SF Weekly -- cover story
November 11, 1998
Up a Tree. Still?
Environmentalists have all but won their fight to save the Headwaters
forest. Somehow, that's not enough to bring Julia Hill down from her
By Jack Boulware
As Highway 101 winds north through the forests of Humboldt County, it
ushers drivers nto a community of remarkable beauty and acute cultural
Eco-activists eat bagels from vegan bakeries. Locals drink beer in bars
decorated with antique logging saws and animal heads. Bumper stickers
profess support for various environmental causes, and yard signs urge
solidarity with the local timber industry. Christians carve sculptures with
chain saws, and hippies harvest acres of high-octane marijuana.
For more than a decade, this region of Northern California has been the
scene of one of the state's most protracted and passionate environmental
disputes. The Headwaters Forest fight, as it's known, pits the powerful
Pacific Lumber Co., owned by one of the world's richest men, against a
movement of hard-core activists determined to stop the logging of
old-growth redwood groves.
The fight has been raging for so long that it's become a way of life, part
of a daily routine that manifests itself most directly in the actual
forests, where loggers and activists meet. Environmentalists have committed
so much of themselves over time, the fight is almost a jihad. Periodically,
the issue rises to the level of national news, most recently when sheriff's
deputies swabbed the eyes of protesters with tear gas to break up a sit-in
at a local congressman's office.
Undoubtedly, the most recognized symbol of the environmentalists'
commitment is perched atop a 180-foot redwood tree on a ridge just west of
the town of Stafford.
Her name is Butterfly.
It's been almost a year now since Butterfly -- a preacher's daughter from
Arkansas whose real name is Julia Hill -- climbed the tree in an attempt to
save it. She decided to stay, to draw attention to the larger cause and
make her own personal statement about the relationship between humans and
nature. Activists named the tree Luna, after the moon, and Butterfly began
living in its branches. Since then, most of the trees around her have been
cut down. She's been taunted, assaulted by a helicopter's wash, and almost
blown away by storms. Most important, she has become a legend among
environmentalists around the world.
Now, a solution may finally be at hand for the seemingly endless struggle.
The state and federal governments are poised to spend a half-billion
dollars to buy 7,500 acres of virgin redwood stands from the lumber company
and save the forests from logging.
Although environmentalists are still poring over the plan, and details have
yet to be worked out, in large measure they won. Portions of the forest
will now be declared off-limits by law.
But winning is not easy for people who have built their entire lives around
battling Pacific Lumber. The most determined -- the Earth First!ers and
others who have spent the past several years staging rallies, beating
drums, and disrupting the lumber company -- simply refuse to acknowledge
And Butterfly says she still will not come down from her tree.
Pacific Lumber Co. (PALCO) is the nation's largest provider of old-growth
redwood and Humboldt County's largest employer. The company dates back to
1863 and until the 1980s was considered environmentally conscientious. It
was careful to log its forests selectively, leaving behind enough
old-growth redwoods to sustain the ecosystem. But that began to change in
1986, when the company was taken over in a hostile junk-bond deal by
Maxxam, a Houston firm owned by leverage artist Charles Hurwitz.
After Hurwitz's arrival, PALCO began to change. The company liquidated its
pension plan, hired more employees, and started cutting down more
old-growth trees. Environmentalists contend that PALCO's aggressive
clear-cutting of entire hillsides has led to mudslides, polluted streams,
and the destruction of species habitats and residential homes. One mudslide
in Stafford, on New Year's Day 1997, clogged the Eel River and wiped out
seven houses, prompting homeowners to sue PALCO.
Even the local paper, the Times-Standard, has editorialized against PALCO,
noting that the California Department of Forestry has issued 103 citations
against the company in three years for violating state forest laws,
including committing 14 infractions in the first six months of this year.
Local environmental activists have responded fiercely to PALCO's new ways.
The North Coast office of the Earth First! organization, based in the
nearby town of Arcata, began providing front-line reconnaissance, which
grew into a bitter fight. As Earth First! spied on PALCO's activities, its
members undertook "direct actions" -- chaining themselves to equipment and
sitting in trees designated to be cut.
