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Dispatch From 70 Feet Up A Valley Oak

The author, 70 feet up a valley oak.

On May 14th, I ascended roughly 70 feet into a 100-foot tall valley oak that stands in the path of the California Department of Transportation's proposed six-mile freeway (“The Willits Bypass”) through Little Lake Valley. This tree, which has a nearly six-foot trunk and is covered from top to bottom with an intricate tapestry of lichens and moss, stands amid hundreds of ash trees in a lustrous grove in the north Little Lake Valley wetlands. The tree is certainly older than the State of California. It may be older than the United States of America.

This mighty oak stands like a sentinel at the southern edge of the ash grove. In its life, it has experienced a great deal. It has experienced the gridding, platting, and draining of its wetlands home for cattle ranching and the construction of Highway 101. It has experienced Euroamericans' destruction of the Central Pomo people, who referred to the valley by the evocatively intimate name Mto'm-kai – a name that closely translates to “Valley of Water Splashing the Toes.” It has experienced the wetlands as they existed when the Pomo and early Euroamericans lived here, as an incredibly vibrant and life-sustaining ecosystem.

The mighty tree's days are likely numbered, though, as are those of the entire ash grove and nearly 90 acres of these wetlands, which CalTrans intends to drain, fill, and pave over to build its highway. It would be the most extensive destruction of any wetlands in Northern California in more than a half-century.

Two days before I scaled the tree, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced that the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has reached 400 parts-per-million – a profound milestone in industrial civilization's relentless heating of the planet. The scientific consensus is that any level above 350 parts-per-million will spell catastrophe for life on earth, as it entails the continued melting of the Greenland ice sheet and exponentially increasing methane releases from melting permafrost in Siberia and Alaska.

Even with all the world at stake, the dominant society's institutions remain fixed in business-as-usual mode, continuing to expand their consumption of a finite planet at a rapid rate. In CalTrans' case, that means forging ahead with the monument to waste and folly that is the Willits Bypass, which would belch an estimated 380,000 cubic tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere just during its construction process – a process that has only barely begun.

The final cost of the Bypass is likely to be a half-billion dollars. The project's greatest accomplishment would be to bind this region's transportation infrastructure further to car culture, in large part to allow increased and unrestricted access for the largest and heaviest commercial trucks on the road, STAA trucks.

Even before its handiwork is done in Willits, CalTrans would move on to widening Highway 101 at Richardson Grove, widening Highway 199 and Route 197 in far northern California along the Smith River, and constructing a bypass around that utterly traffic-paralyzed megalopolis known as Hopland. For institutions like Big Orange, as CalTrans is oft-referred in these parts, there is no such thing as enough.

Climate change is one aspect of the planetary ecological unraveling. There is also the matter of topsoil loss. About one percent of this nutrient-rich matter – the foundation of terrestrial life, which sustain all of our food – around the globe is destroyed annually.

There is the matter of watershed and aquatic habitat destruction. Watersheds across the planet are in crisis. In California, for example, nearly 90 percent of wetlands that existed 200 years ago have been destroyed. There is the matter of biodiversity loss. Anywhere from 100 to 200 species on this planet go extinct every day, as part of the largest mass extinction since the Jurassic Era.

I have detailed the specific ways in which the Willits Bypass is part and parcel of these planetary crises in precisely a dozen previous articles in the Anderson Valley Advertiser.

We should make no mistake about what we are up against. CalTrans is an extremely powerful agency of the state. Its officials have the ability to buy off, intimidate, manipulate, and cajole, and to experience little accountability for doing so.

We have seen this dynamic at work with regard to the Willits City Council, some members of which are afraid to oppose the Bypass partly out of fear that CalTrans will retaliate by henceforth neglecting city roads. In recent weeks, we have seen CalTrans dangle a vaguely proposed $6 million Sherwood Road improvement in front of the Brooktrails Board of Directors as a quid quo pro for their endorsement of the Bypass.

We have seen CalTrans flagrantly violate the conditions of its environmental permits. We have seen it concoct any utter sham of a plan to “mitigate” the damage it is causing to the wetlands, as I detailed three weeks ago in the AVA piece “The Bypass Mitigation Charade.” The Army Corps of Engineers and politicians like Wes Chesbro are doing their level best to prop up the charade. We have seen CalTrans receive permits to do damage that never should have been granted in the first place. We have seen the alphabet soup of regulatory agencies allegedly involved in regulating this project roll over time and again.

We have seen CalTrans install itself as a veritable occupying power in this Valley. In the last several years, it has used the threat of eminent domain -- both explicit or implied -- to gobble up 2,000 acres from valley ranchers to use for its sham "environmental mitigation" projects. Today, Big Orange is Little Lake Valley's largest landowner.

The system has failed Little Lake Valley and the people of Willits. Senior citizens are locking themselves to heavy machinery with metal pipes, as Willits resident Bob Chevalier did last week, for that very reason.

Younger people like me are living in trees for the same reason. Currently, I am dangling 70 feet in the air on a 4'x8' platform. Many of the trees around me are tied together with traverses so that fellers cannot aim them accurately. If any of these trees were cut under these conditions, it would endanger my life.

