Last December 10, Julia Butterfly climbed 180 feet up an ancient
redwood tree in Humboldt
County's beleaguered Headwaters Forest, named the tree Luna, and
refused to come down.
She's still up there.
Glen Martin, Chronicle Staff Writer
Sunday, December 6, 1998
1998 San Francisco Chronicle

A year ago, she climbed 180 feet up this hoary conifer as one small

part of a massive protest movement against the clear-cutting

of virgin redwoods by Pacific Lumber Co., a firm that had been

acquired in 1985 in a hostile takeover by Maxxam Corp., headed

by Texas financier Charles Hurwitz.

At the heart of the

conflict is the fate of the Headwaters Forest and adjoining

groves, an old-growth complex covering 60,000 acres. Marches

and direct confrontation between protesters and loggers have

enlivened North Coast society since 1990, the year of Redwood


The struggle hit an ugly low on September 17, when

David ``Gypsy'' Chain died after being hit by a felled tree

in the course of an anti-Hurwitz demonstration.

But during

the past two months, things have simmered down; however temporarily,

the Humboldt woods are now generally quiet. Yet Julia Butterfly

-- nee Julia Hill -- is still up that tree. She has kept to

her precipitous perch through horrendous El Nino gales and

by testy loggers.

``The first few weeks were especially

hard,'' she recalls. ``There was a two-week period in January

when I had no real shelter, and I was constantly raked by storms.

One night, the wind blew me three feet sideways with every gust.

I only made it because I emulated the branches that survived

-- by yielding to the wind. The ones that resisted broke.''

December 10 will mark a year since Butterfly's feet touched

the ground.

And in those 12 months, a strange thing has

happened: She has become the lens through which the entire issue

is viewed. She has metamorphosed into the living emblem of the

old-growth advocacy movement, its ad hoc spokesperson.

The impressions left by eight years of protests have been complex

and sometimes contradictory: umbral groves of ancient trees

juxtaposed with clear-cuts jumbled with slash; perplexed loggers

trading jibes with drum-beating hippies; home town cops brusquely

swabbing liquid Mace into the eyes of young protesters.

It is therefore hard to winnow the good guys from the bad in

this conflict. Even if you accept the environmentalists'


the people nominally in the wrong usually seem good-humored,

competent and reasonable -- working men trained in the dangerous

and demanding trade of hauling logs off the mountainside.

And the people viewed as ``right'' often come across as dogmatic,

self-indulgent and bizarre in taste and habits.


the average American doesn't want to see old-growth redwood

forests razed. But that same American would probably feel a

stronger bond with a Humboldt County logger -- a man who pays

his taxes, has a couple of beers during Monday night football

and spends his weekends fishing -- than a vegan Earth Firster

huffing a bong-load of Emerald Triangle skunkweed while dancing

around a bonfire.

But Butterfly has been able to redefine

this barrage of discordant messages and images. People may be

dismayed by confrontational marches, they may glaze over during

discussions of climax forest ecology, habitat conservation plans

and the life cycle of the marbled murrelet -- but they understand

a young woman who has lived in the upper canopy of a giant tree

for a year because she has a heartfelt conviction that clear-cutting

old-growth redwoods is wrong.

Especially when that young

woman is formidably articulate and photogenic. Certainly, a

large part of Butterfly's appeal is due to the fact that she

is appealing: She looks like a Vogue model who has taken up

residence in a redwood.

In Butterfly -- and the small

team of activists who keep her supplied and help with her media

outreach -- the Save the Redwoods movement has found something

it was sorely lacking: a shining, inviolate symbol. A warrior

saint. A Joan of Arc.

-- -- --

It's not easy visiting

Butterfly. First, you have to bushwhack a couple of miles through

thick brush and second-growth coniferous forest, straight up

a steep mountainside. Your guide is usually Michael Van Broekhoven,

a 24-year-old activist from Belgium who packs up most of Butterfly's


Then there's the matter of ascending the tree.

This is accomplished by climbing 100 feet up a rope through

the use of a harness and two jumars -- cam devices that clip

onto the rope and the harness. (Van Broekhoven and other members

of Butterfly's crew disdain jumars as sissified, preferring

to climb with ``prussiks'' -- simple looped lines that attach

to the main rope with slipknots.)

With your feet in rope

stirrups tied to the jumars, you ascend by sitting back in the

harness and moving and locking the top jumar, then standing

in the stirrups, pulling on the top jumar and deftly moving

up the bottom device. Progress is made in small increments;

climbing 100 feet is like doing 150 pull-ups -- while dangling

over a steep mountainside strewn with sharp stakes and splintered


Many have found the experience daunting. A few

weeks ago, a cameraman from a Bay Area television station had

a profound crisis of confidence about three-quarters of the

way up the rope, and Butterfly and Van Broekhoven had a trying

time talking him through it. Once you start climbing with jumars,

you can't go down. They only go one way: Up.