The Environmental Protection Information Center (EPIC), a grass-roots legal
group in Garberville in place since the 1970s, assumed the laborious task
of filing lawsuits against PALCO, alleging numerous violations of state and
federal laws. EPIC has won many of its lawsuits, carrying some all the way
to the U.S. Supreme Court.
A third group, the Trees Foundation, came together to provide
administrative and promotional support for all the activist groups.
Since the Maxxam takeover, the fate of the old-growth redwoods has
dominated life and politics in Humboldt County. At the epicenter of the
dispute is the Headwaters grove, an area of ancient redwoods within PALCO's
Contrary to public perception, the conflict is not black and white. Few, if
any, activists want to see redwood logging stopped completely in the area,
because people need to work and feed their families. Conversely, nobody
within the PALCO organization is interested in cutting down every single
redwood tree in Humboldt County and killing every single species of bird,
fish, and plant. The main concern for activists has always been the vigor
with which PALCO is clear-cutting old-growth trees.
And they have a point. Forbes magazine may call Hurwitz one of the most
powerful people in corporate America, but he also runs a sloppy lumber
company. The state suspended PALCO's license last winter for repeated
violations of forest practices laws and renewed the license on a
conditional basis for 1998. Hurwitz and Maxxam have paid millions of
dollars to settle lawsuits brought against them by former PALCO
shareholders and retirees. Other lawsuits are still pending, including one
by the victims of the Stafford mudslide on New Year's Day 1997.
Although activists despise Hurwitz's practices, he is, for them, the
perfect villain. Within five years, activists predict, Hurwitz will milk
all the money he can from PALCO, then dump it and move on to another
investment, leaving clear-cut hillsides and a decimated Humboldt County in
his wake. (PALCO did not return phone calls from SF Weekly for this
Fighting against a billionaire has prompted grass-roots movements to devise
clever strategies. The Web site www.jailhurwitz.com offers a $50,000 reward
for information leading to the arrest and conviction of Hurwitz. Some
redwoods activists have purchased shares of Maxxam common stock so they can
attend the company stockholders' meetings to propose that the organization
sell all its Headwaters forest properties.
But the activists' most effective methods have been the most basic. It's
very difficult and dangerous for a logger to cut down a tree if a human
being is sitting in it. And no tree-sit has been more successful than the
one that involves an attractive 24-year-old woman.
Julia Hill grew up in Arkansas, but spent much of her youth traversing the
country in a 32-foot trailer driven by her father, a nondenominational
preacher. Hill and her two brothers were home-schooled and forbidden to
speak any slang in the house. She remembers growing up basically around
adults. Children were expected not to speak until spoken to. But Hill was
always headstrong. She rebelled against button-down religion by dressing up
in weird clothing with her older brother. The two once attended church in
Jonesboro, each wearing one cowboy boot and one tennis shoe.
After a miserable time in public high school, Hill went straight into
college, working three jobs, including a little modeling. Someday, she
figured, she would buy some land, start a community farm, and adopt
children. After two years she dropped out of school, and opened a
restaurant/club with her father, who had left the ministry.
At this point, while Hill was bartending and saving money, her life changed
forever. She says she encountered a stalker who attempted to kill her, and
she had to go into hiding and move to another town. Soon after, she says
she got in a terrible car accident. The steering column was shoved into her
head and pressed against her brain. Delicate surgery reconstructed her
skull. She was so badly injured, she says, she couldn't even form words.
"I began stuttering. I fell over all the time. I would drop things. I would
get flashes where my whole body would feel like it would light on fire. And
then I'd throw up and pass out. All these crazy things."
For the next 10 months she recuperated and thought about taking a spiritual
journey around the world. Her family wasn't surprised; she had always had
the wanderlust, always seemed to be traveling or camping somewhere. When
she learned that some friends were headed to California, she hitched along
for the ride. When they reached Humboldt County and pulled off the road
into the redwoods, she wandered off by herself. She says she was so
overwhelmed by the magnificent trees that she fell to her knees and began
She returned to Arkansas, sold all her possessions, bought camping gear,
and came back to California.
In the fall of 1997, a tall young woman with long hair showed up at the
EPIC office, asking how she could help in the fight to save the trees.
