After living two years and eight days on a small tarp-covered platform nestled in the upper boughs of an ancient redwood named Luna, Julia “Butterfly” Hill’s bare feet touched the ground December 18 as she triumphantly ended her world record protest.
Her tree-sit ended only after reaching an agreement with Pacific Lumber/Maxxam Corporation, the landowner, to permanently protect the tree and a 200-ft. radius buffer zone from logging. Hill said that the agreement fulfilled her vow not to touch the ground until she had done all she could to preserve the ancient tree whose life had already spanned a millennium.
Media representatives were kept to a minimum at the base of the tree, which grows on a mountainous ridge overlooking the Eel River Valley at Stafford. An NBC-TV crew recorded the slender, barefoot 25-year-old’s tearful return to Earth and shared the footage with all major TV networks. Videographer James Ficklin, who made an award winning documentary about the tree-sit, provided this eyewitness account:
“In one of the most emotional moments of North Coast forest activism history, Julia’s feet touched the ground; she then fell to her knees and collapsed in a ball, weeping. After a long moment, she rose back to her knees, lifted her arms up towards the tree and cried out. ‘We did it!’ When she rose to her feet she was hugged profusely by her ground support crew followed by her father. There was not a dry eye among them.”
Julia and her ground crew linked arms in a circle around the 15-ft diameter trunk of the old tree. Gazing up at Luna from the ground for the first time in daylight, Julia exclaimed, “She’s even more beautiful than I thought.” But her voice choked with emotion as she went on, “I understand all of us are governed by different values. I understand that to some people I’m just a dirty tree-hugging hippie. But I can’t imagine being able to take a chainsaw to something like this.” Then she quipped, “I think before anyone could be allowed to cut down something like this they should be mandated to live in it for two years.” There was laughter all around the circle.
Concerns whether Julia would be strong enough to walk after her long ordeal were soon put aside as she fairly danced barefoot down the steep trail. Along the way she commented on the impacts of continuing logging, and paused where the trail skirted the top of the massive New Year’s Eve 1996 mudslide that had destroyed or damaged seven families’ homes in the hamlet of Stafford far below. She scoffed at Pacific Lumber’s contention that the disastrous slide was not a result of the company’s clearcut logging on the steep slopes above the town, but that it was solely due to unusually heavy rainfall that year. She said she had spent two years observing first hand how the foliage and even the pattern of bark on the tree slowed the falling raindrops, lessening its impact on the soil. The ferns and underbrush help gather up the moisture, she said. “All of those little things that get destroyed when they clearcut are part of keeping that from happening,” she said pointing at the gaping slide. “I don’t care how much they pay a scientist to tell me otherwise. I lived it for two years. I saw it with my own eyes.”
It was that slide that resulted in Julia’s tree-sit. When Earth First! Headwaters Forest activists heard chainsaws on the slopes above Stafford the following October, they hiked up to investigate and found a new logging operation under way. By moonlight they discovered the Luna tree, and a young man named Daniel free-climbed a smaller redwood growing from Luna’s roots, then spent the next several days occupying the hollow top of Luna’s broken-off trunk. Loggers felled the tree he had climbed, effectively leaving him no way down, and they threatened to fell the big tree with Daniel in it. But a nocturnal rescue party used rock climbing gear to ascend Luna by the light of the full moon and rig up the tree-sit platform. That’s when Luna got her name. A succession of temporary tree-sitters followed, the last of whom was Julia Hill, a new arrival at the Earth First! base camp. She had no idea then what she was beginning.
Julia Hill was an unknown 23-year old Arkansan on a journey of self-discovery when she ascended Luna on December 10, 1997, expecting to spend 2-4 weeks helping out with the tree-sit. But she went on — “one day at a time,” as she often said — to endure the stormiest, coldest winter in Northern California’s recorded history. She withstood harassment with all-night spotlights and bullhorns wielded by company security. And she survived buffeting by a giant logging helicopter hovering close overhead in an attempt to drive her down with wind blasts over 100 MPH.
As she stubbornly refused to give up her perch 180 feet above the ground, and the days became months, reporters began seeking her out for interviews. Learning quickly from gaffes in early interviews, she metamorphosed into a thoughtful and eloquent spokesperson for preserving the scant remnants of the once vast ancient redwood forest ecosystem, a message she has now taken to the major TV network talk shows. Visitors to her treetop nest included not only reporters, photographers and TV crews from near and far, but singers Joan Baez and Bonnie Raitt, who did a benefit concert for Julia’s Circle of Life Foundation early in December in the Southern Humboldt town of Redway. The 800 tickets sold out in 20 minutes. Julia became a frequent guest on radio talk shows nationwide, and became a regular treetop correspondent for a cable TV show.
