Willits bypass project pits CHP's enforcers against tree-sitters

04/11/2013 12:00 AM

05/01/2013 6:49 AM

WILLITS – At the mere sight of "Warbler" fluttering along the Redwood Highway, four California Highway Patrol cruisers swing into action.

On U.S. 101 in Mendocino County, above this town with the "Gateway to the Redwoods" overhang and the only highway traffic lights between San Francisco and Eureka, the officers move quickly to fortify an entry to a swath of severed oaks and fallen pines.

They are there to prevent protesters including Warbler, a reed-thin woman who is 24 and nicknamed for the yellow birds that sip nectar from manzanitas and sweeten the valley with song, from disrupting a major Northern California highway extension.

Before she became known as Warbler, Amanda Senseman showed up from Fort Collins, Colo., four years ago to learn organic farming on a residential ranch in Willits. Its owners, two retired political science professors, dubbed the property "Green Uprising."

Now she symbolizes an uprising in the town – and its pastoral Little Lake Valley – over a freeway project that evokes memories of the protests over corporate logging that years ago turned California's North Coast into a national environmental battleground.

Warbler has been compared to Julia "Butterfly" Hill, then 23, who for 738 days from 1997 to 1999 occupied an ancient redwood tree – called "Luna" – to protest logging perils for Northern California's Headwaters Forest. Veteran activists see in this fight, and other state Department of Transportation projects in sensitive North Coast areas, a new protectionist cause.

In February, after a half century of discussion, Caltrans began work on a $210 million, six-mile bypass around Willits, home to 5,000 residents and five stoplights that bottle up traffic where Highway 101 bisects the town.

Days before, on Jan. 28, Senseman climbed onto platforms that protesters built 70 feet high in a swaying ponderosa pine, closer to roaring trucks on 101 than the chirping warblers of Little Lake Valley.

Warbler instantly became a heroine for environmental groups suing over the bypass project, which is to complete two lanes by 2016 before a four-lane freeway is built. It will weave through wooded meadows in a valley extending from Haehl Creek, south of Willits, to Quail Meadows to the north.

Environmentalists say the project will devastate wetlands, foul streams for chinook and coho salmon and steelhead trout and topple old growth oak woodlands. Farmers and ranchers complain that a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers plan to mitigate wetlands destruction will harm regional agriculture.

Caltrans officials maintain that the project is a model of sensitive construction. And a cadre of local supporters wonders why such angry protests swirl now, after so many years and after the state has already cut checks.

The divide intensified April 2, after a battalion of CHP officers moved in to roust Warbler from her Ponderosa perch. As about 40 protesters gathered, officers arrested eight people, including Senseman and four others who had joined the tree sit-in.

"It's time to go. We're under time constraints," one of the officers barked at Senseman in her 65th day in the tree. They used cherry pickers and climbing equipment to scale the ponderosa. Warbler gave up peacefully after demanding that they pull back the tarp above her perch so onlookers could see the arrest.

Authorities fired bean bag projectiles at a 23-year-old man in an oak tree who allegedly resisted and flung a bucket of excrement. He was booked for assault on an officer.

Soon after, chain saw crews cut Warbler's ponderosa and a grove of oaks to clear way for the project that will extend a milelong viaduct and creek-spanning bridges through Little Lake Valley.

"I was righteously outraged," Senseman said. "They were coming in to aid and abet in the crimes that Caltrans was committing."

Sen. Noreen Evans, D-Santa Rosa, condemned the CHP action in a statement: "I'm shocked and dismayed at what seems to be an excessive use of force on unarmed protesters."

In town, the Willits Environmental Center erected a sign asking, "Why do we need guns to build a highway?"

More activists took up Warbler's fight. They went on the airwaves to call for another "Redwood Summer" of protests in the North Coast region – now against a Caltrans bypass and what some labeled the "Transportation Industrial Complex."

"The best thing that happened to the anti-bypass movement was the overreaction by the CHP," proclaimed radio host Paul Lambert on the local "Mendo Matters" program. It featured Naomi Wagner, an Earth First protest veteran. She called for "action camps" to train volunteers in "nonviolent civil disobedience" to stop the project.

Wagner, 67, was first arrested in the 1980s for blocking logging trucks in Mendocino forests.

On March 28, when Mendocino County supervisors voted 3-2 to endorse the ongoing bypass construction, Wagner stood in the path of contractors cutting and chipping oak trees. She credited a certain tree-sitter for inspiring her first arrest in eight years.

"Warbler has ignited our passion," said Wagner, seated at a Willits natural foods store in her "No compromise in defense of Mother Earth" shirt. "She is a beacon."

California Highway Patrol spokesman Officer Steve Krul said the CHP tried to accommodate protesters in areas that didn't disrupt construction. He said officers pulled out tree-sitters after multiple warnings.

"What we won't allow is a destruction of property endangering the public or interfering with the state's ability to conduct its business," he said.

A heavy CHP contingent remains, often reacting to protesters wandering along Highway 101. Authorities don't want another work-disrupting festival in the woods, with people gathering beneath a Warbler in a tree.

When she was in the ponderosa, supporters used rope pulleys to send Senseman plates of spaghetti, egg sandwiches and chocolate cake.

Mendocino County Supervisor John McCowen supports the bypass project but nonetheless sent up a copy of Julia "Butterfly" Hill's book, "The Legacy of Luna." Warbler and Butterfly, now living in Belize, talked via social media.

"Largely because of the effectiveness of Warbler, now people are focusing on the impacts of major freeway construction – cutting trees, bulldozing earth and filling wetlands," McCowen said.

But he said the bypass project is needed to relieve traffic in Willits, where northbound Highway 101 squeezes into a single lane. He rejects alternatives backed by environmentalists – redrawing highway lanes or creating alternative truck routes on surface roads through town – as ineffectual.

Bruce Burton, a three-time Willits mayor and a City Council member since 1992, runs the last sawmill in town. He sees the bypass as a sign of progress in an area that has lost 2,000 jobs in 20 years as other sawmills, a redwood furniture manufacturer and a major machine shop closed.

Burton asks why protests roil now after years of hearings and approvals from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the state Department of Fish and Wildlife and other entities.

"They (protesters) want to get to the Pearly Gates and say, 'When they went to build the Willits bypass, I stood up for the trees and bugs and salamanders,' " he said.

Caltrans touts a 2,000-acre, $50 million plan to protect creeks, plant trees and build ample wetlands to replace 60 acres that will be destroyed or trampled in construction. "We are very environmentally sensitive," said spokesman Phil Frisbie Jr.

Meanwhile, Warbler has gone on a hunger strike, demanding Caltrans cease work until legal challenges pending in San Francisco federal court are heard. Since March 28, she has subsisted on teas blended with ground spinach and cabbage – no easy feat since she is hardly a vegan. "I love beef," she says.

Call The Bee's Peter Hecht, (916) 326-5539.

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