Environmental activist Julia ‘Butterfly’ Hill climbs back onto public stage

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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.

“I didn’t climb into that tree expecting to become a spokesperson,” she said. She was alternately revered and reviled at the time, and even received death threats. “It’s actually good, because if I had known that would come, I wouldn’t have done it.”

Supporters sent her food, water and mail at the end of long ropelines. She cooked by propane stove and used a sleeping bag to try to stay warm.

But for most of two years, she was wet and cold. She almost was blown from her roost by gusting winds at night. She was harassed and even threatened by some of those who were felling trees around her. Sometimes the discomfort and fear left her sobbing in the fetal position.

But Hill said she committed to staying with Luna out of respect, love and a concern, well-founded at the time, that the ancient tree would be cut down if she departed. Aloft in its soaring canopy, she felt she was in the presence of a wise elder.

“I can hold space for people who think I’m a nut job. It’s cool,” Hill said. “But I know from my own experience what I experienced. I know what I learned. I know what I saw. I know what I heard. It was this inner knowing that would arise, and I was clear that it was coming from the nature that I was interacting with.”

As her stint in Luna’s branches went on, eclipsing any tree-sit known, Hill was the subject of news coverage that made her a wider heroine and a target of venom, a reflection of the bitter and divisive conflicts that shadowed the decline of North Coast logging in the 1980s and 90s.

Eventually, Pacific Lumber agreed to spare Luna and all other trees within a 200-foot buffer, in exchange for $50,000 raised by Hill and supporters — funds later donated for sustainable forestry research at Humboldt State University.

The tree, 40 feet around at its base, is monitored monthly by the nonprofit Sanctuary Forest, whose representatives in 2000 found it vandalized, a 3-foot gash left in its side by a chainsaw. Metal straps and cables were used to support the tree so its scar could heal.

Hill has since spent extended periods in several Latin American countries, working as an activist and taking in the soothing warmth of its climate. She remains connected with friends and supporters in Humboldt County despite settling in Nevada City last year, to be close to healers who have been treating her.

She works from time to time as a life coach and caterer.

Recently, she was appointed outreach director for Heritage Salvage, which reclaims and repurposes wood and other building materials and is owned by longtime friend Michael “Bug” Deakin.

The company’s commitment to recycling and sustainability is just the kind of synergy between the progressive and for-profit worlds that Hill hopes to highlight Sunday.

The current political climate and world events are sometimes overwhelming, she said, and it may hurt to devote oneself to finding solutions for the most pressing problems.

“But I think it’s what we need,” she said. “In this time of violence and fear and anger and despair, I want people to know that there’s still other people holding onto the belief that we matter, and we’re out there.”

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

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