Ever since The Warbler rigged herself to a rope and harness in the early morning of January 28, then hoisted herself precisely 71 feet high into a ponderosa pine tree slated for chainsawing by CalTrans, as part of Big Orange's proposed new superhighway through Little Lake Valley, work on the project has been stalled. The tree sit, an impending Clean Water Act lawsuit by a coalition of environmental groups including the Willits Environmental Center, and CalTrans' own trouble securing final authorization from the Army Corps of Engineers to begin bulldozing, have combined to halt the long-planned freeway construction just as it was on the verge of finally getting underway.
On Feb. 25, CalTrans finally made another move. They sent forth a bulldozer trailed by a bobcat t-post driver to attempt to stake a roughly two-mile area for a so-called Environmentally Sensitive Area (ESA) fence, which would essentially demarcate the construction area of the project. The stakes were to extend from a meadow adjacent to DripWorks on East Hill Rd. to the very southern end of the proposed highway route, near The Warbler's tree sit along Highway 101, where CalTrans also plans to install a gate restricting automobile access to the area.
CalTrans' apparent plan, in conjunction with installing the ESA fence, is to cordone off The Warbler from her supporters on the ground, who furnish her with food and other supplies, as part of an effort to starve her out of the tree.
In the time since The Warbler moved into the pine tree, though, people in and near Willits have become galvanized against CalTrans as never before. So, when the superhighway-centric transportation agency's crews arrived at roughly 9am this Monday morning, the opposition's response came quickly.
By noon, CalTrans' work had been halted. Lifelong Willits resident Malakai Schindel, joined by this story's author and local photographer Ree Slocum, discovered bird nests amidst brush that had just been plowed by Big Orange's 'dozers. Roughly 20 minutes later, two members of the opposition sat down next to one of the bird nests, which at that point sat conspicuously atop an apparent wood rat nest, and blocked the machines' path.
One of those who blocked the path, Sara Grusky of Green Uprising Farm, called in to a supporter who reported the nests to the California Department of Fish, Game, and Wildlife (CDFGW), CDFGW dispatched Staff Environmental Scientist JoAnn Dunn to the area to assess the bird nests as part of determining whether CalTrans' removal of brush and manzanita trees in the fence route was in violation of the 1927 Migratory Bird Act. By 4 p.m., CalTrans had packed up and gone home, having completed only a fraction of the work they had intended for the day.
The following day, the morning this issue of the AVA went to press, CalTrans crews arrived at 6 a.m. and huddled in approximately the area where they had left off on Monday. At roughly 10:40am, having done no visible work, the entire crew departed the area and show no sign of returning. In other words, CalTrans' work had been held up for a second straight day. Fish, Game, and Wildlife staff are conducting additional survey work in the area based on the bird nest discoveries.
The Migratory Bird Act prohibits removal of trees with certain bird species' nesting habitat from February 1st through September 30th. CalTrans officials have been especially antsy to begin cutting trees in the area where they began constructing the fence. This area features an extensive area of blue and black oak trees, mixed with ponderosa pines and madrones, many of which reside on hillsides CalTrans plans to excavate to use as fill material to build the planned 20-foot-high freeway. Birds have been numerous there in recent weeks, including multiple appearances by the emblematic yellow-breasted warbler.
Given the amount of attention The Warbler's tree sit has generated, CalTrans saw fit to dispatch one of their two public relations maestros for the greater North Coast region, Phil Frisbie, Jr., to mingle amongst those actually conducting the fencing work.
A note on Frisbie's record of public accuracy. One would actually be hard-pressed to find an honest public statement Frisbie, Jr. has made regarding the Bypass project since opposition to it first intensified last month, although I am aware of at least one. The near-perfect record of inaccuracy started last month when Frisbie, Jr. wrote on a message board in response to a piece I published in the AVA denying that CalTrans plans to use so-called “wick drain” technology to dewater the seasonal wetlands north of town whence Little Lake Valley gets its name. After being confronted on his claim by another message board poster, Frisbie, Jr. made what may be his only honest statement to date: he admitted that CalTrans does, in fact, intend to use wick drains.
