Article in yesterday's Los Angeles Times
Thursday, October 22, 1998
Tree-Sitter Takes Protest to New Heights in Old Growth Ecology: Activist
lives in redwood owned by lumber company in dispute over logging Humboldt
By MARY CURTIUS, Times Staff Writer
EUREKA--Twenty stories up, in the misty heights of the ancient redwood that
has been her home for nearly 10 months, Julia Hill has forgotten what it
feels like to walk on solid ground, and can hardly remember being warm and
Not that she minds being cold, Hill says. Or wet. Or forced to relieve
herself in a bucket. The 24-year-old shrugs off the discomforts that come
with living on a 6-by-8-foot platform within the branches of a
1,000-year-old, lightning-struck tree that the Pacific Lumber Co. wants to
"I am doing my best not to be clouded by my human side," Hill says via the
cellular phone she uses to communicate from her treetop. She prefers
questions about her plan to save the world to questions about how she
Armed with little more than the phone and a pager, Hill has become the
poster child for the long-running battle between environmentalists and
Pacific Lumber over the last old-growth redwood forests. She exists in an
uneasy standoff with the company, which keeps its loggers away from her
Other tree-sitters have lived in redwoods for days, sometimes weeks. But no
one has come close to Hill's epic tree-sit, nor clung so stubbornly to the
demand that the tree be spared before agreeing to come down.
Hill and her fellow Earth First! supporters paint their confrontation with
Pacific Lumber as a fight between corporate despoiler and the Earth's
The company, Humboldt County's largest private employer, sees itself as
defending its right to harvest privately owned forests against the
aggressive tactics of young people with no economic stake in the county.
Pacific Lumber owned 179,000 acres of Humboldt County timberland in 1985
when it was bought by Houston financier Charles Hurwitz. Under Hurwitz, the
company bought more forests and stepped up its logging of old-growth
redwoods and other trees. Its harvests are regulated by the California
Department of Forestry.
Environmentalists insist that the company's logging practices are
destroying salmon habitat by stripping forest canopy that shades spawning
streams and causing hillside erosion by cutting too many trees. They say
tree-sitting is part of their desperate, tree-by-tree attempt to stop the
Focal Point in Ongoing Battle
For nearly a decade, Earth First! activists have demonstrated, blockaded
logging roads, chained themselves to trees and sat in them to save them
>from the chain saws.
But it is Hill's determination--and her passionate description of her
spiritual connection with the ancient redwoods--that has most captured the
interest of the international media. A stream of reporters, photographers
and well-wishers has made the arduous hike to the tree, which grows a
steep, two-hour climb from the nearest paved road above the southern
Humboldt County town of Stafford.
Access to the tree is controlled by Earth First! It allows only experienced
climbers, accompanied by one of its experts, to scale the tree. Others are
restricted to the ground. They send their cameras up on ropes for Hill to
photograph herself and they interview her by phone.
The spectacle exasperates Mary Bullwinkel, spokeswoman for Pacific Lumber,
in whose tree Hill is living.
"Every reporter I talk to who wants to climb up there, I tell them they
would be trespassing on private property," Bullwinkel said. "The majority
"Obviously, we'd like her to come down," Bullwinkel said. "Some loggers and
members of the community feel that more should be done to get her down
because she is breaking the law and certainly is generating a lot of
publicity. And being up there is dangerous for her. Trees aren't made to be
Loggers aren't the only ones who have criticized Hill. Some mainstream
environmentalists--even some members of Earth First!--say her high-profile
protest detracts from the efforts of others.
But Hill's persistence is evidence that the battle between Pacific Lumber
and environmentalists is likely to continue, despite last month's signing
by Gov. Pete Wilson of a state and federal deal to buy the 7,500-acre
Headwaters forest from Pacific Lumber for $380 million.
The tree Hill is living in grows outside Headwaters, as do other ancient
redwoods that Earth First! is trying to save.