Julia Hill looked around for the Earth First! base camp, but it was closing
for the rainy season. Somebody suggested she check out the annual
Headwaters year-end rally, which was being held in the small community of
Stafford. She stepped off a bus into the crowd and learned about a tree
Activists had already been sitting in the tree for several weeks. After
Earth First! discovered PALCO was clear-cutting old-growth redwoods on a
ridge above Stafford, a group hiked up and chose to sit in the biggest
old-growth tree it could find -- its trunk was 16 feet in diameter. One
evening a team hoisted up a plywood platform and lashed it to the branches.
That night was a full moon, and so they named it Luna.
The day Hill arrived, activists were wandering through the rally, looking
for a volunteer to sit in Luna on a more permanent basis. Hill immediately
raised her hand.
"I was so excited," she says. "I didn't even know what it meant. I just
knew it had something to do with the forest."
As is the tradition among Headwaters people, she chose a forest name, and
Julia Hill became Butterfly. Activists taught her how to ascend a rope
using a sliding prussik knot. The first time up, she stayed in the tree for
six days. When she came down to take a shower and clean her clothes, she
hitched a ride with Josh Brown, one of the core organizers of Earth First!.
They drove and talked for 45 minutes, and she described her car wreck.
Brown listened to the grisly details in awe.
"We get a lot of incredible people that come up here," Brown recalls.
"People quit their jobs, quit school, put on a backpack, and help out. It's
what keeps this movement going. This woman had a life-threatening accident.
I was really struck by her story. I was definitely excited."
Butterfly returned to sit in the tree for a few more days, then fell ill
and descended again. On Dec. 10 she returned to Luna, this time intent on
staying. She set up housekeeping on a piece of plywood the size of a queen
bed, 180 feet above the ground.
And her very first day, she met Climber Dan.
PALCO loggers regularly encounter activists sitting in trees that have been
marked to be cut. The company has designated a special employee to remove
them. Activists have named him Climber Dan, and he is the bane of every
He's worked for PALCO for years, since even before the takeover, and has a
strange mutual respect with Earth First!. They admire his woodsman skills,
and he's intrigued by their continual ingenuity in designing obstacles to
outsmart him. Climber Dan quickly shinnies up redwoods using a chain around
the trunk and spiked "spurs" on his boots. Typically he'll climb above the
sitter, cut down his or her supplies, and if necessary, physically escort
the activist down the tree.
The concept of a character like Climber Dan seems almost the stuff of myth.
"These are mythical characters, doing ritual battles in the enchanted
forest," says Robert Parker, media liaison to Butterfly. "I wonder what
Joseph Campbell would make of it."
On the very first day of Butterfly's sit, Climber Dan ascended a tree
neighboring Luna in pursuit of her. But she says he was physically unable
to move from his tree onto the branches of Luna and bring her down. Climber
Dan retreated, but efforts to dislodge Butterfly have never stopped.
As logging continued all around Luna, Pacific Lumber tried other methods to
get rid of her. Air horns, spotlights, whistles, and shouted epithets --
one of the nicer comments was "Have a bad hair day!" -- wouldn't roust
Butterfly from her perch. Chain saws toppled most of the trees surrounding
Luna. Butterfly hung onto the platform as the wash from helicopter blades
blew branches off her tree. She rolled up in her tarp to ride out the 90
mph winter storms.
But she didn't leave.
Robert Parker wanders through a garden, picking tomatoes to bring to
Butterfly. The garden is at one end of a field outside Stafford, 250 miles
north of San Francisco. On this location one year ago, an estimated 8,000
people, including Julia Hill, attended an Earth First! Headwaters rally and
listened to speeches by Bonnie Raitt, Jerry Brown, and Mickey Hart. Except
for a Headwaters banner and portable toilet, the field is now empty.
The 34-year-old Parker has been liaison for Butterfly since the beginning
of her tree-sit. His Luna Media Services runs her Web site, sends out press
releases, and coordinates her interviews, an average of three a day. In the
1980s he squatted with anarchists in San Francisco buildings. Now he works
with Headwaters activists and since last December has been taking members
of the media on an exhausting two-mile hike up a hillside to introduce them
He makes one trip a week up to her, delivering an average of 50 letters,
and she sends back as many. When she isn't talking to the press, she
listens to a radio powered by a hand crank. They've had five offers of a
free laptop computer, but have refused. A cellular phone, pager, radio, and
CD player are enough. The two talk by phone at least twice a day, often
until midnight, planning out the next day's activities.
