The controversy over construction of the Willits bypass project was a difficult issue even before that young woman decided to starve herself in a tree.
Even though the project has been debated and planned for a half-century, there are still plenty of questions about the wisdom and necessity of re-routing Highway 101 around the bottleneck of downtown Willits. Local business and political people continue to argue both sides of the issue. Environmental groups and the state Farm Bureau Federation have joined legal forces in an attempt to stop the project, which traverses both wetlands and farm lands. State Sen. Noreen Evans, D-Santa Rosa, has expressed concerns about the project's impacts.
All of which is fine. That's how these things get resolved.
But it all became more complicated last month when construction was delayed following the discovery of bird nests in the project area, and by the presence of a human "Warbler" protesting the project from her own nest in a 60-foot pine tree. Amanda "Warbler" Senseman, 24, took up residence in the tree on Jan. 28 and is one of a corps of protesters seeking to convince Caltrans to re-think the project.
Arrests have been made of protesters on the ground, but the focus this week now turns to the young woman in the tree, who announced on Thursday that she will be on a hunger strike until her demands are met. Those demands include a halt to all construction activity until legal issues are resolved and the "adoption of an alternative to the bypass," according to Melody Karpinski's story in today's PD.
It's unclear if her demands differ from what Karpinski quoted Senseman as saying last month: "I'm not coming down unless the bypass is canceled altogether. I won't compromise."
Tellingly, her demands this week also include a guarantee of public and media access to the construction zone, in which she perches. Because, after all, if you sit in a tree in a forest, and nobody hears about it, do you make your point?
Julia "Butterfly" Hill made a point about logging in the Headwaters Forest in Humboldt County when she lived in a tree for more than two years in the late 1990s. Hers wasn't the first tree-sitting protest, but it spawned many more because it garnered so much attention. The spectacle of a young, passionate and articulate woman living on a plywood platform 180 feet in the air in the middle of a redwood forest for 738 days drew media from around the world.
But in the end, the dispute was solved in the courts and in the banks and in the halls of political power, not in the trees. California and U.S. taxpayers paid nearly $500 million to protect thousands of acres of the Headwaters Forest, a deal that still was derided by some environmentalists as too little, too late. And Hill agreed to leave "Luna," the tree that she made her home, after lawyers hammered out a deal in which she and her supporters paid $50,000 to the tree's owner, Pacific Lumber Co., in exchange for letting Luna stand.
Then she wrote a book and went on the lecture circuit.
Regardless of whether you view Hill's exploits as a success, it's important to note that during the Headwaters protests one young man was killed by a falling tree and another suffered serious injuries when he fell out of a tree. In 2002, a 22-year-old woman died when she fell during a tree-sitting protest in Oregon, and a 25-year-old man died under similar circumstances in Santa Cruz.