Reaching the base of the trail leading from Luna, Julia and her group held a press conference. The site, next to Highway 101, the “Redwood Highway,” was precisely where the horrific mudslide had buried several homes three years earlier. A flower-bedecked table with a dozen microphones was set up in front of a like number of cameras from every major TV network, their cables strung to two satellite trucks ready to beam the news instantly to the world. Although she has become known to millions globally through cell-phone media interviews, speeches and radio programs, Julia was amazed at the many cameras and microphones pointed at her, and she shyly exclaimed “wow” several times as she approached. As Julia reached the table she remarked that she hadn’t sat in a chair in years, and joked that maybe she could face away from the cameras and talk via a cell phone as she had done nearly every day of the past two years.
She began by saying that although the media has focused on her alone as a symbol of the struggle to preserve the redwoods, there are many more who deserve the credit: her stalwart ground and media support teams, the local communities that donated food to sustain her, and the many national and international supporters for the protection of Luna. “I feel that each and every person was vital in that protection.”
Asked what was her goal, she answered: “When I first climbed up there I wanted to do something for the forest. When I came out here in the summer of ’97 I entered the ancient redwoods for the first time, and I had a life-altering experience. There’s no way to be in the presence of these ancient beings and not have a new understanding of who we are as people walking on this Earth. And a few weeks later I found out that they were being destroyed.” She knew she had to do something, she said, “and the first thing that I came across that I could do was sit in a tree. If nothing else, my body could gain a reprieve for an over 1,000-year-old redwood tree. I climbed up into the tree, and I told some friends on the ground I’ll see you in a few weeks, and that was two years ago. During those first few weeks I came to the understanding that I needed to do more, that I had a very deep sense from the very depths of my being that we must do more … to stop the clearcuts, to stop the mudslides. I decided that I would give my word to not touch the ground again, no matter what, until I had done everything I possibly could to make the world aware and get this area protected. And we did it!”
As for what’s next for her, she said she feels most fulfilled serving a cause greater than herself, and hopes to continue leading a life of service. The next step, she said, would be getting into a car, “and that’s going to be really intense. Check back with me after that,” she laughed.
Stafford resident Lonnie Vones spoke up, saying “Julia, I lived here right below you for two years. I have four small children, and you did what PL wouldn’t do; you probably saved our lives. Thank you!” Julia thanked him and took the opportunity to explain to the media how the tree-sit was started to call attention to destructive logging practices that cause mudslides that destroy family homes:
My hope today is that Pacific Lumber/Maxxam Corporation recognizes that we have to do things differently; that we can’t keep clearcutting, we can’t keep dumping herbicide and diesel fuel, we can’t keep cutting on steep hillsides that slide away and destroy people’s homes; that there’s something greater than a profit, and that’s life. We have to begin recognizing the intrinsic and vital value of life that no amount of money can ever replace. And to me that’s what this tree-sit has been all about.
My hope is that Pacific Lumber, in agreeing to this protection, has seen that no matter what our differences we can find our common ground, and that we as people can learn to work together to find solutions. There’s a lot of conflict, and there’s a lot of problems; there’s a lot of anger, and frustration and sadness in our world. And all of those energies try every day to make us give up and lose hope. But I’ve learned the lesson of not letting go of hope. I’ve had to let go of everything else in my life, but hope and love are the two things I’ve refused to let go of.
I really believe that today is the day when we see the power of love, and we see that, yes, we have hope, especially when we come together. Each and every one of us absolutely can make a difference … but when we come together, when we join our hearts, and our minds, and our spirits, and our bodies, the sky’s the limit. And we can do things like protect ancient trees so they can stand for another millennium.
Julia said that the past few weeks of negotiations with Pacific Lumber had been difficult. The talks had actually begun last March, and by mutual agreement they had been kept private, until a couple of weeks ago when there was a leak to the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, and it became a page one story. Both sides denied leaking the details. The two sides had long before reached the basic agreement to protect the Luna tree and buffer area, and even agreed on the amount of compensation involved. But apparently PL was worried that it would be seen as giving in to tree-sitting as a tactic, and that others would be encouraged to try it. Reportedly PL asked for a provision in the agreement whereby Julia would refrain from advocating tree-sitting or from criticizing the company, and another condition would require her to forswear any economic gain from her tree-sit. These conditions were aired publicly by Maxxam’s Houston public relations spokesperson, and it angered Julia that PL/Maxxam would try to limit her right to free speech and that they suggested that her motivation was financial. Although she has a book contract to write about her experience in a book to be released by Harper in April, 2000, titled “The Legacy of Luna,” Julia said she had already agreed to turn over all proceeds from the book to her non-profit foundation. In fact, a portion of the advance money received went toward the fee asked by PL/Maxxam in return for protecting Luna. She adamantly refused to agree to the new conditions, and she prevailed.