Luna stands on a steep slope, surrounded by fallen trees that PALCO has yet
to remove. The tree is approximately 1,000 years old, and its board-feet
are estimated to be worth at least $100,000. People have embedded little
beads and rocks into the bark. One side is burned and scarred, but redwoods
are very resilient. Even before Charles Hurwitz was born, the tree had
endured a lot.
Journalists are no longer allowed to climb the tree to visit Butterfly,
only photographers. Parker says it's too much hassle. A videographer for
Evening Magazine reached Butterfly and nearly fell off the platform. Others
didn't even make it that far.
"A reporter from Time magazine got up 30 feet, and freaked out," says
Parker. Climbing guides had to bring her back down.
Instead, Parker takes reporters up the ridge to a ledge, where they conduct
interviews by walkie-talkie. At eye level, roughly 150 feet away, Butterfly
stands barefoot at the very top of the tree. The wind blows her long hair,
and the first sight of her seems surreal and dreamlike, like an animated
character from a Disney film poised on a cliff, or the two lovers on the
bow of the Titanic.
"Isn't she amazing?" says Parker in obvious admiration.
What's immediately apparent is that she's very personable. She laughs
easily, with the sense of playfulness that often comes from someone who has
nearly died and returned to life determined to be a completely pure human
And she has made great copy. In all the years of political activism in
Humboldt County, no one person or action has ever gotten as much mainstream
attention as Butterfly and her tree-sit.
Media wrestled with how to approach such a story. What do you say about a
young woman who lives in a tree? Time called her a "chirpy New Ager." Jane
magazine's headline blared, "Is Julia Butterfly Insane?" The New York Times
stoically announced, "Redwoods Still Inspire Sturdiest of Defenders." Much
of the initial press, especially the British, focused on her personal
hygiene and how she went to the bathroom.
Parker is very defensive about the question of body odor.
"She doesn't smell! She smells like a redwood tree."
Throughout the initial months, Butterfly's family thought she was just
hanging out in a treehouse, until an article appeared in the San Francisco
Examiner. Her cousin, who lives in the Bay Area, mailed the clip back to
Arkansas, where Butterfly's father is now a photojournalist. News spread to
her mother, who does environmental outreach on the Internet, and her
brothers, one of whom works for Intel. The family discovered their
independent little Julia was, in fact, a celebrity spokesperson for the
"They are so supportive," she says. "They worry about me, but they believe
in me." (She would rather not give out their phone numbers or have them
contacted by reporters.)
With every interview, Butterfly's natural shyness fell away, and her
personality solidified. Media reaction was universal. The most cynical
reporters came down from the tree shaking their heads at how the interview
almost seemed like a spiritual encounter. She was naive and idealistic, yet
so articulate. It was like spending time among the Amish. Was this woman
crazy, or was she for real?
The tree has become her live/work office. Butterfly talks on the phone
constantly -- giving interviews, lecturing to universities, and appearing
on panel discussions. She cooks meals on a propane stove and bathes with a
sponge. When the day slows down, she writes poetry, draws in a sketchbook,
and sews little pouches. She prays every day. Once a week she talks to her
Some of her stranger and more comical interactions occurred in the tree
itself as she held conversations with loggers who were clear-cutting the
hill around her. Talking the issues with them didn't work. When the loggers
hollered mean comments to her, she responded by singing them a song from
her childhood. PALCO employees stood there in their hard hats, holding
chain saws, staring up at this barefoot woman in a tree who serenaded them
Love in any language All the world will hear That love in any language
Is fluently spoken here
She remembers another occasion, when she engaged a group of loggers in
debate about old-growth forests. From their perspective, old-growth trees
are just going to fall over and die anyway. Butterfly tried to explain to
them that the trees are part of a delicate ecosystem, and they need to fall
into the soil naturally because they provide habitat for endangered
species, and nature has a reason for trees falling into the soil.
