Since late-May, opponents of CalTrans' Willits Bypass have conducted four occupations of the wetlands area where Big Orange's construction contractors are installing 80-foot drainage tubes, or "wick drains." The initial three of these non-violent direct actions delayed the wick drain installation for anywhere from 90 minutes to a full day.
In the latest innovation of these protests, I occupied one of the two “stitchers” starting on June 20th. I resided on a 2'x7' plywood platform on the stitcher, which I set up about half-way up the 100-foot crane, for more than 11 days before a California Highway Patrol SWAT team pulled me out of the crane on July 1st, with ground support from about 40 CHP officers and air support from a CHP aerial surveillance chopper.
I'll be publishing a retrospective on my experience in the crane on the Anderson Valley Advertiser's web site in the next few days. To provide context regarding the action, I am here providing a timeline of direct action resistance to the Bypass. The resistance was previously best known for tree sits, but it has conducted various other actions since then.
First, a note on the impact these actions have exerted on the Bypass construction. Most notable is that they have created the political space for people to envision a different outcome, even though CalTrans is already in the process of destroying a large swath of Little Lake Valley to put in the freeway. This transformation of the politcal climate impacts everything from the stances taken by elected officials to the attitudes of judges who preside over ongoing litigation concerning the Bypass.
Direct actions also slow the construction of the Bypass, putting stress on CalTrans and its contractors, who have had a fraying relationship for several months. For example, not only did my occupation of the wick drain stitcher entirely immobilize the equpiment I resided on for 11 and a half days; it also put the other stitcher out of commission for at least one extra working day after I helped attach a truck rope traverse line between each of the machines. I estimate that there are currently around 3,000 fewer wick drains in Little Lake Valley than there would be had it not been for the occupation. The cumulative impact of delays like these can translate into far-reaching consequences.
Jan. 28th (Direct Action Begins) – Willits resident Amanda Senseman begins a tree sit in the path of the planned Bypass' southern interchange area. She adopts the nickname “Warbler.” The tree sit is located in a ponderosa pine just off of the existing Highway 101, at mile marker 43.74. It is about two miles south of town, less than half a mile south of the entrance to Walker Rd. Roughly 50 people turn out for a rally at the base of Warbler's tree.
Warbler's tree sit galvanizes on-the-ground resistance to the Bypass, also generating widespread scrutiny of the project. Among other media coverage, Warbler is the subject of front-page articles in the Santa Rosa Press Democrat and the Sacramento Bee.
Feb. 25th (Delaying The Start of Construction) – CalTrans officially begins construction activities when their sub-contractor, Arrow Fencing, begins installing so-called "Environmentally Sensitive Area" (ESA) fencing to mark off the construction area. Under the banner of Little Lake Valley Defenders, a group of people blocks the path of the t-post stake driver that is installing the fencing. Meanwhile, some members of the opposition detect bird nests in the brush that CalTrans has already plowed to make way for the fencing and reports the discovery to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW). Big Orange has failed to conduct bird habitat surveys of the area as required by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, so the CDFW shuts down work for the day. CalTrans and their contractors are sent home after completing only about two hours of work.
Feb. 26th to March 20th (Ongoing Blockades) -- Little Lake Valley Defenders blockade efforts to clear brush and construct fencing four additional times. In every case, the California Highway Patrol is called out to manage the protests, but they decline to make any arrests. Thus, for the first four weeks of official construction activities, CalTrans fails to make any significant progress with its construction of the Bypass.
March 17th (Second and Third Tree Sits) – Little Lake Valley Defenders install two new tree sits in a grove of roughly 30 mature ponderosa pine trees off of East Hill Rd., near DripWorks. The tree sitters go by the name "Celsius" and "Caspian." Their platforms end up being nearly 100 feet off the ground.
March 21st (CHP Occupation and Construction Begin) – More than 50 CHP officers, many from the San Francisco Bay Area and the Central Valley, stage a highly coordinated disruption of protesters' activities, complete with a check-point on East Hill Rd. and creation of a CHP command post with a satellite communications unit at the CalTrans engineering office in town. Four people are arrested for trespassing near The Warbler's tree. On the same day, CalTrans begins cutting trees and removing other vegetation in earnest. CHP sets up a 24-hour guard at the base of the trees to deny food and water to the tree sitters. Nearly 30 CHP officers remain on hand for the next week to guard the construction effort.
March 26th (Direct Action Arrests Continue) – Four people, including three Willtis residents and one Redwood Valley resident, are arrested after walking into the area where CalTrans contractor Atlas Tree Surgery is felling oak trees near The Warbler's tree and holding out a piece of Caution tape. The disruption of tree cutting lasts about 20 minutes.
March 28th and 30th (Fourth and Fifth Tree Sits) -- Despite the CHP's presence, the Bypass opposition installs two new tree sits near The Warbler. First, Falcon's tree sit begins in the early morning of March 28th in a large, old oak tree on top of the hill directly across Highway 101 from Warbler. CalTrans intends to remove much of this hill to use as fill dirt for their freeway. After a few days in the tree, Falcon identifies a white-breasted nuthatch nest in a tree adjacent to his, causing it initially to be marked off for protection by Caltrans biologists, but they fell the trees anyway soon after. Second, on March 30th, tree sitter Eagle scales a several hundred-year-old oak tree only about 150 yards from The Warbler's tree, draping a banner that reads "Save The Old Growth."