At the top

of the rope is one of the two four-by-six-foot tarped platforms

that Butterfly calls home. The other is located 80 feet higher.

Butterfly blithely travels between the two like a gibbon, swinging

from branch to branch. Barefoot. No rope. No harness. Nothing

between her and eternity but a toe grip on a slippery branch.

She abandoned her safety devices, she explains, two weeks after

ascending Luna -- the name she gave the tree after the construction

of the lower platform, which was finished during a phase of

the full moon.

``We evolved from ground-dwelling apes,''

Butterfly observed during an interview on a cold and clammy

November day as she prepared green tea on a small butane stove

for a hypothermic visitor. ``We're naturally uncomfortable with

heights. You climb up in a tree like this, and things start

feeling pretty -- airy. But whenever I felt like that during

those first days, I'd just hug Luna, and I'd feel rooted. I

could feel her life, her energy, flowing right down into the

earth. After a while, I didn't need the rope.''


has reached a comfort level in Luna that is, frankly, alarming.

The tree is her front yard, her office, her exercise treadmill.

She thinks nothing of balancing on a four-inch branch in her

bare feet, talking on the cell phone she holds in one hand,

gesturing emphatically with her free hand, swaying gently with

the breeze, riding the tree like a surfer on a vast, soft swell.

-- -- --

Though she is usually alone -- save for brief

visits from teammates like Van Broekhoven and a few journalists

-- Butterfly is nevertheless solidly connected to the world

beyond the trees. She receives well over 100 letters a week

from around the globe, and she answers them all.

``My whole

upper platform is stuffed with mail,'' she sighs. ``I'm so far

behind in my correspondence I feel guilty when I'm not up there

working on it.''

She also regularly sends long, chatty

epistles to Hurwitz, urging a dialogue.

``He hasn't answered

me yet,'' she laughs, ``but I remain optimistic.''

When she is not replying to letters it is usually because she's

on a limb, participating in radio interviews on her cell phone.

She conducts up to five a day, most arranged by her media

Humboldt resident Robert Parker. The stations call in from all

over the country, ranging from outfits with little dim-bulb

transmitters to radio Godzillas with 50,000-watt ozone blasters.

Butterfly has by now honed her message into a series of digestible

sound bites that go down smooth as honey.

In her resonant

contralto voice, she speaks of the ``connectedness'' of life

on Earth, and the responsibility humans have to serve as stewards

of the planet. She talks of the redwood forest in spiritual

and aesthetic rather than scientific terms.

Most significantly,

she talks of the nature of her battle -- and in this regard,

she has adroitly changed the tenor of the argument over old

growth. A few years ago, it was hippies versus loggers -- but

Butterfly has managed to frame the struggle in a different light,

portraying it as a coalition of environmentalists and disillusioned

loggers united against a rapacious corporation.


never felt that loggers were the enemy,'' Butterfly says. ``Maxxam

is the problem -- a company that has accrued hundreds of

violations from the California Department of Forestry in the

last eight years. A company that's just had its logging permit

pulled. A company that just handed 180 loggers their pink slips

because it couldn't continue clear-cutting as fast as it wanted.

They don't care about their employees, and they don't care about

their forests. When they're finished, there'll be no jobs, no

trees -- just eroded earth. We don't have a problem with

logging. But this isn't sustained-yield, and the loggers will

ultimately suffer with the rest of us.''

-- -- --

Pacific Lumber executives, of course, see it differently.

``We're a responsible company involved in the responsible

harvest of trees on our property,'' says John Campbell, the

president and CEO of Pacific Lumber. ``I sympathize with Julia,

but I think she has made her point. We have no intention of

forcibly removing her, but we'd like to see her come down.''

Campbell says Pacific Lumber won't directly negotiate with

Butterfly on the future of Luna ``because she is breaking the

law. She's trespassing. And you don't negotiate with people

who are breaking the law.''

Campbell also feels that Butterfly

hasn't so much kindled a worldwide interest in the righteousness

of her cause as conducted a successful sideshow.


public is always interested in bizarre things, and this definitely

has the aspect of the bizarre about it,'' he says.


response of many working loggers to Butterfly's mission has

been less than cordial. But some of the men who work in the

woods harbor a grudging respect for her. She has, after all,

stayed up in Luna through incredibly grueling circumstances

-- and loggers respect toughness and physical endurance above

all else.

And sometimes there's more than mere respect in play.

Shortly after Butterfly moved into Luna's canopy,

a crew of loggers began felling and bucking trees around her.

The simple act of narrowly missing Luna with huge trees was

intimidating enough, but the loggers also cursed and threatened


``It was pretty vile,'' she says. ``They described

in great detail all the things they planned to do to me. But

I kept trying to engage them in conversation. I sang to them.

After a while, they stopped yelling at me.''

-- -- --

One of the loggers, in fact, fell in love with Butterfly.

