As the first tree sit Mendocino County has seen in perhaps 13 years enters its second week, there appears little indication either that the tree sitter — who goes by the moniker The Warbler — will voluntarily relinquish her post any time soon. There is also little sign that the Mendocino County Sheriffs or California Highway Patrol plan to attempt to extract her from her perch any time soon.
Just before this piece went to deadline, The Warbler expressed her sense that the tree sit, and particularly the support it has galvanized in many quarters of the North Coast, has forced CalTrans' planners to regroup, right as they were on verge of finally beginning construction of the new six-mile superhighway through Little Lake Valley they have long coveted.
“I feel confidant CalTrans doesn't know what to do about the tree sit,” The Warbler says. “They've seen the steady support from the local community and the press attention. They seem at a loss.”
She added, “I just want to say to people through town, 'Keep the support coming.' This is how community is built, and that is exactly what CalTrans is afraid of.”
In the piece I wrote for the AVA last week, I mentioned that CalTrans had received written approval from the California Department of Fish and Game to begin “vegetation removal” — i.e., to clear-cut oak, madrone, and pine forest -- along the Southern Interchange portion of the Bypass route. CalTrans Resident Engineer had touted in a letter to the California State Water Resources Control Board that he expected “a start date of +/- January 28.”
All that CalTrans still needed before setting loose their chainsaws and excavators upon the lands surrounding the proposed freeway route was a written permission slip, of sorts, from the Army Corps of Engineers. In February 2012, the Army Corps issued the transportation agency a permit to begin construction of the freeway based on a pair of conditions, one of which is that CalTrans provide proof that their proposed plan to “mitigate” damage to sensitive wetlands within the Bypass route will actually be funded. The Army Corps stated that they can accept documentation that ensures a “high level of confidence” that the money for mitigation will be allocated.
In a somewhat surprising turn, however, the Army Corps is now questioning Caltrans’ “assurances” regarding the funding. The California Transportation Commission (CTC, which funds CalTrans) will be asked to vote to fund the mitigation in May ’13. In a vaguely written memorandum, the Army Corps essentially seems to have asked for extra documentation verifying that the funding will come through.
To make CalTrans' bureaucratic entanglements a bit stickier, a major provision of the federal Migratory Bird Act now has kicked in that proscribes cutting of trees with documented bird nests between February 1st and September. Provided they sort out their bureaucratic wrangling with the Army Corps in a timely way, CalTrans will doubtless seek an exemption to this permit via the Department of Fish and Game. Given Fish and Game's long-established pattern of acquiescing to anything that powerful bureaucratic and corporate entities ask of it, it is extremely likely they will provide the exemption.
At the very least, though, the bird protection statute will provide CalTrans an extra headache — and delay the beginning of the project.
In the past week, as The Warbler's observations reflect, CalTrans’ presence on its supply hauling road adjacent to the tree sit been quite minimal. According to neighbors, whereas the haul road was bustling with CalTrans vehicles in the weeks immediately prior to the tree sit, its activities have virtually ceased since the tree sit began.
Moreover, perhaps at no point in the decades-long history of this project has the level of organized opposition to it been greater than in the eight days (as of this writing) since the tree sit kicked off. The Warbler has helped hatch public education projects, sign-holding along Highway 101, petition gathering, a media publicity project, and a round-the-clock vigil at the tree sit.
One of the primary beneficiaries of CalTrans' Bypass would be the trucking industry, who desire to ship their goods more efficiently by saving the roughly five minutes that it takes for their drivers to make the leisurely trip through Willits. As Sara Grusky of Save Our Little Lake Valley, the coordinating group for opposition to the Bypass, explained in a segment on the February 4th KPFA Evening News, “This is not a project for our little town of Willits. This is a project to get rid of the last stoplight on Highway 101 between San Francisco and Eureka so that trucks can shoot up and down more efficiently.”
But, as Grusky notes, the trucking industry is distinct from the truckers themselves. As anyone who has hung around the tree sit for any length of time has noticed, supportive honks emanate regularly from passersby. A hugely disproportionate number of those supportive honks come from truckers, for whom the trip through Willits is a convenient way to fuel up, rest, and purchase amenities.
Speaking on the same KPFA Evening News, CalTrans spokesperson Phil Frisbie, Jr., defended the Bypass by stating: “Of all the viable options we've considered, this is the least environmentally damaging. This project was modified many times [to account for environmental concerns].”
Actually, the least environmentally damaging option by far is the one put forward in a 2003 document CalTrans helped to fund, called the Baechtel Road-Railroad Avenue Corridor Community Design Study, which would extend thoroughfares through town as a way of rerouting local traffic from Main St. After all, according to the most reliable indications, the vast majority of so-called traffic congestion along Willits' main thoroughfare is caused by local people: in other words, people who will not use the Bypass. For reasons that Frisbie, Jr. has failed to address publicly thus far, CalTrans opted not to consider this study as one of its “viable options.”
Interactions between office and individuals involved in the protest actually began the week before the tree sit, when a group of individuals conducting a sight-seeing tour of the Bypass route to assess the ecological and social harm it would wreak were confronted by the forewoman of CalTrans. She summoned the California Highway Patrol to have the sight-seers removed from the publicly-owned property where they were touring, also snapping pictures of the tour-goers license plates.
Following the incident, one of the tour organized called Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman to complain about the incident. Apparently, Allman indicated that while he may have a different position on the Bypass than the tour goers, he supports their right to conduct public education tours and considered the reaction by CHP and CalTrans to be out of line.
The limited interactions between the avuncular deputy sheriff assigned as a liaison to the tree sit the protesters have been quite friendly thus far. The deputy visited the tree sit shortly after a rally supporting it took place last Monday, telling them he supports their right to be there as long as the activities remain safe. The same deputy visited the site in the early morning on Wednesday to express concern that the tree sit supporters be prepared for rain the following day (which was odd, given that the weather forecast had indicated for several days that the day in question would be the sunniest and warmest of the week.)
At roughly 10 p.m. on Friday, February 1st, a police vehicle visited the tree sit either to conduct surveillance or simply to make its presence known -- or both. The cop car flooded the tree sit platform with light from its high beams for several minutes, then departed. Around three hours later, either the same or a different police vehicle visited the site, repeating the high-beam-into-platform exercise. As of press time, we have not been able to verify if these were CHP or Sheriffs vehicles.
CalTrans is on record as stating that their lax attitude toward the tree sit will remain only until it becomes a serious impediment.
“We fully support the rights of citizens to peacefully and lawfully assemble,” Frisbie, Jr. told KPFA, completely ignoring the fact that the CalTrans forewoman had tried to sick the cops on a handful of people merely for conducting an educational tour of the Bypass route less than two weeks before. “We understand that she is expressing her opinion on this, and right now it is not impacting safety. However, if it comes to a point where her tree sit is either impacting the safety of our workers or her own safety, we will work with our law enforcement partners and have them take care of that situation.”
The Warbler herself is certainly not naïve about the likelihood that at some point CalTrans will pressure local police to take a more heavy-handed tack with the tree-sit. Last Thursday, a new choral singing group based in Willits called “The Warblers” serenaded her at the tree sit site with variations on old protest songs.
As The Warbler listened to the performance, she scrawled down a poem from a book she had brought with her into the platform. She tore out the page from her journal, folded it into a paper airplane, and tossed it down to the singers. It read:
“I was listening to the voices of life
Chanting in unison
Carry on the struggle
The generations surge together
To meet the reality of Power.
- John Trudell”
For more information on the campaign to stop the CalTrans Bypass, see www.savelittlelakevalley.org or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.