard and moved through Pennsylvania and Ohio leaving behind abandoned factories and people out of work. They did the same thing in the northwest. It’s maddening to fly over those clear-cuts. It makes you nauseous. Now they’re moving into Montana and Idaho. Next it will be Canada, and wherever else they can find. Their concern is just to make that profit.
Do you think there are sound forest management principles which can allow for the harvesting of old-growth timber in a sustainable manner that doesn’t play havoc with forest ecology?
Right now there should be a moratorium on the cutting down of old growth in this country. That is a small thing to ask at this point. There is only four percent of old growth left. Ninety-six percent of it has been cut down.
Some friends and I recently went into Headwaters in northern California. We trespassed. I don’t know if you’ve ever sat down next to a thousand-year-old tree. It is something to behold, and it’s not just the tree, it’s the wildlife around it. It’s a place that connects you with your spirit. A big part of the problem in the world today is that we’ve lost our connection with nature. We’re so concerned with making a buck, and I’m not saying that I haven’t been prey to this myself. We are getting walled in, drinking bottled water, and we can’t see the forest for the trees..
To what extent do you think hemp cultivation could take the pressure off our woodlands?
Every year in the United States alone, over 50 million trees are cut down, with much of the wood being used for paper and paper products. Some percentage also goes to making fiber board. All of that could easily be made from hemp. Agricultural waste can also be used. A blending of agripulp and hemp makes great paper, stronger than what’s made from trees, and much more recyclable. Wood fibers are short and it gets harder and harder to keep them together with each recycling.
Chris Boucher, a co-owner with you of Hempstead (an industrial hemp products company), cultivated an experimental crop of industrial hemp in California a couple of years ago. What’s the story?
Well, they were growing it with permission from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. I went down to see it. I was really psyched about it. It was the first time that its cultivation had been allowed since the Hemp for Victory program during World War II, when there was a fiber shortage. Then the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) or state police came in and said “We’re mowing this down.” They never charged Hempstead with anything, because they knew they couldn’t. They didn’t have legal grounds.
When the Colorado Hemp Production Act was before the Colorado legislature, you guaranteed Colorado farmers that you would buy any industrial hemp crops at fair market value.
Yeah. I was going to buy it for Hempstead. I also have a hemp import company and could have sold it there. There’s a strong demand for it here in this country. We’re importing it from China, Hungary, England, and pretty soon we’ll be importing it from Canada, where it’s perfectly legal.
You withheld a portion of your 1995 taxes and sent a letter of protest to the IRS. Would you talk about that?
I’m upset that in our nation some $85 billion are going to corporate welfare every year. That money is going to subsidize timber, petroleum, and pesticide industries, nuclear power and mining interests. We’re in a situation of taxation without representation, and that’s evidenced by the fact that so many people won’t go to the polls.
I think the whole industrial hemp issue is the little guys against the big guys. They’re saying that they can’t regulate industrial hemp, because they don’t know if people will be growing marijuana in industrial hemp plots. Well, how is it that all these other countries are doing it? And what about the nuclear power plants throughout the country — nuclear power plants that are leaking nuclear waste into our ground water? They’re not concerned with being able to look after the nuclear industy, yet they’re so concerned about industrial hemp. It’s hypocrisy. We aren’t asking for subsidies, we’re asking to simply be allowed to create an industry.
How has your involvement in these environmental issues affected your film career, if at all?
I’ve found that every time you stand up for something and open your mouth, you alienate someone. I spent a lot of time wanting to become rich and famous, then when I got there, I found it was hollow. What is important to me is my connection with family and friends, and to nature, and to stand up for what I believe in. It really makes you feel good to follow through with your convictions. Granted, between opening my mouth and some of the movies I’ve chosen to do, I’ve alienated a lot of my fans, I’m sure. Hopefully I’ll make better movies, but I’ll never stop opening my large, prominent mouth.
Any future plans or projects you’d like to talk about?
Well, I’m just focused on getting industrial hemp legalized in Kentucky right now. Ultimately, once it’s legalized in Kentucky, there will be a domino effect, it’ll happen throughout the lower 48, Hawaii and Alaska.
One last question. Why do you mention The Lorax, by Dr. Seuss, on your World Wide Web page?
That movie sums it up better than anything for me because it has a very important environmental message. Dr. Seuss was ahead of his time. I think they should show that film, The Lorax, in schools, starting when kids are old enough to understand it. My daughter has been watching it since she was two, and she quotes that line, “I speak for the trees.” We’ve cut down the old-growth trees. We’ve polluted our water sources. We’ve polluted the air. You can’t swim in the ocean in many places. The fish are bad. We poison our food with pesticides and herbicides. Cancer is rampant. And we’re not thinking about our kids and the kids they will have. It’s time that we do that. We have to retool. For me, that means starting with industrial hemp.
Copyright © 1997, E: the Environmental Magazine. All rights reserved.