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Tree-Sitter Takes Protest to New Heights in Old Growth

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Twenty stories up, in the misty heights of the ancient redwood that has been her home for nearly 10 months, Julia Hill has forgotten what it feels like to walk on solid ground, and can hardly remember being warm and dry.

Not that she minds being cold, Hill says. Or wet. Or forced to relieve herself in a bucket. The 24-year-old shrugs off the discomforts that come with living on a 6-by-8-foot platform within the branches of a 1,000-year-old, lightning-struck tree that the Pacific Lumber Co. wants to cut down.

“I am doing my best not to be clouded by my human side,” Hill says via the cellular phone she uses to communicate from her treetop. She prefers questions about her plan to save the world to questions about how she bathes.

Armed with little more than the phone and a pager, Hill has become the poster child for the long-running battle between environmentalists and Pacific Lumber over the last old-growth redwood forests. She exists in an uneasy standoff with the company, which keeps its loggers away from her tree.

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Other tree-sitters have lived in redwoods for days, sometimes weeks. But no one has come close to Hill’s epic tree-sit, nor clung so stubbornly to the demand that the tree be spared before agreeing to come down.

Hill and her fellow Earth First! supporters paint their confrontation with Pacific Lumber as a fight between corporate despoiler and the Earth’s protectors.

The company, Humboldt County’s largest private employer, sees itself as defending its right to harvest privately owned forests against the aggressive tactics of young people with no economic stake in the county.

Pacific Lumber owned 179,000 acres of Humboldt County timberland in 1985 when it was bought by Houston financier Charles Hurwitz. Under Hurwitz, the company bought more forests and stepped up its logging of old-growth redwoods and other trees. Its harvests are regulated by the California Department of Forestry.

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Environmentalists insist that the company’s logging practices are destroying salmon habitat by stripping forest canopy that shades spawning streams and causing hillside erosion by cutting too many trees. They say tree-sitting is part of their desperate, tree-by-tree attempt to stop the damage.

Focal Point in Ongoing Battle

For nearly a decade, Earth First! activists have demonstrated, blockaded logging roads, chained themselves to trees and sat in them to save them from the chain saws.

But it is Hill’s determination--and her passionate description of her spiritual connection with the ancient redwoods--that has most captured the interest of the international media. A stream of reporters, photographers and well-wishers has made the arduous hike to the tree, which grows a steep, two-hour climb from the nearest paved road above the southern Humboldt County town of Stafford.

Access to the tree is controlled by Earth First! It allows only experienced climbers, accompanied by one of its experts, to scale the tree. Others are restricted to the ground. They send their cameras up on ropes for Hill to photograph herself and they interview her by phone.

The spectacle exasperates Mary Bullwinkel, spokeswoman for Pacific Lumber, in whose tree Hill is living.

“Every reporter I talk to who wants to climb up there, I tell them they would be trespassing on private property,” Bullwinkel said. “The majority don’t care.”

“Obviously, we’d like her to come down,” Bullwinkel said. “Some loggers and members of the community feel that more should be done to get her down because she is breaking the law and certainly is generating a lot of publicity. And being up there is dangerous for her. Trees aren’t made to be lived in.”

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Loggers aren’t the only ones who have criticized Hill. Some mainstream environmentalists--even some members of Earth First!--say her high-profile protest detracts from the efforts of others.

But Hill’s persistence is evidence that the battle between Pacific Lumber and environmentalists is likely to continue, despite last month’s signing by Gov. Pete Wilson of a state and federal deal to buy the 7,500-acre Headwaters forest from Pacific Lumber for $380 million.

The tree Hill is living in grows outside Headwaters, as do other ancient redwoods that Earth First! is trying to save.

Neither the Headwaters deal, nor the death in September of fellow activist David Chain, who was killed when a tree felled by a Pacific Lumber logger struck him, has persuaded Hill to come down, or Earth First! to stop its guerrilla tactics.

