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Opponents of the Highway 101 Willits bypass vowed Wednesday to continue efforts to block its construction while tree and brush clearance continued in the project corridor where five tree-sitters were physically extracted from their roosts a day before.

As one tree-sitter remained jailed on a felony battery charge, a lull in tension at the project site permitted Caltrans crews to finish stripping vegetation from a mile-long work area and to begin installing environmental fencing in the next segment scheduled for tree clearing, Caltrans spokesman Phil Frisbie said.

But even as the work moved forward, activists were planning future events aimed at building opposition to the $210-million project.

"This is just the beginning of a struggle that will last as long as it has to last to keep that bypass out of that valley," 73-year-old Ellen Faulkner said. "And there will be everything: tree-sitting, lockdowns, totally new things nobody's ever done before, enormous rallies."

Caltrans says the bypass, already decades in planning, is critical to improving travel and transport along the Highway 101 corridor and has enjoyed broad support from the public and local government.

It would permit inter-regional traffic to avoid the congestion and controlled intersections along the narrow, old-style highway through town and is designed to handle projected increases in traffic over time.

The state agency has obtained necessary permits to proceed, despite a legal bid for a preliminary injunction against construction last fall.

Mendocino County supervisors voted just last week to reaffirm their support for the plan.

But demonstrators say a growing chorus of concern about the necessity and environmental impact of the 6-mile-long bypass proves their message is gaining support.

A pending lawsuit also provides some prospect of a legal end to the debate about a proposal that critics say jeopardizes important riparian habitat, sensitive wetlands, water supplies and farmlands.

Extensive portions of the raised bypass are to be built in flood plain and seasonal wetlands, requiring soil and rock fill in about 86 acres of wetland habitat with wicking technology used to draw out excess water so the fill can settle quickly.

The initial tree clearing raised concerns about the impact on bird nesting habitat. One tree-sitter, Mark Herbert, 51, said he saw a pair of nuthatches bringing food to a nest in a tree near his.

There's "so much support from this community," said Amanda Senseman, 24, of Willits, whose 55-foot ascent into a ponderosa pine where she camped for nine weeks lent shape to the ongoing protest. "It extends so much further than the people standing across the street with signs and the people in the trees."

"We're regrouping," said Herbert, also of Willits, "and we're trying to determine what is the next best peaceful action for us to take in order to effectively draw attention to this horrible waste of money and resources."

Activists reaffirmed the importance of nonviolent protest Wednesday after reports surfaced that one tree-sitter battled against CHP officers on Tuesday and was shot with a bean bag projectile.

The CHP said the tree-sitter, Mark Reign Katz, 23, flung human feces and urine on authorities who attempted to remove him from his tree and then tried repeatedly to strike them with a large metal carabiner at the end of a rope.

He ultimately was arrested on suspicion of felony battery, obstruction and other charges and remained in the Mendocino County Jail on Wednesday.

Seven others arrested and cited for suspected trespassing Tuesday were ordered to appear in court and then released after what Caltrans and CHP officials said was their necessary removal so the vegetation clearance could move forward safely.

Though he expressed some surprise Tuesday that the operation had gone forward without his knowledge, CHP Commissioner Joe Farrow on Wednesday said his deputies had worked jointly with Caltrans to ensure it was conducted as safely as possible.

"I am comfortable with the actions our people took yesterday," he said.

With the tree-sitting over, a rally in Willits planned for Saturday and a developing effort to lobby state legislators provide the focal point for the campaign that centered until Tuesday on those in the trees.

But organizers, who include first-time activists, newcomers to the area and veterans of the battle over prerservation of Humboldt County's Headwaters Forest 20 years ago, like Faulkner, and the iconic timber wars of Redwood Summer in 1990, like Herbert, <NO> said they're digging in for a long fight.

Critics argue that the impact to sensitive wetlands won't be mitigated adequately and say traffic volumes and public opinion favor a scaled back version of the planned four-lane bypass.

They say Caltrans has refused to consider anything but four new lanes even though the agency has funding for an initial phase of two lanes and has no prospect of funding the second two lanes.

They further challenge the environmental impact study for the project, saying that substantial alterations in the planned construction made since the environmental impact was analyzed in 2002 warrant additional study under the National Environmental Protection Act.

Among the deficiencies they point out are traffic volume projections that already are shown to overstate the number of motorists moving through the area - a decline Caltrans attributes to the recent economic downturn.

"They really could have analyzed a less impacting and less expensive two-lane highway .. but they haven't," said Gary Graham Hughes, executive director of the Environmental Protection Information Center in Arcata, one of the lawsuit plaintiffs.

Frisbie said the full, four-lane expansion is necessary to meet with the mission of limiting traffic congestion at peak traffic hours at an appropriate level.

He said the Army Corps of Engineers required new analysis last year based on updated traffic volumes before it would issue a regulatory permit for work in the wetlands. That analysis still showed a need for four lanes at full build-out, Frisbie said.

But Faulkner said organizers know their work has just begun.

"The public should decide this — a well-informed public," she said. "The more you know about this bypass the more you realize it's just a gigantic, monstrous boondoggle with people holding onto it because it's money in their pockets."

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com.