Environmental activist Julia ‘Butterfly’ Hill climbs back onto public stage
On the makeshift platform where she lived for two years high up in an ancient North Coast redwood tree, Julia “Butterfly” Hill drew national attention two decades ago to a campaign to protect some of California’s last privately-held old growth coastal forests from logging.
When she climbed down on Dec. 18, 1999, Hill began a nearly non-stop sprint of environmental activism and public appearances - averaging 250 events annually during the first seven years. It drained her, financially and emotionally.
She withdrew eventually into a more private life, one that’s confronted her with other traumatic setbacks of late, including health struggles from Lyme disease and chronic pain stemming from a 2014 car crash in which she was rear-ended.
For the past year, Hill, 43, has been living quietly in the Sierra Nevada foothills, where she’s trying to regroup and reorder her life for the second time since the year before she climbed into “Luna,” the roughly 1,500-year-old Humboldt County redwood that is now part of a small forest preserve set aside under a deal with the logging company, the now-defunct Pacific Lumber Co.
While her public profile has waned, Hill’s commitment to an environmental mission has not.
“Where can you look in your daily life and find ways to do it better, to be more thoughtful of the Earth, to be more thoughtful of people?” she said last week in an interview.
She is scheduled to share that message of conservation and stewardship at a special event in Sonoma County on Sunday to mark World Environment Day.
Hill will serve as master of ceremonies at a festival and fundraiser dubbed Big Mama Day at Heritage Salvage in Petaluma. The six-hour event, starting at noon, features music, food, games, mural painting and other guest appearances. It is intended to benefit Daily Acts, a local nonprofit that promotes sustainability and community resiliency through hands-on resource conservation projects and programs.
For Hill, whose 738-day odyssey atop Luna cemented her own powerful connection with nature, Sunday marks a rare public appearance these days amid a challenging time for environmental protection and global values. She spoke by phone Wednesday, a day before President Donald Trump said he would pull the United States out of participation in the Paris climate agreement.
Hill, a Missouri native, said she remains dedicated to a movement pushing for greater environmental and community awareness.
“There’s a heartbeat that refuses to give up, and I’m excited to be a part of that,” she said.
Hill is grateful for the extended reach of her voice after her epic tree-sit, but she admits that 15 years on “the touring circuit” was simply unsustainable.
The thousands of emails, phone calls, requests and inquiries, though “all worthy and worthwhile,” were more than a single person - an introvert, at that - could manage.
“Since I became accidentally famous, it did give me access and through that access, power that I couldn’t just walk away from,” she said.
But even moving off the main stage and into more of a behind-the-scenes role wasn’t enough, given the disabling effects of the 2014 crash and late-stage Lyme disease, diagnosed in 2015. Hill said she had to “find another way to be in the world.”
She had been through something like this before.
The daughter of an itinerant, evangelical preacher whose family traveled with her, Hill spent much of her childhood on the road, staying in a trailer at campgrounds around the Bible Belt. After high school, she studied business management, marketing and advertising at Arkansas State University. She loved cooking, as well, and at 18 had opened a restaurant and nightclub.
She was 22 and working as a restaurant and bar consultant when she was struck by a drunk driver and nearly killed. During the ensuing year of rehabilitation she had to learn to speak and walk normally again.
The recovery prompted a reassessment of her life’s priorities. On a cross-country road trip to California, she fell in with a group of environmental activists who had taken up civil disobedience in defense of a grove of virgin redwoods scheduled to be clear-cut by Pacific Lumber Co., a foe of conservationists after it was acquired in 1985 by financier Charles Hurwitz and greatly accelerated the cutting of North Coast redwoods.
Hill has described her first visit to the old-growth trees as an overwhelming experience, imbued with certainty she had found the “holiest of temples” and reached her spiritual destination.
Then 23, she spent six days aloft in the branches of the tree local environmentalists had named Luna, located on a ridge above the rural hamlet of Stafford, just two miles from the Avenue of the Giants in Humboldt Redwoods State Park. On her next rotation, starting in late 1997, she pledged to stay longer, living between two tarp-covered 6-by-6-foot platforms lashed into the tree 180-feet off the ground. She endured what became one of the harshest El Niño winters on record.