Conservationist George Atiyeh disappears in Oregon wildfires

As wildfire sped toward George Atiyeh’s remote canyon home, everyone who knew the 72-year-old environmental activist assumed he would refuse to flee the Oregon forest he had spent so much of his life fighting to save.

“I was encouraging him to leave,” said Dwayne Canfield, 55, executive director of the educational facility Atiyeh helped found, Opal Creek Ancient Forest Center.

That was a week ago Monday. The center’s 15 staff members had already packed up their cabins and evacuated.

“I don’t need to leave yet,” Atiyeh told Canfield by phone.

Later that night, with the massive Beachie Creek fire closing in on the canyon, sheriff’s deputies rushed door to door searching for holdouts.

When they reached Atiyeh’s cabin, three miles up a rough road, he wasn’t there.

“They were not able to locate him or any sign of him,” Canfield said.

Oregon is facing some of the worst wildfire destruction in state history, with more than 800,000 acres burned, several rural towns razed, eight people confirmed dead — four in Atiyeh’s area — and at least 22 missing as dozens of fires continue to rage.

On Tuesday, a sheriff’s spokeswoman said authorities were still working with the Atiyeh family to find him.

Atiyeh was an unlikely environmental activist, scion of a Syrian American mining family, nephew of a former Republican governor.

He grew up hiking, swimming and fishing for rainbow trout in the turquoise-colored Opal Creek that spilled over 30-foot waterfalls and rushed past Douglas fir, hemlock, cedar and yew, some up to 330 feet high and thousands of years old.

He served stateside in the Army during the Vietnam War, but that didn’t spare him from the trauma of losing friends in battle. Eventually he retreated to Opal Creek.

“It healed him,” said Andy Kerr, 65, a fellow Oregonian environmentalist who met Atiyeh in the 1970s.

He married, had children, started a logging company and became part of the community in surrounding Santiam Canyon, whose lumberyards and sawmills had long relied on timber from surrounding forests.

But as the timber industry encroached on Opal Creek, Atiyeh sold his stake in the logging company and took a stand that turned him into a local pariah.

“Opal Creek saved him,” Kerr said. “And it became time to save Opal Creek.”

During the ensuing “timber wars,” which involved efforts to save the endangered spotted owl, environmental activists descended on the canyon, chaining themselves to trees. Timber advocates fought back, with help from state politicians long beholden to the industry.

“Opal Creek was ground zero for the timber wars and he was at the center of it,” said David Seideman, who wrote a book about the conflict, “Showdown at Opal Creek: The Battle for America’s Last Wilderness.”

Atiyeh received so many death threats that he took to keeping a .357 Magnum in his bedroom dresser and recorded a new answering machine message: “If you’re calling to leave a death threat, please leave your name and number.”

“It was ugly,” recalled neighbor Eric Benolken, 56. “That’s what made him an enemy of the people.”

People threatened to shoot down Atiyeh’s two-seater Cessna airplane, bullied his daughter, tried to run his son off the road, slashed his wife’s tires and refused to sit with him at football games. At pro-logging rallies, Atiyeh’s opponents brought banners that said: “Kiss my ax, George!”

A feisty charmer with a contagious laugh, Atiyeh remained determined to save one of the few remaining temperate rainforests in the northern Cascades.

“He almost reveled in it,” Seideman said. “He had a bumper sticker on his car that said, ‘Environmentalist from hell.’”

In addition to leveraging his family’s political connections to save Opal Creek, Atiyeh testified before Congress, held local public meetings to win over neighbors and used his plane to show politicians and reporters such as Seideman the toll of logging.

Erik Tucker pours water on a smoldering stump in an area burned by the Beachie Creek Fire, Saturday, Sept. 12, 2020.

(ASSOCIATED PRESS)

“When you went up in the air, you could see all the destruction, this awful patchwork quilt,” Seideman said. “Opal Creek was an island in a sea of clear-cuts.”

Ultimately, Atiyeh and his allies won the Northwest forest wars. In 1996, Congress passed legislation preserving the 20,454-acre Opal Creek Wilderness, in part through mining patents.

“The only way we could conserve it was to use the old mining laws to our advantage,” recalled his cousin, Tom Atiyeh.

In the years that followed, Atiyeh suffered personal setbacks. He crashed his plane and spent years recovering from a traumatic brain injury. He divorced and again retreated to his cabin at Opal Creek.

Recently, Atiyeh contacted Seideman to say he was working on a memoir about his battle to save the forest.

Seideman followed news of the fires and was not surprised to hear Atiyeh had refused to evacuate. Atiyeh had once told him, “I’d be willing to sacrifice myself for that piece of forest.”

“His house and property were a total loss,” Atiyeh’s daughter, Aniese Mitchell, wrote Friday on Facebook. “Search parties have been through the area of his last known location.”

Those who knew Atiyeh struggled with whether to refer to him in present or past tense.

“If anybody knows the lay of the land, it’s George,” said Debbie Fawcett, 56, who lost her nearby home in the fires and whose late father ran a logging company with Atiyeh.

Fawcett said that in recent years, Atiyeh would visit her mother, or the grave of her father, to reminisce.

“Until they find something that says he’s gone, I still don’t believe,” she said. “It will be one of those myths: George is still up there, still at Opal Creek.”

Fawcett’s next-door neighbors were in intensive care Tuesday after refusing to evacuate so they could save their home, which burned.

Fire crews have had difficulty accessing Opal Creek, where at least some of the forest has burned. The extent of damage to the educational center was unclear.

Already, some locals this week were suggesting salvage logging the area. Environmentalists such as Kerr oppose any logging on the land, which he said should be left to restore itself.

“Fire is either the rebirth of a forest or its continuation,” he said. “The essence of Opal Creek is not that snapshot of time that people remember. It’s the living, dynamic old-growth forest.”

Kerr was still holding out hope that Atiyeh would be found. If not, he saw it as part of the natural cycle.

“The idea of wilderness is nature gets its way,” he said. “George would appreciate the irony: You live by the forest and you die by the forest.”