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Once A Lawyer, Now A Tree Sitter

Tanya Ridino
Tanya Ridino

The Clean Water Act lawsuit that aims to halt construction of the California Department of Transportation's current version of the Willits Bypass will be heard in a San Francisco federal court on June 21st. Filed by the Willits Environmental Center, the Redwood chapter of the Sierra Club, the Center for Biological Diversity and the Environmental Protection Information Center against CalTrans, the Federal Highway Administration and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the suit aims to compel these agencies to examine less damaging and costly ways of addressing regional traffic problems and traffic problems in Willits, and to examine the legitimacy of CalTrans' mitigation plan.

Federal Judge Jeffrey White denied a preliminary injunction last September that would have halted work on the project, which constituted a kind of preliminary ruling on the case. White has left open the possibility of ruling otherwise if the plaintiffs provide new evidence that he finds convincing. Following the hearing, he has up to 90 days to render a decision. The ruling appears likely to go in CalTrans' favor.

Meanwhile, the Bypass can now lay claim to having inspired perhaps the first-ever lawyer-turned-tree-sitter.

Tanya Ridino, 38, ran the Mendocino County Courthouse Self-Help Center for five years, assisting people who represented themselves in child custody, divorce, restraining order, guardianship, adoption, name change, debt collection, and forfeiture cases. A 2005 graduate of the UC Los Angeles School of Law, her driving passion in this job was to help children and victims of domestic violence through labyrinthine legal processes. She also worked under a California state contract representing parents through Child Protective Services dependency hearings.

“In my time at the Courthouse, I had countless conversations with individuals struggling to find decent solutions for their children and family after separation,” she says. “I spoke with countless victims of domestic violence and helped people obtain restraining orders when necessary.”

Since the global economic crash in 2008, wealth and resources have continued to funnel upwards to elite individuals and institutions on a worldwide scale, while state programs that aim to help those lower of lower economic castes continue to erode. In 2011, Ridino's position was axed as part of the austerity program. The state and county were too broke to afford her position.

Yet, the Mendocino Council of Governments has devoted more than $30 million to construct the Willits Bypass, while CalTrans plans to spend more than $350 to fund this unnecessary and destructive project. The court system, the resource agencies that purportedly regulate environmental destruction, and elected officials are allowing the project to proceed. The only thing to have slowed it down recently has been civil disobedience, especially tree sitting.

So, last week, Ridino scaled a valley oak that CalTrans intends to cut to construct the northern interchange of the Willits Bypass. It is the same tree I lived in for seven days earlier this month (as I described in the AVA three weeks ago) and that three other “tree sitters” have spent time in since early-May. The tree is located in a luminous ash grove on the north end of Little Lake Valley, right next to Highway 101, and about a mile past Willits High School, which FlatIron may or may not intend to cut before September..

Ridino said in a statement, “I, too, have sat through that bottleneck at the Hwy 20 intersection, and I would love to see it get fixed. Fortunately, it can be without all the cost, time, waste and environmental destruction that the bypass brings. Simply re-striping the approach to the Hwy 101/Hwy 20 intersection and connecting Baechtel Road/ Railway Ave. to Commercial could ease a substantial amount of traffic congestion.”

“I also held a state contract representing parents through Child Protective Services dependency hearings and saw innumerable service cutbacks, from mental health to the Alcohol & Other Drugs Program to foster care benefits severely affecting families in our County. And yet we have at least $350 million to build a useless freeway? Who is this highway really benefiting? Caltrans and their contractors?”

She continues, “And all this at what cost to our environment? I am perched 70 feet up, crying at the sight of Caltrans “wicking” machines draining our wetlands. Draining our wetlands! Who in this day and age thinks this a good idea? Have you not heard of water wars? Have you envisioned a world without sufficient water? Have you not heard all of the concern about drought and global warming?”

CalTrans began wick draining the Little Lake Valley wetlands last month using a single “wick drain stitcher,” which is installing the drains at a rate of roughly one per minute when it is in full operation. This past Wednesday, CalTrans brought in a second wick drain stitcher. The agency's contractor, FlatIron Construction, plans to install an estimated 55,000 of these drains, at an average depth of around 80 feet.

Ellen Drell, founder of the Willits Environmental Center, will be providing a more extensive update on the status of the Bypass lawsuit at an event in Ukiah this Thursday, June 13th at the Ukiah United Methodist Church. It kicks off at 7 p.m. Amanda “The Warbler” Senseman and I will also speak. It will be the first large public event in which Senseman will share the story of her famous 65-day tree sit in detail. For more information, see

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