On April 2nd, the California Highway Patrol rolled into Willits with enough force to overrun roughly a third of United Nations member states. Roughly 25 CHP squad cars deployed underneath The Warbler's pine tree south of town by 7am. A CHP SWAT team that “serves as a rapid deployment force and provides counter-assault team support,” as the Patrol's web site puts it, ascended into the tree via a bucket loader with a roughly 150-foot crane. One member of the unit announced himself in the platform with a pair of guns slung around his torso, as another reportedly told The Warbler they were prepared to use “any means necessary” to remove her from the tree.
Amanda Senseman, after 65 days in the tree, her body weakened by five days of being on hunger strike, did not resist the SWAT officers' efforts to remove her. They bundled her up into the bucket loader in such a way as to shield her from the roughly 20 people who were gathered across from her tree on short notice to witness and protest the extraction. Unbeknownst to the crowd, she was forced into a CHP cruiser; not until the cruiser sped away from Caltrans' construction haul road, headed north on Highway 101, did any of The Warbler's supporters realize she had been arrested.
Several people made a mad dash toward the squad car, if only as a frantic final way of demonstrating their allegiance to The Warbler and her Promethean efforts to protect Little Lake Valley. Sara Grusky of Save Little Lake Valley and I were arrested for being in Highway 101 as the extraction occurred. Minutes later, Caltrans' “vegetation removal” sub-contractor, Atlas Tree Surgery of Santa Rosa, ripped through the trunk of her stately 110-foot tree and toppled it to the ground in a northeasterly direction, and it smashed to the ground with a resounding thud.
By 8am, the CHP had mobilized in the boggy area near DripWorks on East Hill Rd., where tree sitters “Celsius” and “Caspian” had been living for the previous 17 days in a Ponderosa pine grove. In addition to the trees in which the young men were living in 4'x8' plywood platforms, four other trees had been tied together with tyrolean traverses, which enabled them to move from tree to tree as they saw fit.
This time, at least 50 CHP officers clad in riot gear were deployed to the field. The ratio of riot gear-clad officers to witnesses of the extraction was roughly one-to-one. With the help of two different bucket loaders, the SWAT team ascended into the trees. From nearly the get-go, one officer poised above the tree sitters aimed a gun at them. The crowd was alarmed at this extraordinary show of force. The police were not forthcoming about the type of ammunition the guns contained. Police officers have been roughing up tree sitters in the course of extracting them for decades, but never previously had they used guns to do so.
The week before, the Atlas Tree Surgery's crew had felled trees that came within ten feet of the young men in the trees. CHP choppers had buzzed them at close range, below the tree canopy, flying parallel to their platforms and snapping to pictures of them (they did the same to The Warbler multiple times). On The Warbler's end, the chopper had flown so low that it kicked up dust into the faces of the CHP officers on the ground, compelling them to cast their arms across their faces as shields.
It took roughly three hours for the SWAT team to corral the tree sitters. The police officers would arrive in a tree and attempt to coax the sitters into complying, the tree sitters would evade them by walking across their traverse lines, and the officers would cut the traverses. Both tree sitters ended up together in a single tree, with all their traverses cut. One of them, “Celsius” (aka, Martin Katz), proved especially difficult to subdue and is alleged to have thrown feces at the officers as they scaled the trees (other reports have already thoroughly scrutinized Katz' actions). One CHP officer punched Katz repeatedly in the face in an effort to pacify him, to no avail.
As Katz was struggling with the officers, the gun-toting SWAT member in the bucket loader unloaded on him with three beanbag pellets. Katz fell backward into the bucket loader as the witnesses on the ground became apoplectic. One of them raced across the field, being almost immediately tackled and arrested by several CHP riot police. Once on the ground, Caspian and Celsius were escorted to the squad cars without putting up resistance.
The SWAT team apparently took a lunch break, then went to work on the fourth tree sitter, Eagle, who had scaled a massive, gnarled old oak tree that was likely older than the United States, roughly 150 yards from where The Warbler's Ponderosa had stood. Though Eagle's arms were immobilized inside of a metal lock box that he positioned around a branch, a SWAT member still saw fit to aim a gun at him. After around 2.5 hours, the SWAT officers finally sawed through the lock box and removed Eagle into their squad car. As in the previous two cases, the Atlas Tree Surgery team immediately cut the tree in which the young man had been perched.
