As Highway 101 winds north through the forests of Humboldt County, it ushers drivers into a community of remarkable beauty and acute cultural schizophrenia.
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 their victory.
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 forest holdings.
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. [page]
Although activists despise Hurwitz's practices, he is, for them, the perfect villain. Within five years, activists pre-
dict, 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 article.)
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 to weep.
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 called Luna.
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 tree-sitter. [page]
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 to Butterfly.
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 being.
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 environmental movement.
“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.) [page]
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 mother.
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 with:
Love in any language
Straight from the heart
Pulls us all together
And once we learn to speak it
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 them:
“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 dollars.
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. Butterfly prayed.
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. [page]
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 under investigation.
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 [page]