This past Monday, while standing alongside the CalTrans bobcat as it hammered t-posts into the ground, and decked out in a hard hat and orange vest, Frisbie, Jr. claimed – as part of an exchange captured on camera – that CalTrans had already completed its requirements under the Migratory Bird Act and was thus authorized to mow down any trees in the Bypass route that it wants. He admitted, though, that he was unable to recall what sorts of things the agency had done to be in said compliance, when those activities occurred, or what public agencies signed off on said activities.
In other words, Frisbie, Jr. had absolutely no information to back up his claim. He encouraged me to file a California Public Records Act request to obtain information about Big Orange's compliance with the Bird Act, which I did over the phone a few minutes later. He said it would take up to 10 days for me to receive the information.
As of this writing, it remains unclear as well whether CalTrans had received approval from the Army Corps of Engineers to begin construction of the highway. The agency would need to have received this approval from the Army Corps before it could legally construct the ESA fence. Frisbie, Jr. has claimed in multiple venues, including the Santa Rosa Press Democrat and the Willits News, that Big Orange has indeed gotten its final go-ahead from the Army Corps.
Yet, when Naomi Wagner of Earth First! called around to multiple CalTrans officers last week to inquire about the validity of Frisbie, Jr.'s claim, she eventually got CalTrans District 1 Director Charlie Fielder on the phone. Fielder admitted that CalTrans has not, in fact, received the approval from the Army Corps.
With this knowledge in mind, the protesters on Monday demanded to see a copy of CalTrans' supposed authorization from the Army Corp to construct the ESA fence. Those blockading CalTrans' machinery conveyed this demand to California Highway Patrol officers who had arrived on the scene to mediate between the protesters and CalTrans. Though both Highway Patrol and the protesters asked if CalTrans would produce the authorization, Big Orange's personnel failed to do so.
It is unknown when CalTrans will attempt to resume construction of the fence, much less move to the next phase of the project. Construction of the fence is actually being carried out by Arrow Fencing of Redwood Valley, with CalTrans personnel merely being on hand to lend support.
Another dramatic incident that occurred since my last report on the tree sit involved a pair of CalTrans workers who arrived in an unmarked car at a forested part of the Bypass route, several hundred yards from the tree sit, and began revving up their chainsaws. Unbeknownst to them, they were in view of a member of The Warbler's ground support team, who immediately called out for help to other supporters at the base of The Warbler's tree. As soon as one of these supporters, Ron de Mammalo showed up with a video camera, the apparently unauthorized CalTrans work crew packed up and left.
When Naomi Wagner reported this incident to Phil Frisbie, Jr., he expressed outrage and informed her that the employees would surely be disciplined. In a KMUD Evening News story that night, however, Frisbie, Jr. claimed the CalTrans people were merely cleaning their saws, which he said is something they commonly do in that area.
In spite of several bouts of motion sickness precipitated by the swaying of her tree on windy days, The Warbler remains strong and is looking forward to a one-month anniversary celebration of her tree sit on Thursday, February 28th at around 4 p.m. A carpool will convene at the Lo Bucks parking lot, otherwise known as Evergreen Shopping Center, to shuttle people to the tree sit.
The Warbler reports being greatly heartened by the effectiveness of the action that stopped CalTrans' fence project. She points out that only a relative handful of participants int he Save Our Little Lake Valley campaign turned out to oppose the fence project,
“You don't have to be an anarchist or put yourself in danger to be out here supporting the tree sit and direct actions, like the one that occurred yesterday,” she says. “You just have to use common sense. So, I encourage more people to come out and support this. The momentum is on our side. Although this fence they're trying to build is a relatively small part of the freeway project, it's important to take a strong stand right now.”
Save Our Little Lake Valley's web site is www.savelittlelakevalley.org. Many of CalTrans' documents concerning the Bypass are located online at http://www.dot.ca.gov/dist1/d1projects/willits/reports.htm.