The final tree sitter, “Falcon,” who had been sitting in an oak tree on the opposite side of Highway 101 from The Warbler for roughly the previous week, allowed himself to be removed. Only the previous day, he had identified a whitebreasted nuthatch nest in a tree roughly 10 feet from his. Caltrans biologists designated the area within 100 feet of the tree as protected in accordance with the Migratory Bird Act. The day after the extractions, they clear-cut the area nevertheless. As I'll be reviewing in more detail next week, Caltrans has been rampantly thumbing its nose at its own permits and many of the laws governing their construction activities.
The CHP has spent untold millions of dollars so far policing the opposition to the Caltrans Bypass of Willits, complete with dozens of officers, satellite communications device, . For much of the time, a pair of Department of Fish and Wildlife wardens on quads have supported them in doing so: a mind-boggling use of Fish and Wildlife resources, given that Caltrans is trashing streams to construct the Bypass, and also given that Fish and Wildlife is well-known to be understaffed and underfunded vis-a-vis its efforts to enforce environmental laws.
Yet, the opposition to the Bypass has mobilized 30 people to take actions blocking construction machinery at most so far. Most of those who have taken part in these activities qualify for Senior Citizens discounts at most places of business within Willits. Although the protests have been effective at significantly slowing down Caltrans' construction activities, the CHP's response has been utterly disproportionate to the level of on-the-ground opposition.
The clear reason for that is that the CHP is attempting to intimidate the opposition into standing down. Yet, less than a week after the Patrol's massive — and massively expensive — extraction operation was complete, another tree sitter had already risen up into the canopy, in one of the remaining ancient oak trees near where The Warbler was perched. Though the tree sit went up on Saturday, it was undetected by the CHP officers who are deployed round-the-clock guarding the Bypass construction until the morning this issue of the AVA went to press.
The tree sitter, who goes by “Owl,” says she spent nine months living in an old-growth forest last year with very few modern conveniences, which she says mentally and physically prepared her to live in a tree for the long haul. She cites an Earth Activist Training she received from Starhawk as one of her main sources of knowledge and inspiration for her tree sit.
“For the last several centuries, people have been systematically robbed of public common space, including access to land and water,” she tells me. “So, for me, this is a small but important way of reclaiming common space and fostering a fundamentally different relationship to the land.”
The tree sits — The Warbler's in particular — have galvanized opposition to Big Orange's destructive highway project as never before. There was virtually no active opposition to the Bypass, save for the Clean Water Act lawsuit spearheaded by the Willits Environmental Center, when The Warbler went up into the tree on January 28th. Now, hundreds of people have been roused to action, the project has received widespread and critical media attention (a large feature upcoming in the Sacramento Bee marking the latest expansion in coverage), and a handful of elected officials have come out against the project for the first time. These are only some of the indicators of a dramatic shift in the larger climate surrounding the project she has helped to precipitate.
Meanwhile, although direct action protests delayed the start of construction for at least three and a half weeks, they clearly have not been doing so in any significant way in the past few weeks. As of this past Monday, Caltrans has already begun removing trees in the area most critical to the project: the wetlands on the north end of Little Lake Valley Caltrans' out-of-state construction contractors, DeSilva Gates and Flatiron, which have formed a legal joint venture to carry out this project, are intent on removing as many trees as possible, as quickly as possible, so as to bypass the Migratory Bird Treaty Act's provisions protecting areas with nesting birds. As they describe in their so-called “Initial Work Plan,” submitted to CalTrans on December 13th of last year,
“In order to most effectively remove trees and other potential bird nesting habitat within the clearing limits of the project, the plan is to segment the project along its length, between the natural existing delineations such as roads and waterways.” In other words, they are mowing down everything that stands between the existing Highway 101 and Willits' various creeks that join up in the wetlands area.
Save Our Little Lake Valley, the umbrella group coordinating the opposition to the Bypass, has opened an office on Main St. in Willits. The phone number is 707-513-6585. The group's web site is www.savelittlelakevalley.org.