The rutted dirt logging road steepens as we push higher up the forested mountain, hundreds of marchers moving to the deep rhythm of dozens of drummers. It’s more like rock climbing than hiking, and often difficult to keep from slipping. Hands grab for shrubs and boulders to hang on to. But always, we’re careful not to drop the packages of food or water most of us are carrying for the young woman living in the tree.
That woman is 24-year-old Julia “Butterfly” Hill, whose feet haven’t touched the ground in over six months. From her perch high in a 1000-year-old redwood giant, her view takes in the Eel River Valley, where steam rises from Pacific Lumber’s Scotia sawmill. She climbed into this tree last December, with the short-term goal of just protecting one tree and its close neighbors from joining the stacks of lumber piled high in the mill yard. But now she’s become a symbol of the struggle to halt the destruction of California’s last primeval redwood rainforest. We who struggle up this mountain are coming to help — and to honor her remarkable commitment.
An hour ago, at the rally for Julia Butterfly and the tree she calls “Luna,” we were warned that it would be a difficult two-hour climb, not for those out of shape or with small children. We were asked to think twice before starting, but the vast majority of the crowd was for it.
There were more than enough volunteers to carry a month’s food and water up the mountain for Julia. Molly, my college-student niece from Colorado, carried a bottle of water for her. Luckily for me, Molly also carried some of my camera gear. If not for her youthful energy I might have heeded the repeated warnings and not even have attempted the climb.
But after several rousing speeches, a crowd of about three hundred started the trek, accompanied by the booming drums. The first part was easy and level, but soon the road veered sharply uphill and became steeper, then narrower, then steeper still.
We also had been told that morning we could be arrested. “If you go up the hill you’re trespassing,” warned a young woman wearing a “peacekeeper” armband. “Sometimes Pacific Lumber doesn’t like that. We don’t expect any security or cops, but if they show up keep cool and let us negotiate with them.” To add to the level of paranoia, big trucks loaded with redwood lumber from Pacific Lumber’s mill roared past the rally site next to the highway with air horns blaring, acrid black smoke roiling from exhaust stacks.
The peacekeeper briefed us on the nonviolence code that is a regular part of Earth First! actions in this Northern California region. Everyone repeated the nonviolence code aloud: “Our attitude will be one of openness, friendliness and respect for all people and the environment. We will use no violence, verbal or physical towards any person. We will not damage any property. We will not bring or use firearms or any weapons. We will not bring or use alcohol or illegal drugs.”
Now after more than an hour of climbing, our clothes were boggy with sweat and our tired minds wandered. Would we round a bend in the trail and come upon a line of deputies in riot gear, holding long cotton swabs drenched in pepper spray?
We pushed ourselves onward, and finally, two exhausting hours after we started, there was shouting and commotion at the head of the column. People pointed up toward the sky. It was the first sight of Julia’s tree, Luna.
We had gained over 1500 ft. in elevation, most of it near the end of the climb. We had covered only about a mile as the crow flies, but we weren’t flying. If anybody had asked me, I’d have estimated we walked four miles and climbed 3000 ft. But now we had reached the top and stood before our goal.
Luna, a 200 foot tall, 14 foot diameter Coast Redwood, grows on land now owned by Pacific Lumber Company, in turn owned by Texas corporate raider Charles Hurwitz and his Maxxam Corporation. Since the 1985 hostile takeover financed by a dubious junk bond deal, Pacific Lumber has nearly tripled the rate of cut on its 200,000 acres — including the 60,000 acre Headwaters Forest, the largest remaining unprotected old-growth redwood forest left on earth. Earth First! activists discovered and named Headwaters more than a decade ago, and they and others have been trying to preserve what’s left ever since.
“I am here for all of the forest, including the Headwaters Forest,” Julia said recently. “What we’re saying is they’ve already taken 97 percent (of the original virgin redwood forestland), and we don’t have room for them to take any more.” She has made it clear that she is not opposed to all logging — just irresponsible logging.
No better example of irresponsible logging can be found than the “Stafford slide,” which started a few hundred yards from Luna. On January 1, 1997, a gigantic avalanche of mud, stumps and debris rolled down the mountain, snapping off fully grown trees in a miles-long path of destruction that wiped out the tiny hamlet of Stafford at the bottom. The mudslide destroyed seven families’ homes, but because an alert resident heard the sound of trees toppling and warned neighbors, no one was injured. Most of the residents were employed at the Scotia sawmill two miles north, but now many are suing the company for negligence.