He began corresponding with her and eventually quit his job

with Pacific Lumber. Butterfly won't talk in detail about him,

beyond revealing that he ultimately moved to Alaska.


was uncomfortable with the media spotlight,'' she says. ``I

will say that there is a lot of beauty in him, and he woke to


Butterfly candidly admits she is not a trained

forester or wildland ecologist. And she acknowledges that, although

she has been up in Luna for 12 months, she is still learning

the calls and physical characteristics of the birds that often

flit around her.

``I finally got a field guide, and I'm

studying it,'' she says. ``I know there's an owl that lives

just behind Luna -- I hear it hooting. But I don't know if

it's a great horned owl or a spotted owl, or what.''


Butterfly isn't about science, she says -- she is about common

sense, intuition and reverence for the natural world.

``I debated John Campbell on CNN about a massive mudslide that wiped

out seven homes right below Luna in 1996, pointing out that

it was due to over-logging,'' Butterfly recounts. ``He said,

`according to the best available science, you can't say that

logging causes landslides.'''

Butterfly rebutted this, noting that it is widely

acknowledged that woodlands hold large

quantities of water, like sponges.

``The fewer trees, the

less water the soil holds,'' she says. ``I told Campbell that

I may not have a science degree, but like anyone else, I can

figure out that a sponge won't hold as much water if you cut

it in half.''

The spiritual aspect of Butterfly's vigil

can't be minimized. Her parents were evangelical Christians,

and her father was an itinerant preacher. (He has since drifted

from fundamentalist theology and currently works as a journalist.)

Butterfly was a devout Christian until she was about 15, at

which point she lost her enthusiasm for organized religion --

but not for spirituality.

-- -- --

A turning point

for her occurred in the summer of 1996, when she was involved

in a near-fatal traffic accident. The steering wheel of her

car penetrated her skull; it took almost a year of intensive

therapy before she could again walk and talk normally.

``As I recovered, I realized that my whole life had been out

of balance,'' she said. ``I had graduated high school at 16,

and had been working nonstop since then, first as a waitress,

then as a restaurant manager. I had been obsessed by my career,

success and material things. The crash woke me up to the importance

of the moment, and doing whatever I could to make a positive

impact on the future.''

Today, she talks about ``the Universe''

with the same fervor she once talked about the Father, the Son

and the Holy Ghost. It is obvious that, for her, the Universe

-- the sum of all that exists -- has the aspect of the divine

about it. She prays daily, and says her life is guided by the

answers she receives.

Kathy Bradley, Butterfly's mother,

lives in Bonita Springs, Fla., and still devoutly adheres to

Christian beliefs. Divorced from Butterfly's father, Bradley

is now married to a Baptist pastor. She describes Butterfly

as a daughter who was always headstrong, who always marched

to an internal drummer. And though they don't share the same

religious beliefs, says Bradley, they are still extremely close.

``We have a very strong mutual respect for each other,'' Bradley

says. ``I'm not the type of mother who pokes and prods. She

said the Universe led to the trees, and I trust God to protect

her while she's up there. I'm just happy she's living life to

the fullest, and doing what she believes in. I'm very proud

of her.''

Bradley says her daughter has garnered worldwide

attention for a couple of reasons.

``She's articulate,

like her father. He was always using 50-cent words, and Julia

inherited his knack for speaking. And she's genuine, she's real.

People are drawn to her because they sense she has no self-interest

in this, beyond helping the forest.''

-- -- --

As her one-year anniversary in Luna draws nearer, Butterfly is

hammering on one subject: the inadequacy of the Headwaters habitat

conservation plan, the management blueprint that buttresses

a pending deal between Pacific Lumber and federal and state


As the agreement stands now, Pacific Lumber would

sell about 8,500 acres of old-growth groves in the Headwaters,

Elk Head Springs and Owl Creek areas as permanent reserves.

An additional 20,000 to 30,000 acres of streamside forest would

receive partial protection to preserve the spawning beds of

threatened coho salmon.

But the deal's a shuck, claims Butterfly.

``In return for protecting a few museum groves,

the plan allows Pacific Lumber to clear-cut one-quarter of their

holdings (about 54,000 acres) in the next 10 years,'' she says.

``And that's not all. According to the country's best fisheries

scientists, the stream buffers are totally inadequate for protecting

coho. In many ways, it's worse than no deal at all.''


seems bemused by Butterfly's position, which he feels ignores

such niceties as property rights and due process of law.

``We're a business,'' he says, ``and our business is harvesting

and growing trees. We do that in a scientific way that preserves

the integrity of the forest. But on top of everything else,

she would like us to give up a whole section of property (roughly

the one square mile surrounding Luna), and that's just not

We're talking at least 400,000 board feet of timber.''

Campbell and Butterfly thus seem irresolvably at loggerheads,

and that's why it may be a long time before Butterfly descends


``I can't really say when I'm coming down,'' she

says. ``I have so much work to do here, and Luna would be cut

in very short order if I left. If anything happened to her,

I'd feel like it would be happening to me.''

1998 San Francisco Chronicle Page 1/Z1

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