‘Guardian of the forest’ George Atiyeh missing as wildfires devastate Oregon

George Atiyeh helped create the Opal Creek Wilderness (Opal Creek Ancient Forest Centre)

George Atiyeh helped create the Opal Creek Wilderness (Opal Creek Ancient Forest Centre)

A celebrated environmentalist who worked for many years to save a threatened forest, is missing after wildfires tore through the Oregon wilderness.

An alarm about the well-being of George Atiyeh, 72, was first raised by his daughter, Aniese Mitchell, after the Beachie Creek fire destroyed many homes in the Santiam Valley after it gathered pace on September 7, Labour Day.

“It is with a heavy heart that the Atiyeh family is officially listing George Atiyeh as a missing person in the Beachie Creek Fire,” she wrote. “His house and property were a total loss. Search parties have been through the area of his last known location.”

In an area where there are a number of environmentalists, and where there was often bitterness in the relationship between the logging industry and those seeking to preserve wild places, Mr Atiyeh may have occupied a special place.

He was the nephew of a former Oregon state governor Victor Atiyeh, a Republican who served in the post from 1979 to 1987. He also spent a number of years working for the logging industry.

George Atiyeh appeared in a 1990 documentary coproduced by the BBCOPB

George Atiyeh appeared in a 1990 documentary coproduced by the BBCOPB

He joined the side of environmentalists in the 1980s, and fought in particular to save an area of old growth forest at Opal Creek, 60 miles east of the state capital, Salem. The 20,000 acre Opal Creek Wilderness was formally designated in 1996.

“He was extraordinary. There are many environmentalists, but he was a catalyst,” Dwayne Canfield, executive director of the Opal Creek Ancient Forest Centre in Portland, told The Independent.

He said the the facility he operated, along with the wilderness itself, would not have existed without Mr Atiyeh.

Sue Dickinson, a resident of Mill City, one of the string of small towns largely destroyed by the fire which killed at least two people in the valley, said of Mr Atiyeh: “He worked to save the forest.”

A headline in the Salem’s Statesman Journal called him the “Guardian of Opal Creek”.

Mr Atiyeh, whose family is Syrian American, was the subject of a 1990 documentary, called Mill City and produced by the Oregon Public Broadcasting and the BBC, he spoke of the struggles he encountered after standing against the logging.

“I became a pariah in my own community,” he said. 

“People wouldn’t talk to me. I went to watch my boys play football and I’d have the whole bench to myself. Everybody was afraid to even stand next to me or sit next to me.”

Anna Jefferson, a spokesperson for the Marion County Sheriffs’s Department, which is coordinating the search, said there was no update on Mr Atiyeh.

Mr Canfield and others have said how they spoke to Mr Atiyeh last week and urged him to leave the area, deep in the forest, where his home was located, as the fires approached. 

He declined to do so, saying it was only a Level 2 evacuation order, which means people shroud be ready to leave, but was not a mandatory order to leave.

He said he and others were hopeful Mr Atiyeh somehow found a way to survive.

“Probably anybody else I could imagine in that situation,  I would not have hope,” he said. “But he was a tenacious, stubborn and, and resourceful man. So, you know, who knows what he might have to done to save himself.”

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