This was all connected to why Julia Butterfly is still in her redwood after six months. Soon after the disaster the California Department of Forestry approved Pacific Lumber plans to clearcut additional steep slopes right next to the huge slide. Earth First! activists vowed to use non-violent tactics to block that new logging, and Julia Butterfly’s record-breaking tree-sit in Luna is the result.
This day, June 10, is exactly six months after Julia moved into the tree. We gathered that morning, some 400 people in all, by Highway 101 at Stafford. We stood on a deep layer of soil and rock that had been part of the slide. Pacific Lumber had graded it flat and planted it with grass for erosion control. A light, chilly drizzle fell from gray skies as Darryl Cherney began the rally by speaking about the main issues behind the Luna tree-sit.
He was fuming about the still- pending Headwaters Forest acquisition deal brokered by Sen. Dianne Feinstein. Under that deal, the state and federal governments would give $380 million and tax breaks to Maxxam Corporation and Charles Hurwitz in exchange for only a fraction of Headwaters. “In exchange for all that we get only 1/10 of Headwaters; we get 7500 acres instead of over 60,000. And with that deal Luna gets cut down. With that deal the Elk River watershed, which is flooding every year from the logging, gets massacred. With that deal Owl Creek gets cut down. With that deal 5000 acres of old-growth in the Mattole and Bear River watersheds gets cut down,” Cherney said as the crowd shouted, “No!”
“In other words, in exchange for saving 7500 acres Charles Hurwitz gets to log 193,000 acres down to the bone, plus he gets $380 million. That sucks, because Charles Hurwitz is a corporate criminal who deserves to be indicted rather than have dollars thrown at him. He trashed a Texas S&L in 1988, and all the taxpayers — that’s you and all your relatives and friends throughout the entire United States — had to bail Charles Hurwitz’s bank out for $1.6 billion. The federal government has two lawsuits against Hurwitz right now to try to regain some of that money.
“Why are we going to give him $380 million when he already owes us $1.6 billion? We’ve already bought Headwaters Forest. In fact we already bought the entire holdings of Pacific Lumber Co. when we bailed that bank out for $1.6 billion. We don’t need to buy Headwaters because we already own it,” Cherney concluded.
Two weeks earlier, Julia Butterfly had written from her treetop aerie to California legislators urging them to oppose state funding of the Headwaters Forest acquisition deal. In part, she wrote: “Pacific Lumber was … convicted of criminal violations of the California Forest Practices Act, and … is awaiting sentencing. Pacific Lumber has committed over 250 violations of these laws since 1995. Since this company repeatedly breaks existing laws, how then can we expect them to provide a (habitat conservation) plan that will properly safeguard critical habitat for threatened and endangered species, and also for them to adhere to these laws?”
After Cherney, Robert Parker, a media coordinator for the Luna tree-sit, told the crowd that the point of today’s rally wasn’t just to honor Julia Butterfly, but to inspire everyone to follow her lead. “Julia’s an example of how one person with true commitment and with love in her heart can make change in this world. Each and every one of us needs to make that same commitment, whether it be a day, a week, or six months. Yesterday, the local paper, the Eureka Times-Standard, ran an editorial that said today would be a good day for the protests to end. I disagree; I think today would be a good day for the protests to begin!” The crowd howled approval.
Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart called Julia “a true warrior fighting for what she believes in.” He said he was there to join with others to amplify Julia’s message and the message of the Headwaters (and also, “to take her some good rhythm”). “If we don’t do it now, it’ll be too late,” he said. “We’re not just beating drums. It’s about raising power. We’re taking it up to Luna and we’re turning spirit into form. When you leave here tell your people what you’ve done; spread the word.”
Now two hours later, Mickey Hart and the drummers form a circle near Luna and continue weaving their rhythm songs.
All eyes peer upwards. The main top of Luna had ben blasted away by lightning long ago, perhaps centuries ago, and a crown of big branches had grown outward, then upward from the top of the shattered trunk. Julia’s platform is supported on these branches, 180 ft. above the ground.
