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Oregon Environmentalist Missing After Beachie Creek Fire

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The only thing more stubborn than the ancient trees that grow in Oregon's Opal Creek wilderness may be the man who saved them. George Atiyeh has loved Opal Creek since he spent summers there as a boy. He's lived most of his adult life in the area, about 40 miles east of Salem.

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

During the 1960s and '70s, he made a living mining and logging newer trees. Then the timber industry set its sights on Atiyeh's beloved old-growth forest around Opal Creek. Here's Atiyeh speaking on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED in 1993.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GEORGE ATIYEH: And my mind started to change because I had always had it in my brain that you didn't have to cut Opal Creek, but there was always another valley to go to. There was always another place where we could cut timber. And the old growth - to me, it seemed like it was so vast, we thought it was going to go on forever. And it finally dawned on me that it wouldn't.

KELLY: So Atiyeh turned into the industry's worst nightmare.

DAVID SEIDEMAN: He had a bumper sticker on his pickup truck that said, environmentalist from hell.

KELLY: David Seideman is the author of "Showdown At Opal Creek: The Battle For America's Last Wilderness," and he says that Atiyeh was not your stereotypical environmentalist.

SEIDEMAN: He was just, like, this Marlboro Man with a long mane of - chestnut mane of hair and a mustache and cowboy boots. And he was referred to as the Robert Redford of the conservation movement.

PFEIFFER: Atiyeh used everything at his disposal, legal or not so legal, to try to stop the logging industry. But Seideman says one of his greatest weapons was an old mine in Opal Creek.

SEIDEMAN: George was brilliant enough to revive the mining operation to file a patent. He used the 1872 Mining Law, which is one of the worst environmental laws. But he used it. He turned the law on its head to file a patent to protect Jawbone Flats so they couldn't get in there and log.

KELLY: The fight took its toll, though. The timber industry in the '70s employed nearly 10% of private sector workers in Oregon, including many in Atiyeh's own community. So he got several death threats a day. His family was harassed. Atiyeh was a pariah. Again, David Seideman.

SEIDEMAN: One of the sadder stories I remember is at his son's football games, he'd have to sit alone. He would sit down in the stands. All the other neighbors would move to the other side of the stands. And he was, like - it was a - he was sitting in his - alone in his own clear cut.

PFEIFFER: But eventually, George Atiyeh won. Congress created the Opal Creek Wilderness and Scenic Recreation Area in 1996.

KELLY: It has been hit hard in the recent wildfires. Seventy-two-year-old George Atiyeh reportedly did not leave his cabin last week. It is too soon to know his fate or how damaged those old trees are. But Seideman says Atiyeh's efforts will stand.

SEIDEMAN: Thanks to him, we still have the forests, which will grow back eventually.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.