The loggers started up their chain saws and ignored her.
Butterfly wondered how she was going to get to these guys. And then it came
to her. She waited until the chain saws stopped, and called down to one of
"Do you have grandparents?"
"Yeah. What of it?" he answered.
She asked if they were alive. The logger replied that they were.
"Why don't we just kill them?" yelled Butterfly. "They're just gonna fall
over and die anyway!"
"He got so angry!" she laughs at the memory. "He was like, 'F! U!' and
started his chain saw. And I knew it had hit home, because that's really
what they're saying. There's not a difference between our elder
grandparents, human or in nature. They're all important."
It's difficult to paraphrase her words because she speaks so much like a
preacher. The cumulative effect is much more powerful than a quick
soundbite. She claims that a few PALCO employees have actually quit their
jobs after speaking with her. One day, after listening to her talk, a crew
of grumpy loggers were moved sufficiently to take off their hats to her. In
return, she bowed to them and started crying.
Butterfly has had less success in connecting with the hierarchy of Pacific
Lumber Co., but she keeps writing letters to PR person Mary Bullwinkle
(nicknamed "Hoodwinkle"), CEO John Campbell, and ... Charles Hurwitz?
Butterfly digs around her platform and produces the letter she recently
mailed to the billionaire president of Maxxam, Inc.:
Dear Mr. Hurwitz, With love, all beautiful things are possible. Love can
transform hurt into healing, destruction into rebirth, and even enemies
into friends. I love you. Julia Butterfly.
"They won't write me back," she says. "I want to keep planting seeds in them."
On the last day of the California legislative session, a deal was finally
struck to save the Headwaters. On Sept. 19, Gov. Pete Wilson signed into
law a bill known as AB 1986, which appropriates $245 million to purchase
7,500 acres of Pacific Lumber's 60,000-acre old-growth redwood groves. Add
to this amount the $250 million the Clinton administration is setting aside
for the Headwaters, and the entire deal totals nearly half a billion
The land will be set aside for public use and will probably become a park.
U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Wilson proudly announced the results. PALCO
was happy to change its image from a greedy corporation besieged by
activists and lawsuits to a conscientious company concerned for the future
of the redwoods.
But the people you'd think would be most happy were devastated. In a sense,
the activists had won, but they felt defeated. People were depressed and
demoralized. Some hadn't taken a day off for months. Many wept openly.
The movement quickly regrouped and planned its response to the deal.
Activists organized a massive direct-mail campaign and a series of public
hearings to educate people about the inadequate, long-term environmental
impact of the purchase. The final hearing will be held Nov. 16 in Eureka.
Now that the purchase appears set, EPIC is consumed with checking the fine
points of the Habitat Conservation Plan and Sustained Yield Plan, a lengthy
report attached to the deal that describes how the land and species
population will be managed. In return for selling 7,500 acres to the
government, PALCO receives this HCP/SYP for all 200,000 acres it owns in
Humboldt County. In other words, once this plan is OK'd by the U.S. Fish
and Wildlife Service and other government agencies, PALCO will be granted
permits to legally log all of its holdings, even those with endangered or
protected species, without hassle from activists.
Buried in the 2,000-page document, activists say, is the intent of PALCO to
liquidate a majority of its old-growth redwoods within the next five years.
According to EPIC President Paul Mason, a draft of the HCP/SYP is
circulating for public review. It can be amended or changed, but once the
document is approved by the California Department of Forestry and other
agencies, that's it. On March 1, 1999, the money will change hands, and the
HCP is locked in for 50 years.
If the deal passes next March? Mason shrugs. EPIC will file another legal
action, and he'll go back to law school.
"I'll come back, and it'll still be going on."
Butterfly says the Headwaters deal is "horrible." Though victory seems
apparent, she refuses to come down. Her parents taught her to stick up for
what she believes in, and even though the deal is done and her hillside is
already logged, she believes that the longer she stays in the tree, the
more it helps raise awareness.
"It's never over unless you give up, and I'm not giving up," she says. "The
word I gave to Luna and to the forest and to the people was that I was not
going to allow my feet to touch the ground, no matter what, until I felt I
had done everything I possibly could to make a difference."