What follows next is memorable. As the drummers drum, Julia Butterfly climbs from her platform to the very tip of the tallest branch of the ancient tree. Holding on only with her legs and bare feet, she sways her torso, head, and arms, dancing to the rhythm, the cheers, the exuberant wolf-howls of the throng. A brisk and chilly wind blows her long dark hair straight out, giving the impression that she’s part of the tree and its foliage.
With the wind and the drums it’s impossible for her to be heard by the crowd on that mountaintop, but a few hours earlier, the highest point of the morning rally were her comments via cell phone through the PA system. After saying the rally meant a lot to her and her support team, she said, “I’m changed for the rest of my life because of this experience, in amazing and very incredibly powerful and positive ways.
“People ask if I’m excited about the six months. What I’m excited about is that we now have six months of people continuing to join hands, hearts and minds to work together. It’s up to every one of us who cares and respects life to stand together to stop the destruction. We have to work together to make sure the future is beautiful and sustainable for all.
“People have been asking me, ‘Julia, what’s going to bring you down from there?’ I really thought about it, and what I want to come down to is a world where no more clearcuts are allowed. What I want to come down to is a world where cutting on steep and unstable slopes like this one is no longer allowed, because it’s not only wiping out habitat for wildlife, it’s wiping out habitat for people as well, and that’s wrong. The world that I want to come down to no longer allows the cutting of old-growth forests to continue, because that is fueled purely by greed of corporations like Maxxam, and has no basis in need. It’s purely greed driven. I am here, and many others are here, to stand up against destruction caused by greed.
“Corporate power and government are working hand in hand to just take more and more, so they are left with everything and we are left with nothing. A lot of people feel fear. They are afraid to take a stand because their power has been taken away, and they feel powerless. But as loud a voice as these corporations and this government have, it will not be heard if we stand together as one voice to be heard, and join our voices and join our bodies in commitment to stand against this destruction, and bring the power back to the people and back to the land to which it belongs.
“I love you all very, very much. Thank you for honoring this action. Thank you for honoring me, and thank you for rejuvenating your commitment to help save the lives of our old-growth forest.”
Who is this Julia Butterfly and how did she get where she is now?
Earth First! activists often choose a “forest name” to shield their identities because they do nonviolent direct action on logging company property, which could expose them to trespass charges or lawsuits.
Julia Hill chose the name Butterfly, and like her namesake she has undergone a metamorphosis. She grew up in a deeply religious family as the daughter of a traveling evangelical minister who later settled in Arkansas. Her parents taught her to have very strong convictions and stick by them. She doesn’t follow any organized religion but says she believes very strongly in the spirituality of the universe.
In 1996 she suffered nearly fatal injuries in an auto accident. During nearly a year of medical treatment and recovery, she had time to reassess her purpose in life. Two weeks after being released by her doctors, she headed west on a journey of self-discovery. She had no particular destination, but her first sight of the redwoods overwhelmed her with awe. “When I entered the great majestic cathedral of the redwood forest for the first time,” she has written, “my spirit knew it had found what it was searching for. I dropped to my knees and began to cry because I was so overwhelmed by the wisdom, energy, and spirituality housed in this holiest of temples.”
She spent some time alone hiking the Lost Coast, a remote and nearly roadless area of the Humboldt County coast. On a trip into Garberville for supplies she learned about the plight of the Headwaters Forest. Later she prayed for guidance about what direction her life should take, and about that she wrote, “I felt complete peace in my decision to do what I could to save these awe-inspiring forests. I went back to Arkansas where I had my wreck, settled my lawsuit, sold everything that I owned, said good-byes to the closest friends I’ve ever had, and came back out west determined to do whatever I could to be of help.”
When she arrived back in Humboldt County it was November and the winter rains had started. When she phoned the Earth First! contact number she was told “Action Camp is closing, we don’t need you.” But she persisted and learned there was a pepper-spray rally that day in Garberville. She joined in the rally, and from there made her way to the Earth First! base camp in Stafford. A few days later she heard a call for people to sit in the Luna tree, so named because the tree-sitting platform had been set up on the night of a full moon. She quickly volunteered, “excited to at last be doing something.”
