A young woman perched high up in large pine tree marked for “topping” at the south end of the Willits bypass route — and a group of about 60 protesters supporting her — apparently stopped plans by Caltrans contractors to begin the tree work Monday morning.
A Caltrans truck did come in soon after 9am to put up a “No Trespassing/No Dumping/No Parking” sign near the tree where “Warbler” was sitting, at least 60 feet up .
But, no other signs of Caltrans or contractor personnel were seen anywhere on the route, according to a small group who’d walked the entire corridor from north to south.
“People, we stopped Caltrans today,” a voice rang out. “Let’s stop them tomorrow, too.”
The group, many of them familiar faces from around Willits, signed up to keep vigil on the ground with Warbler through at least February 1. The tree sit is located right where the two northbound lanes of Highway 101 turn into one lane, a bit south of Walker Road, and the giant “No Caltrans Bypass” banner can be seen from the highway.
Warbler, in her mid-20s, has been living and working in Willits on a local farm for the last four years, “and not the kind of farm you think,” a friend said. During a conversation via cellphone, right as the dusk was turning into night, Warbler said: “It’s pretty chilly tonight, with the wind. I’m moving around inside the sleeping bag to keep warm.” But she said she was inspired and excited to see the protesters there to support her, and to hear them express their opposition to “the insanity of the Willits bypass,” to quote the headline of a recent report by AVA reporter Will Parish emphasizing the huge financial and ecological expense of a project which isn’t likely to provide much actual traffic relief to the Willits area.
Redwood Nation Earth First! organizers were at the protest, which was “Earth First! assisted,” one Earth Firster who had done four non-violence trainings before the protest date said. Earth First! was also helping to get news outlets beyond Mendocino County interested in covering the tree-sit, and reported that the Associated Press and the Bay City New wire in the Bay Area were interested. Earth First! also provided some orange “EcoTrans” highway worker safety vests, marked with the Earth First! logo, “No Compromise in the Defense of Mother Earth!.”
But the main organizers are locals who have formed a coalition called Save Our Little Lake Valley (SOLVE). The Willits Environmental Center was not involved in organizing the protest, although some members were there.
At least some of the protesters were prepared to be arrested Monday morning. Last week, a group of people intending to walk the “footprint” of the bypass route, one of several classes organized through the Mendo Free Skool, had a tense confrontation with Caltrans, who called in law enforcement about trespassing and photographed participants’ license plates.
Kirk Mason of the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Department and Adam Jager of the California Highway Patrol did show up Monday morning, but only gave protesters friendly advice about not standing or parking too close to the freeway and making sure to give access to local people driving in and out on the dirt road. “Watch out for the cars,” Mason said. “We don’t want anyone to be hurt.” Mason emphasized what everybody who lives along and drives that section of Highway 101 knows: that many drivers don’t slow down to 55 mph coming down that hill, which is icy in the morning.
“Don’t call me ‘sheriff’,” joked Mason, after somebody did, “or else Sheriff Allman will think I want his job.” Before walking away, Mason said in a friendly tone: “We’ll leave you people to your vices.” “Keep warm,” Officer Jager chimed in.
“I am pleased it was all peaceful good relations with the sheriffs,” said Sara Grusky, local organizer and contact person for SOLVE, along with another Willits resident, Carol Orton.
“We have had several conversations with Sheriff Tom Allman in the interim [since the “trespassing” incident], and he has stated that this is his jurisdiction and not the highway patrol’s, and that he respected the rights of citizens to do public education tours.
“We were a little taken aback by that incident,” Grusky continued. “It’s a little out of line to have Caltrans photo our license plates.” Grusky said she hoped the conversations with Allman “had something to do with them stepping back, because it has appeared they have stepped back. We are blessed they have been respecting the process of peaceful public protest.”
In addition to several rousing speeches and a ceremony and power song led by a Pomo woman in regalia, one interesting contribution to Monday’s protest was a surprising level of support — beeped horns and thumbs up signs — from drivers of large commercial trucks passing by, including a truck loaded with lumber. Getting the big trucks off Willits’ Main Street is one of the touted benefits of the Willits bypass, even though many of the commercial trucks, those serving local businesses and those heading to Fort Bragg, won’t be using the bypass.
The truckers, one interested party noted, enjoy driving through Willits. “They get bored, and Willits is a change. They get to stop and have a cup of coffee or a bite to eat. They have their hidey holes where they know they can find good parking.” In a commentary published in the Willits News in June 2011, then-Willits mayor Bruce Burton wrote: “Main Street will be enforced as a non-truck route to minimize through commercial traffic,” but it’s unclear what that means or how it would be enforced. Does Burton really mean it will be illegal for truck drivers not making a local delivery or pickup to pull off the freeway to have breakfast or lunch in Willits?
The tree “topping” — which actually means, according to reporter Linda Williams of the Willits News, chopping trees all the way down to 3 or 4 feet tall — is being done to prevent birds from nesting in the trees, so they can be “uprooted” in the spring without violating the Migratory Bird Act. Although no decision has been reached in a lawsuit filed against Caltrans by a coalition of environmental groups, which was joined by the California Farm Bureau due to the loss of prime ag land in Little Lake Valley, the judge has denied a request to stay the removal of the trees until litigation is resolved.
SOLVE is working on putting up a website, but for now, those interested in keeping up with news about the bypass protest can check the Willits Fan Page on Facebook, which has also set up a Willits Bypass Discussion Board at www.facebook.com/groups/willitsbypass. Contact info for SOLVE, including information about how to help “keep our Warbler safe and warm and supported,” Grusky said, is 707-972-6333 (Orton) or 707-216-5549 (Grusky).
For those following local efforts to Save Our Little Lake Valley, here's some new information: There will be Bypass tour scheduled for Wednesday, Jan 30 at 1pm; meet at the Grange. I've found this is best way to see where the bypass would be and the impact it would have on our community. Whether you are for the bypass as planned or opposed, this is a great way to see it and feel it. Also if you want to be involved with the group, SAVE OUR LITTLE LAKE VALLEY, there is a meeting this Friday, February 1st, 1-4pm at Carol Orton's house at 239 East Valley Road.