I am taking this course of action because I love this tree, as I love oak trees in general. I love how it is starting to grow cavernous and gnarled with age. I love the invisible work it carries out in the world, tending secret gardens of mushrooms and lichens. I love the feeling of strength I get when I rest my back against its mighty trunk. I love the Western Meadowlark and the Northern Flicker that visit its branches every day, often at exactly the same time. I admire the lushness of this grove, and I care greatly for the wetlands of which this grove is part.

More than that, perhaps, I am sitting in this tree because I agree wholeheartedly with the celebrated Indian novelist Arundhati Roy, who wrote,

"If there is any hope for the world at all, it does not live in climate change change conference rooms or in cities with tall buildings. It lives low down on the ground, with its arms around the people who go to battle every day to protect their forests, their mountains, and their rivers, because they know their forests, their mountains, and their rivers protect them."

I would only add that this hope can also high up in the canopies of trees, with people who are willing to put their bodies on the line with these trees that they love.

For nearly two months, starting with The Warbler's tree sit, people in Willits proudly embodied Roy's sentiment by delaying the start of the Big Orange juggernaut's destruction of Little Lake Valley through direct action. The first five times CalTrans' contractors attempted to start work, people sat or stood in their way. All five times, the contractors packed up and went home without getting their work done.

During this period, the political climate surrounding the Bypass shifted. As one measure of that shift, politicians such as Noreen Evans, Dan Gjerde, and Dan Hamburg came forward and demonstrated the courage to oppose it.

This is where the intimidation comes back in. In an effort to break the back of the opposition, CalTrans called upon roughly 60 California Highway Patrol officers from throughout the state.

Though the Little Lake wetlands have been badly damaged across the past century and-a-half, they remain a vibrant and crucial ecosystem. They function in a manner akin to kidneys: absorbing the valley’s waters and slowly releasing them back into the system. As water flows through them minerals, sediments, and contaminants are absorbed and transformed by the plants, animals, and bacteria that occupy the many ecological niches therein.

They may not continue to function that way for long. In the week that I have been in this perch, CalTrans' private construction contractor, FlatIron Corporation (a subsidiary of Germany-based HOCHTIEF, the world's largest construction corporation) has steadily converted the lush wetlands meadow that formerly expanded out below me into a graded, gridded, and brown moonscape.

As I sit here pecking away on my SmartPhone (a tree sitter with a SmartPhone – the real deal), on May 20th, FlatIron is preparing to install the first wick drains in an area below me. These drains are poles an average length of 80 feet that are engineered to wick moisture out of the ground. The purpose is to harden up the soft, moist wetlands characterized by extremely fine sediment, and thereby make this area suitable for 18-wheelers bouncing and careening through the valley at highway speeds.

CalTtrans intends to install roughly 55,000 of these drains. According to the bid package Caltrans advertised to engineering companies in 2012, roughly 1.35 million meters of plastic drainage wick material would be required for thus torturing and draining this area of land. Translated: 839 miles of drains driven into Little Lake.

Earlier today, though, I was vividly reminded of the spirit captured so eloquently by Arundhati Roy's words. At 6:45 a.m., Travis “Condor” Jochimsen (who occupied this tree for 12 days immediately before me) and Jamie Chevalier locked down in a black bear device on the wick drain boom, paralyzing the machine and much other work FlatIron planned to do that day. They remained there for several hours. The California Highway Patrol were flabbergasted. They were not prepared to deal with the situation. Roughly two-dozen FlatIron workers stood on the outskirts of the area, watching and pacing.

The workers eventually went home without completing any of their planned wick drain installation. This terribly destructive activity was delayed by a full day by the courageous action of two people, who were cited and released by the Mendocino County Sheriffs after negotiating to unlock themselves voluntarily.

In the more than three years that I have been a journalist in Mendocino County, I have made it a point to chronicle and oppose the most destructive industrial projects to come along in our region: forest-to-vineyard conversions, destruction of rivers, widespread herbicide spraying, forest clear-cuts, land and water grabs, etc. The Willits Bypass is the most destructive project I have written about so far.

Largely for that reason, I have elected to take direct action of my own against the project (participatory journalism at its finest). My friend Amanda “The Warbler” Senseman, whose 65-day tree sit south of Willits in the route of the Bypass galvanized opposition to the project as never before, put it this way: "The Bypass is our local version of the Tar Sands. It's our local version of the Keystone Excel Pipeline." The Bypass is representative of those projects and many more.

Conversely, however, the resistance to the Bypass can be representative of an altogether different outcome for the planet. Here in Little Lake Valley, we do not live in a vacuum. If we stop stand up and stop this project here, the impact will ripple out. The greatest gift that people in this region could possibly give at this time, not only to Little Lake Valley, but to people fighting for their forests, mountains, and rivers all over the world would be to do exactly what it takes to stop this project.

By definition, that means we must at times depart from the same legal system that condones and enables the destruction of the Little Lake wetlands, just as it has condoned and enabled all of the destructive projects that have collectively created the ecological crisis at large. There has never been a better time to withdraw our hope from the conference rooms and tall buildings, and the people within them.

In doing so, we turn away from fear, and we take a true stand in solidarity both with the ancient ones – and those future ancient ones not yet born.

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