Neither the Headwaters deal, nor the death in September of fellow activist
David Chain, who was killed when a tree felled by a Pacific Lumber logger
struck him, has persuaded Hill to come down, or Earth First! to stop its
Pacific Lumber officials say they hoped that the preservation of Headwaters
would satisfy the demands of environmentalists and that Chain's
death--which they described as a tragic accident--would end the
cat-and-mouse games activists play with loggers.
Instead, Earth First! denounced the Headwaters deal for costing too much
and saving too little, and launched fresh protests in the wake of Chain's
Activists were pepper-sprayed and arrested two weeks ago by sheriff's
deputies at the group's blockade near Grizzly Creek, where Chain was
killed. Eureka Earth First! later marched on the Sheriff's Department to
demand an independent investigation into Chain's death. >From her tree
cellular phone, Hill addressed the marchers, telling them Chain died
fighting for what he believed.
"I think that as long as there is logging, there will be people that will
be in opposition to it," said Humboldt County Sheriff Dennis Lewis, whose
force has been caught between demonstrators and loggers for years.
Bullwinkel says Pacific Lumber would like for Lewis to arrest Hill and
other tree-sitters, but the sheriff says he won't do it.
"Quite frankly, I'm not going to jeopardize a deputy and ask him to climb a
redwood tree and arrest somebody 100 feet or more from the ground," Lewis
said. Hill "is not posing a public hazard," the sheriff said, so he has
left her alone.
Julia "Butterfly" Hill came to Humboldt County in the summer of 1997 as a
drifter in a self-described search for spiritual and physical healing and a
A 1996 car accident that slammed a steering wheel against her head damaged
her short-term memory and motor skills and left her determined to make her
life count for something, Hill said.
She found the meaning she was looking for, Hill said, when she wandered
into an old-growth forest and was overcome by a sense of spirituality
emanating from the massive, ancient trees. She quickly plugged into the
more radical arm of the environmental movement, adopting the forest name of
Living What She Believes
Earth First! was founded in Tucson in 1980 by militant environmentalist
Dave Foreman, who wrote "Ecodefense: A Field Guide to Monkeywrenching." The
group says it is nonviolent. Its tactics range from civil disobedience to
sabotage. Its targets have included nuclear power plants, Japanese whaling
ships and the timber industry.
Although many environmental groups have rallied around the cause of saving
the ancient redwoods, Earth First! has been the most confrontational. Its
mostly young members leave the legal battles and political lobbying to the
Save the Redwoods organization and other, more mainstream, groups.
Hill seems less interested in the group's political agenda than she is in
the spiritual symbolism of the ancient trees.
The daughter of an itinerant preacher, Hill grew up in the South, spending
much of her childhood, she says, living in a 31-foot trailer with her
parents and two siblings.
"My parents taught us how to have convictions and to stand by them and to
never back down," Hill said. "I pray every day to a universal spirit."
For Hill, lumber companies toppling 1,000-year-old trees for profit is
powerful symbolism of the disconnect between most people and the Earth that
"It is vital that we start reconnecting again to the Earth," Hill said. "We
are beginning to die because we've lost that connection."
Hill says she never wanted the notoriety her life in the tree has earned.
She only wanted, in the beginning, to keep loggers from felling a tree.
Earth First! activists call the tree Luna, because, they say, there was a
full moon the night they discovered it.
For years, activists have used harvest plans, which Pacific Lumber is
required to publish, to locate groves marked for logging. Slipping into the
areas at night, activists find trees marked for felling and try to protect
them by blocking loggers on the ground or by climbing the trees. Luna, a
particularly gnarled and dramatic-looking tree, was one of many marked on
that hillside the night activists went there.
Life Amid the Branches
For several weeks in the winter of 1997, activists took turns living in the
tree. Other trees around it fell, leaving the redwood more exposed to
driving rain and high wind. Initially, Hill volunteered for two short
Then, on Dec. 10, she clambered into the tree's branches and announced that
she wasn't coming down until she had saved it and gotten out her message.