In the weeks that followed the announcement of the Headwaters purchase,
Humboldt County experienced a chain of events that defined bizarre. Now
that the fight was finally over, it was as if the pent-up energy had
nowhere to go.
On Sept. 17 a young Earth First! activist named David "Gypsy" Chaim was
killed while protesting logging near the Grizzly Creek redwood grove. Earth
First! claimed that PALCO was violating logging restrictions at the time,
and his death could easily have been avoided. PALCO claimed Chaim was
trespassing, and that it was an unfortunate accident. The death is still
In early October, Humboldt County residents picked up their local paper and
read the headline, "Protest Takes Disgusting Turn." According to the
article, activists had crept into a logging area during the night and
smeared feces all over PALCO equipment. Readers were nauseated. The
activist community was embarrassed. Earth First! organizer Josh Brown is
quick to correct the record:
"There was one crap taken," he says. "A newer activist just lost it. In a
fit of anger, she took a dump on the seat of a loader." (The activist and
her friend were soon asked to leave Earth First!.)
Another unusual incident occurred in October. Two more people climbed up
trees in protest. This time they weren't activists, but a cafe cook and a
brewery worker, Roger Levy and Nate Madsen. Both are local residents fed up
with PALCO's brutal clear-cutting of Maple Creek, an area that had been
left undisturbed by PALCO loggers for nearly 100 years.
Also in mid-October, the California Department of Forestry cited PALCO
twice more for sloppy logging practices, including clear-cutting trees
along a protected zone of Freshwater Creek. And on Oct. 27, a U.S. District
judge threw out a lawsuit brought by Earth First! activists who had been
swabbed in the eyes with pepper spray by police and sheriff's deputies.
Shortly thereafter, at a news conference in Sacramento, an independent
panel of scientists openly criticized PALCO's environmental management plan
as inadequate and greedy.
Throughout this protracted denouement, Butterfly has stayed on her
platform, praying every day, answering questions, and writing letters. She
can't think much about the future, because she's so involved in the
present. She has the potential to be a brilliant politician, but the idea
disgusts her. Marriage is a completely foreign concept. Why focus your love
on only one person, when there are so many things to love in the world? She
does admit that she will probably not live in the tree the rest of her life.
The media attention has tapered off. PALCO has finished logging the ridge,
leaving Luna alone, and last spring CEO John Campbell said, "We've decided
to leave her in the tree."
As the window of public comment for the environmental management plan winds
down to the deadline of Nov. 16, the activist community of Humboldt County
is organizing another rally for mid-December. This time people won't be
picketing the PALCO plant, or chaining themselves to Rep. Frank Riggs'
desk. This rally will celebrate the one-year anniversary of Julia
"Butterfly" Hill, the woman who won't come down from the tree.
And Butterfly has no intention of coming down. Despite the weather and
PALCO's best efforts, she's had a peaceful year, probably one of the most
spiritual years of her life. She has met and spoken with hundreds of people
and made many new friends. She broke the previous world's record for
tree-sitting after 43 days. Living among the branches of Luna has given her
an opportunity to live the life of a tree-hugger -- literally. During one
heavy day of logging near her, she wrapped her arms around the trunk and
felt its sap ooze from the bark.
Butterfly doesn't seem to care what people think of her motivation or how
it must change with the closing of the Headwaters deal. An internal clock
drives her every move. Things happen when they happen, no matter how
peculiar it may appear to the outside world. Now that the debate is
essentially over, her once-symbolic presence in a tree seems a less
political and more personal statement. She isn't living on such a
transcendental plane that she doesn't know she must come down from Luna,
but she feels she can't descend until she has done everything in her power
to ensure the protection of the trees. Even if the world's media has moved
on to other stories.
But when she does eventually lower the rope and set foot on the forest
floor, life will be very different for Julia "Butterfly" Hill. For one
thing, she will have to learn to stand up on her feet and navigate the two
miles down the slope of the ridge.
"This hill's pretty intense," she says, "and my strength has moved to my
upper body, so unless I can find a way to walk down the hill on my hands,
it's going to be an interesting experience!"
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