Pacific Lumber officials say they hoped that the preservation of Headwaters would satisfy the demands of environmentalists and that Chain’s death--which they described as a tragic accident--would end the cat-and-mouse games activists play with loggers.

Instead, Earth First! denounced the Headwaters deal for costing too much and saving too little, and launched fresh protests in the wake of Chain’s death.

Activists were pepper-sprayed and arrested two weeks ago by sheriff’s deputies at the group’s blockade near Grizzly Creek, where Chain was killed. Eureka Earth First! later marched on the Sheriff’s Department to demand an independent investigation into Chain’s death. From her tree cellular phone, Hill addressed the marchers, telling them Chain died fighting for what he believed.

“I think that as long as there is logging, there will be people that will be in opposition to it,” said Humboldt County Sheriff Dennis Lewis, whose force has been caught between demonstrators and loggers for years.

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Bullwinkel says Pacific Lumber would like for Lewis to arrest Hill and other tree-sitters, but the sheriff says he won’t do it.

“Quite frankly, I’m not going to jeopardize a deputy and ask him to climb a redwood tree and arrest somebody 100 feet or more from the ground,” Lewis said. Hill “is not posing a public hazard,” the sheriff said, so he has left her alone.

Julia “Butterfly” Hill came to Humboldt County in the summer of 1997 as a drifter in a self-described search for spiritual and physical healing and a cause.

A 1996 car accident that slammed a steering wheel against her head damaged her short-term memory and motor skills and left her determined to make her life count for something, Hill said.

She found the meaning she was looking for, Hill said, when she wandered into an old-growth forest and was overcome by a sense of spirituality emanating from the massive, ancient trees. She quickly plugged into the more radical arm of the environmental movement, adopting the forest name of “Butterfly.”

Living What She Believes

Earth First! was founded in Tucson in 1980 by militant environmentalist Dave Foreman, who wrote “Ecodefense: A Field Guide to Monkeywrenching.” The group says it is nonviolent. Its tactics range from civil disobedience to sabotage. Its targets have included nuclear power plants, Japanese whaling ships and the timber industry.

Although many environmental groups have rallied around the cause of saving the ancient redwoods, Earth First! has been the most confrontational. Its mostly young members leave the legal battles and political lobbying to the Save the Redwoods organization and other, more mainstream, groups.

Hill seems less interested in the group’s political agenda than she is in the spiritual symbolism of the ancient trees.

The daughter of an itinerant preacher, Hill grew up in the South, spending much of her childhood, she says, living in a 31-foot trailer with her parents and two siblings.

“My parents taught us how to have convictions and to stand by them and to never back down,” Hill said. “I pray every day to a universal spirit.”

For Hill, lumber companies toppling 1,000-year-old trees for profit is powerful symbolism of the disconnect between most people and the Earth that sustains them.

“It is vital that we start reconnecting again to the Earth,” Hill said. “We are beginning to die because we’ve lost that connection.”

Hill says she never wanted the notoriety her life in the tree has earned. She only wanted, in the beginning, to keep loggers from felling a tree. Earth First! activists call the tree Luna, because, they say, there was a full moon the night they discovered it.

For years, activists have used harvest plans, which Pacific Lumber is required to publish, to locate groves marked for logging. Slipping into the areas at night, activists find trees marked for felling and try to protect them by blocking loggers on the ground or by climbing the trees. Luna, a particularly gnarled and dramatic-looking tree, was one of many marked on that hillside the night activists went there.

Life Amid the Branches

For several weeks in the winter of 1997, activists took turns living in the tree. Other trees around it fell, leaving the redwood more exposed to driving rain and high wind. Initially, Hill volunteered for two short stays.

Then, on Dec. 10, she clambered into the tree’s branches and announced that she wasn’t coming down until she had saved it and gotten out her message.

“I felt compelled that I was supposed to be a part of something bigger,” Hill said. “I gave my word to the forest, to Luna, that until I felt I’d done everything I possibly could to help make people aware, I would not come down.”