"I felt compelled that I was supposed to be a part of something bigger,"
Hill said. "I gave my word to the forest, to Luna, that until I felt I'd
done everything I possibly could to help make people aware, I would not
She held out through last winter's torrential El Ni–o downpours, buffeted
by gale-force winds and lashed by rain in temperatures that sometimes
stayed in the 30s for days at a time. Her only shelter is a canvas lean-to
and a sleeping bag. She is surrounded by a thick fog most days that makes
her invisible from the ground and keeps her constantly damp and cold.
"There were a couple of weeks this summer when I was down to just one layer
of clothes," Hill said cheerfully. "But last winter, I was wearing seven
layers and I was still cold all the time."
Life in the tree is never boring, Hill says.
She conducts several cellular phone interviews daily, writes 50 to 100
letters weekly to supporters and friends, petitions state and federal
government officials and prays and writes poems. For recreation, she
watches flying squirrels and climbs, unharnessed, to the highest branches
of the redwood to sing and pray. Her days, Hill says, "are very busy."
She relies on Earth First! activists to bring her batteries for her
cellular phone, fruits and vegetables that she mostly eats raw and her
single luxury, tea. She collects rainwater to wash her hair and sponge down
The activists pack in supplies every week. Her father made the arduous trek
once and climbed the tree to tell his daughter he supports her effort.
In the early months, Pacific Lumber hired security guards to try to block
the supply trains to Hill, but eventually abandoned that effort. Now the
company seems to hope that if they ignore Hill, she will eventually give
"We really haven't thought about it much lately," Bullwinkel said. "We are
very focused on our habitat conservation plan and our sustained yield plan,
which need to be approved to complete the Headwaters agreement."
Although the tree Hill is living in was approved for harvesting by the
Forestry Department, Bullwinkel says the company has chosen not to log in
the area until she leaves.
Hill recently approached Pacific Lumber, offering a compromise of sorts--if
they would agree to a conservation easement to preserve Luna and nearby
trees, she would come down and not go back. Pacific Lumber, Bullwinkel
says, is not interested in a deal.
"How do you come to terms with someone who is breaking the law and using
your property to do it?" asks Bullwinkel. "It would be like me sitting on
your porch and refusing to allow you into your house and saying, 'If you
let me stay on this side of the porch, I'll let you into the house.' "
Hill professes to be unconcerned by the company's disinterest in
negotiations. She is prepared to wait, she insists, as long as it takes.
Confrontations in Other Areas
The company also has its hands full with defending itself against Earth
First's! allegations, in the wake of Chain's death, that Pacific Lumber has
turned a blind eye to increasingly violent forest confrontations between
loggers and demonstrators.
Earth First! turned over to local television stations a videotape of a
logger having a profane, angry confrontation in the Grizzly Creek forest
with protesters hours before Chain died. The activists say the logger was
the same one who cut down the tree that crushed Chain.
Sheriff Lewis confirms that the logger angrily confronted demonstrators
that morning, but says the man told him he felled the tree only after he
thought the activists had left.
The sheriff says Chain's death left the logger distraught, "the way you or
I would be if we had accidentally run over a neighbor's child with our car
and killed him."
Lewis also says that he is surprised there has never before been a fatality
in the confrontations between loggers and demonstrators.
"You have two diametrically opposed positions over a very emotional issue,"
the sheriff said. "It goes to core values on each side, which leads to
Initially, Lewis declared Chain's death accidental. But his office has
conducted an investigation and says it will turn over its findings to the
district attorney's office.
In McKinleyville, far north of Hill's lofty perch, Robert Parker, a onetime
photojournalist, now an Earth First! activist and Hill's full-time media
consultant, muses about what Chain's death should mean to activists,
loggers and Hill.
"I definitely have a lot of anxiety about her safety," Parker said. "But
Julia is a deeply rooted, strong tree. She has a profound understanding of
the risk. And I feel there's some universal power out there that's going to
keep Julia protected."
Hill too says she feels protected in the tree.
"The universe only hands us what we can handle," she said.
Copyright 1998 Los Angeles Times. All Rights Reserved
Los Angeles Times
Bay Area Action's Headwaters Forest Project
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