April 2nd (Extractions, Round One) – More than 60 CHP officers clad in riot gear as well as a CHP SWAT team conduct extractions of all five tree sits. Two 150' tall cherry pickers and six SWAT officers are involved in each extraction. In "The Battle of East Hill," the SWAT team spends nearly three hours chasing Celsius and Caspian across the traverse lines they have tied between several trees near their platforms. A member of the SWAT team shoots Celsius four times with bean bag pellets after he manages to tie up one of the CHP climbers, finally forcing him into the cherry picker bucket. Celsius is charged with assaulting an officer and sentenced to two months in Mendocino County Jail. Eagle locks down to a branch of his oak tree in a metal "sleeping dragon" device, so that it takes roughly two hours for the CHP to extract him.
April 6th (Sixth and Seventh Tree Sits) – Only four days after the extraction, on the evening of an event in Willits called "Rally to Save the Valley," a new tree sitter called "Owl" begins a tree sit in an oak tree only a short distance from where The Warbler's tree was located.
April 16th – The seventh tree sit begins when "Crow" occupies an alder on the banks of Haehl Creek, just outside of CalTrans' Shell Ln. industrial yard. Both Owl and Crow will later abandon their platforms; CalTrans removes them. Although the tree sits both end prematurely, they do make a powerful point about the Bypass opposition's ability to continue to execute tree sits when necessary.
April 20th (CalTrans Office Action) – As part of the “Week of Action & Education to Defend the Watershed,” roughly 75 people rally at the CalTrans office at 300 East Hill Rd. to demand answers to questions concerning the ecological impacts of wick draining, which CalTrans has refused to study, and various other concerns. CalTrans and the CHP respond by locking the door and dispatching Phil Frisbie, Jr., the CalTrans District One Public Information Officer, to field the questions. Two women, 75 and 80, are arrested, one while blocking a Caltrans vehicle, and the other blocking the entrance to the locked office.
May 2nd (Ash Grove Tree Sit Begins – The Longest Tree Sit) – On the same day that roughly 30 members of Save Our Little Lake Valley are in Sacramento to meet with officials from Governor Jerry Brown's officer, a new tree sit begins in the Oregon ash grove on the north end of the Valley. The tree sitter, Condor, resides in a several-hundred-year-old oak tree on the edge of the grove and unfurls a banner that reads “Gov. Brown: Do The Right Thing, Please.”
May 13th (Caterpillar Lock-Down Arrest) – 67-year-old Willits resident Bob Chevalier locks down in a sleeping dragon to a Caterpillar in the southern end of the Willits Bypass area and is arrested for trespassing. Ellen Faulkner of Redwood Valley is arrested for the fourth time in the Willits Bypass protests.
May 20th (Lock-Down Blocks First Day of Wick Draining) – On the first day that CalTrans and FlatIron construction (CalTrans' contractor, (a subsidiary of the world’s largest construction firm, HOCHTIEF of Germany) intend to install wick drains in Little Lake Valley, Willits resident Jamie Chevalier and Travis Jochismen of Humboldt lock down to the crane of the wick drain stitcher and remain there for nearly five hours. Neither CalTrans nor the California Highway Patrol are prepared to handle the situation. All work in the area, including ongoing grading activities, stop. A Mendocino County sheriff arrives to negotiate with the two people who are locked down. In exchange for FlatIron’s agreeing to call off wick draining and other work for the day, the protesters agreed to be taken to Mendocino County jail to be cited and released.
June 12th (Wetlands Destruction Disruption) – Roughly 30 people enter the construction area of the Bypass and disrupt work there for roughly 90 minutes before CHP reinforcements arrive. No arrests take place.
June 19th (Surrounding The Wick Drains) – Roughly 50 people occupy the same wetlands are as a week prior, totally shutting down the site for about five hours. They surround the wick drain stitchers and the workers leave. Five people are arrested.
June 20th July 1st (Wick Drain Occupation) – I occupy the wick drain derrick in Little Lake. On the morning of the start of the action, one CHP officer begins to climb into the crane in an apparent effort to remove my platform, but he stops and returns to the ground after I lock down in a sleeping dragon. Two days later, six people are arrested trying to provide me with food and water. After initially attempting to starve me out by denying me access to food, water, and other supplies, CalTrans and the California Highway Patro deployed more than 30 vehicles, 40 officers, an aerial surveillance chopper, two cherry pickers, and a SWAT team to extract me from the crane in a process that took about two hours.
July 6th (Ash Grove Tree Sit Breaks Record) – The tree sit in the ash grove, which began with Condor on May 2nd, surpasses The Warbler's tree sit in length by entering its 66th day. Six different people, including me, Condor, Scorpion, White Owl, Blue Heron, Blue Heron II have occupied the tree.