She held out through last winter’s torrential El Nino downpours, buffeted by gale-force winds and lashed by rain in temperatures that sometimes stayed in the 30s for days at a time. Her only shelter is a canvas lean-to and a sleeping bag. She is surrounded by a thick fog most days that makes her invisible from the ground and keeps her constantly damp and cold.

“There were a couple of weeks this summer when I was down to just one layer of clothes,” Hill said cheerfully. “But last winter, I was wearing seven layers and I was still cold all the time.”

Life in the tree is never boring, Hill says.

She conducts several cellular phone interviews daily, writes 50 to 100 letters weekly to supporters and friends, petitions state and federal government officials and prays and writes poems. For recreation, she watches flying squirrels and climbs, unharnessed, to the highest branches of the redwood to sing and pray. Her days, Hill says, “are very busy.”

She relies on Earth First! activists to bring her batteries for her cellular phone, fruits and vegetables that she mostly eats raw and her single luxury, tea. She collects rainwater to wash her hair and sponge down her body.

The activists pack in supplies every week. Her father made the arduous trek once and climbed the tree to tell his daughter he supports her effort.

In the early months, Pacific Lumber hired security guards to try to block the supply trains to Hill, but eventually abandoned that effort. Now the company seems to hope that if they ignore Hill, she will eventually give up.

“We really haven’t thought about it much lately,” Bullwinkel said. “We are very focused on our habitat conservation plan and our sustained yield plan, which need to be approved to complete the Headwaters agreement.”

Although the tree Hill is living in was approved for harvesting by the Forestry Department, Bullwinkel says the company has chosen not to log in the area until she leaves.

Hill recently approached Pacific Lumber, offering a compromise of sorts--if they would agree to a conservation easement to preserve Luna and nearby trees, she would come down and not go back. Pacific Lumber, Bullwinkel says, is not interested in a deal.

“How do you come to terms with someone who is breaking the law and using your property to do it?” asks Bullwinkel. “It would be like me sitting on your porch and refusing to allow you into your house and saying, ‘If you let me stay on this side of the porch, I’ll let you into the house.’ ”

Hill professes to be unconcerned by the company’s disinterest in negotiations. She is prepared to wait, she insists, as long as it takes.

Confrontations in Other Areas

The company also has its hands full with defending itself against Earth First’s! allegations, in the wake of Chain’s death, that Pacific Lumber has turned a blind eye to increasingly violent forest confrontations between loggers and demonstrators.

Earth First! turned over to local television stations a videotape of a logger having a profane, angry confrontation in the Grizzly Creek forest with protesters hours before Chain died. The activists say the logger was the same one who cut down the tree that crushed Chain.

Sheriff Lewis confirms that the logger angrily confronted demonstrators that morning, but says the man told him he felled the tree only after he thought the activists had left.

The sheriff says Chain’s death left the logger distraught, “the way you or I would be if we had accidentally run over a neighbor’s child with our car and killed him.”

Lewis also says that he is surprised there has never before been a fatality in the confrontations between loggers and demonstrators.

“You have two diametrically opposed positions over a very emotional issue,” the sheriff said. “It goes to core values on each side, which leads to strong feelings.”

Initially, Lewis declared Chain’s death accidental. But his office has conducted an investigation and says it will turn over its findings to the district attorney’s office.

In McKinleyville, far north of Hill’s lofty perch, Robert Parker, a onetime photojournalist, now an Earth First! activist and Hill’s full-time media consultant, muses about what Chain’s death should mean to activists, loggers and Hill.

“I definitely have a lot of anxiety about her safety,” Parker said. “But Julia is a deeply rooted, strong tree. She has a profound understanding of the risk. And I feel there’s some universal power out there that’s going to keep Julia protected.”

Hill too says she feels protected in the tree.

“The universe only hands us what we can handle,” she said.


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