She hiked to the top of Stafford Ridge and learned to climb the giant redwood using rock-climbing gear. She spent a week in the branches learning the ways of tree-sitting. But after returning to base camp for a day to clean up, she fell ill for more than two weeks. She had just recovered when word came that loggers were about to begin cutting near Luna. On December 10 she and a companion decided to go to Luna and sit for a while to hold down the fort. “Two weeks turned into three, and after three I thought, ‘I’m so close to a month I might as well stay.'” When she had been up two months, a photographer visiting her suggested she try to hold out for 100 days. At the time, she says, having suffered through terrible winter storms, she could not imagine lasting that much longer.
Earth First! has long used the tactic of occupying trees in the loggers’ path, but no one has stayed up in such a “tree-sit” longer than Julia.
When she started her sit in Luna last December, Julia Butterfly expected to stay up about two weeks before letting another forest defender take her place. But now she has endured more than half a year of living 180 ft. off the ground on a six-by-eight foot platform no larger than a queen-size bed. She survived the winter’s record-setting rains and howling El Nino storms that shredded her tarp shelter, covered her with sleet, and tossed her platform around so violently that she feared for her life. She made it through the sadness of watching loggers chainsawing the forest around her and the ear-shattering noise and wind blast of giant logging helicopters hovering over her and hauling away the logs. She outlasted the efforts of company security to block her support team and to harass her from her perch with all-night spotlights, air horns, and amplified taunts.
As a result of her record-breaking accomplishment, Julia is getting her message out to the world. Following a breakthrough feature article by San Francisco Examiner writer Eric Brazil on February 12, she has attracted media like CNN, The London Times, Newsweek, People and European television. More join every day. In this era of cell phones and beepers, Julia gives several telephone interviews daily, and a few intrepid reporters and photographers have climbed to the treetop platform for face-to-face talks and pictures.
With experience she has become media savvy. Julia says many interview questions tend to be about shallow human interest and gee-whiz aspects of her feat rather than why she’s doing it. But she has learned to find a way to redirect the spotlight aimed at her and point it to what’s important. For example, although she now refuses to answer questions about personal hygiene, she often was asked how she goes to the bathroom. She replied that she does it just like everyone else, but she just doesn’t have the same technology. But then she would expand her answer to add that it may be true she is lacking a comfortable bathroom, but what about the seven Stafford families who lost their entire homes as a result of the logging-caused mudslide?
Though a newcomer to forest activism when she began her tree-sit, she has spent considerable time reading a large mass of environmental literature, including the writings of the late Judi Bari, one of her greatest heroines. She told the Santa Rosa Press Democrat: “Reading and learning about her while I’ve been up here has given me the strength to do this. I can’t believe the courage Judi Bari showed in the face of threats, a car bombing and finally cancer. I know the same fire that burned in her burns in me, But I can only hope to be a voice like her.”
Some dismiss Butterfly’s feat as a mere publicity stunt, but if so it’s a spectacularly successful one. And it’s no meaningless stunt because in every case in the past the lumber company has cut down trees as soon as tree-sitters have abandoned them. Butterfly’s deep commitment to preventing that fate for her adopted tree has caused her to endure physical and psychological ordeals that would have made a quitter of a lesser person.
In a live online chat hosted by Time Magazine, someone asked Julia why she would waste five months saving one tree when she could save many more with other work. Her reply: “My being in this tree stretches far beyond this one tree. Part of our hope in saving the last of the old-growth forests is making people aware of the destruction of the remaining three percent. By my being here, the world is now beginning to hear of the destruction of these ancient forests.” She added that, “Unfortunately … the media does not deem important a story about the last of these ancient forests and the animals that require these forests to exist … so it has taken my staying up here this long and going through what I’ve been through in order to help this story reach the world.”
Her stand has drawn more media attention, and more sustained attention, than anything else Earth First! has done in over a decade of efforts to prevent the logging of the ancient forest. Julia wrote in an essay recently that, “Luna and I, with the amazing efforts of a wonderful support team, stand together in defiance of the destructive practices of corporate greed and paid-off politicians. Luna is our beacon of hope and truth. In all her majestic glory she has become our platform to the world. From her branches we are making people aware that the destruction of the environment is a direct reflection of the destruction of our lives!”
As the late afternoon of June 10 comes, the drummers have finished and we begin preparing for the long downhill climb. On the ridgetop the wind has died down and there is a sample of the forest quiet that Julia experiences every day. She shouts to be heard across the distance, “This is the most incredible day of my entire life. You’re in my heart for the rest of time. Thank you!”