Protest blocks PG&E plans to fell bald eagle nesting tree in Potter Valley

A PG&E tree crew arrived Monday at the 186-acre Ridgeway Highway ranch and told the tenants they were there to eliminate a potential fire hazard.|

It wasn’t an enormous crowd — some described it as 20 people at its peak.

But they were committed. So committed in fact that some reportedly vowed to chain themselves to a stately 120-foot-tall bishop pine to protect a pair of bald eagles that had just begun refurbishing their long-established nest.

It was standoff that had been brewing for five days in the quiet woods of Potter Valley in Mendocino County after word leaked out that PG&E crews had targeted the tree for removal as part of the utility’s wildfire mitigation efforts.

Friday was the last day crews could legally cut the tree down, but in the end, the PG&E crews stood down, and the pine tree stood tall.

The tree is on property owned by Linda Marlin of Los Angeles. After what she described as five increasingly stressful days in which the weight of catastrophic wildfire risk and the fate of the birds swirled in an information void, she said she finally told PG&E they could topple the tree only if they could get a court order.

Marlin said she had been told, as had her tenants who live on the property, that PG&E would cut power to the ranch if they couldn’t cut the tree.

But Marlin said could not let that happen because she hadn’t seen viable evidence that the birds would be OK if the nest came down.

“I’ve been threatened. I’ve been bullied. I was given no notice really to process all this information intelligently,” Marlin said. “I care about lives in California. I always care about protecting our nationally treasured, endangered species, so the only decision I can make now is give me a court order telling me what to do.”

Tension over the situation grew throughout the week, after a PG&E tree crew arrived Monday at the 186-acre, Ridgeway Highway ranch and told the tenants they were there to eliminate a potential fire hazard: the nesting tree, which all agree is in decline.

But it’s still alive, and the fact that two eagles have actively worked on the nest through the week indicates it remains a viable breeding site for this year, said tenant Joseph Seidell, who first turned away the tree cutters and has led the campaign to save the pine.

A second tenant, Joe West, 74, has lived on the ranch since 1992 and once owned it. He sold it to Marlin, over a decade ago.

“I’ve been watching the eagles in this particular tree since about 1998 or 1999 ― I can’t remember exactly ― and they nest in this particular nest about four out of every five years,” West said.

They also have two other nesting sites in the area, presumably used in the other years.

While PG&E has had folks on site to trim and limb trees in the past, this time was different, and neither Seidell nor West was prepared to allow chain saws near the pine.

“This nest should be allowed to continue over the years,” said Warren “Beb” Ware, a neighbor who has lived in the area for 50 years. “It has produced many, many bald eagles as baby birds that have fledged.”

Marlin, who had received no independent notification from PG&E, was informed of the situation, as were a variety of neighbors. So, eventually, was Tim Bray, president of the Mendocino Coast Audubon Society, who put word out about a potentially troubling development inland. His concerns were later put to rest, though his initial email raised alarm in the area.

“The problem with this whole thing is PG&E tried to do it at the at last minute, and nobody knew what was going on,” he said.

Bald eagles, though no longer listed under the Endangered Species Act, remain protected by federal law. Under state forest practice rules, Jan. 15 each year is the start of a seven-month “critical period” during which bald eagle nesting sites are protected from the disturbance of timber cutting.

PG&E spokeswoman Deanna Contreras said the company’s vegetation management crews had been keeping an eye on the tree for at least a year and, as part of its routine work in Mendocino County, had decided it needed to come down this year.

Biologists also had been monitoring the nest and had authorization from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to cut the tree before Jan. 15 in hopes that the eagle pair’s attention would shift to an alternate nest.

Inspections have determined the pine “is dead and dying, that it will fail,” she said. The company is mandated to comply with state standards for equipment maintenance to mitigate fire risk, especially in high fire risk areas, she said.

But Seidell paid an arborist out of his own pocket who determined that the tree had sufficient time to get through the nesting season, until more time could be given to assess different solutions.

Seidell said supporters also are prepared to raise money to pay for undergrounding of the electrical lines so the tree can be spared.

In the meantime, Marlin said she’s been agonizing over what to do, particularly when informed the power to that line would be cut if she forbade crews from entering the property. West uses a medical ventilator, and she insisted he tell her, with witnesses, that he accepted her decision to spare the nest.

Seidell said he also was prepared to find a way to abide without PG&E power until August, though Contreras said de-energizing the line was only one possible outcome of the stalemate.

“We aren’t going to cut the power,” she said. “We are going to circle back and take a look at next steps and come to a better solution to mitigate hazards because the tree is dead. It’s dying and it’s going to fail.”

Bray said he felt better about the situation after reaching the federal bald eagle nesting expert who wrote a letter authorizing PG&E’s removal of the tree on behalf of PG&E, who told him the eagles had evolved so they could use other nests if need-be.

But Marlin said she had been unable to see any permits or letters from the federal wildlife agency, despite inquiries.

A Fish & Wildlife spokeswoman said press inquiries submitted Friday afternoon could not be addressed until next week.

“I wasn’t a hard-liner,” Marlin said. “I really wasn’t. I want to save lives, too, but really truly, in this particular situation, you’ve got hundreds of people up there that know about this tree with the eagles in it. Can you imagine what they’re thinking of me if I just said, ‘Go, cut it down.’

“Not to mention, I care. These birds have been nesting in that tree a long time.”

The standoff was reminiscent of decades-old timber wars, when hundreds of protesters took to the North Coast to defend diminishing numbers of northern spotted owl from wide scale, commercial logging ― though on a miniature scale.

And it reflected ongoing distrust of PG&E, whose maintenance of power equipment has come into question due a series of deadly California wildfires, several of them blamed on interaction between trees and power lines during extreme wind conditions. Some landowners also have questioned the company’s removal of burned trees that critics say could survive if left to heal.

Contreras said she appreciated that the ongoing dialog with people at the ranch site may have allowed some improved understanding of PG&E’s intentions and what she hoped would be better communication and transparency in the future.

“We want to earn trust back from our customers,” she said.

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

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