As part of her agreement with Pacific Lumber to preserve Luna, Julia and her supporters agreed to pay a fee of $50,000 to the lumber company for a deeded covenant, recorded with the county like a land title, restricting the company’s use of the tree and the 200-ft. buffer area. The company refused Julia’s request that the money go to benefit its employees, but it agreed to donate it to a forestry research program at Humboldt State University. Julia agreed to come down from the tree within seven days, and never again to tree-sit on PL property or to enter it without permission. But she won the right to visit Luna as often as she likes, with advance notice to the company. Both Julia and PL agreed to release written statements, each saying something good about the other, to the media once she had left the tree. The money was paid and legal documents were filed with the Humboldt County Recorder on Friday, December 19. Julia expected to take several days to prepare herself to leave Luna, but a leak from the county office set off a whirlwind of media queries that led to the quickened descent and press conference the next day.
In connection with its coverage of Julia’s descent, CNN polled its audience, asking people which was more important, the preservation of ancient trees or logging jobs. There were 10,972 responses, with 81 percent voting for trees and 19 voting for jobs. But Humboldt County remains polarized, with many families dependent on logging income.
When it became known that negotiations were underway, a full-page ad began appearing daily in the Times-Standard, published in Eureka, the Humboldt County seat:
Please Pacific Lumber, do not let her win. Do not give in to eco-terrorism. Our society cannot last if we let bandits seize our property. If you agree with this, call Pacific Lumber Company at 764-2222. The true redwood friends, Tom Becker, spokesman.
Letters to the editor of the Press Democrat have also shown anger towards Hill’s action. “Julia Hill broke the law. She should have been taken down two years ago and arrested. Trees are a crop. Get over it, Butterfly,” wrote a subscriber. Other letters to the Albion Monitor and other media have emphasized that she was criminally trespassing on PL land.
She also received some criticism from the left, with some Earth First!ers decrying the precedent of paying money to PL, reminding people that it was Earth First!ers who put up the Luna tree-sit and named it, and that EF!’s basic belief is “No compromise in defense of Mother Earth.” They argued that if Julia was ready to come down from Luna, there were plenty of EF! treesitters willing to take her place, so there was no need to make a deal with PL.
But long-time Earth First! organizer Darryl Cherney had a more positive view: “It feels good when we can bring closure to an issue, and it’s rare…. It’s rare that somebody like Julia comes into our presence…. A reporter asked me was this worth $50,000, and I said to him that Luna was worth more than that, the publicity that Julia attained was worth more than that, and bringing Julia home alive and in one piece was worth more than $50,000.”
It’s hard to argue with success. As S. F. Examiner writer Eric Brazil wrote in a Dec. 16 analysis headlined “Julia Butterfly, the ultimate tree-hugger, defeats Hurwitz & Co:”
Hill has become everybody’s favorite wood nymph, a global celebrity able to command more reportorial microphones and telephones and cameras than any other living environmentalist. Her teleconference with two dozen reporters last week (on the second anniversary of Julia’s ascent) generated yards of ink and minutes of air time. Sunday’s New York Times Magazine gave her a full page — including a stunning color photo of her barefoot, clinging to a tree branch — to explain, in her own words, what she’s up to. All this presents Pacific Lumber Co., which owns “Luna,” the redwood that Hill has commandeered, with a world-class public relations headache.
Julia wasted no time taking advantage of the media spotlight to get the word out about the redwoods. By sunset Monday, two days after her descent, she arrived in New York City for a round of TV talk shows, beginning Tuesday morning with a spot on the Today show. The segment began with footage of her descent and the scene at the foot of Luna, and as the narration continued, clips from the activist video documentary, “Luna the Stafford Giant,” showing Julia at home atop Luna, cooking meals on a one-burner camp stove, talking on a cell phone, and climbing friskily about on Luna’s upper branches. It also showed scenes of the big helicopter buzzing her.
Then the scene switched to Julia in the studio, deftly fielding questions from the host and staying firmly on message. Asked if she had wanted to become an icon for the environmental movement, Julia replied, “What I wanted to do was get the word out. If we’re going to make change in the world, the first thing we have to do is inform each other. The second thing we have to do is inspire each other to realize that we can make a difference, that our actions can change the world. One person can make a difference ….” Asked what’s the next action for Julia, she answered, “To continue to do everything I can to spread the word to people that our forests need our help, and to ask people to re-look at the way we treat the Earth and each other, and find healthy, respectful ways to become more in balance. And that’s the purpose of the publicity, to spread the word; we have to make each other aware that yes, we can do it.”
Asked how she liked sleeping in a bed and taking a shower for the first time in two years, she laughed and said, “For the last two days I’ve felt like a little child. Everything is overwhelming. My eyes have been really big and I’m just trying to take it all in. One of the greatest lessons I learned in the tree was to never take life for granted again. So no matter how great something is or how small, it is absolutely wonderful to be alive.”
In a telephone interview with KMUD radio Wednesday December 22, Julia said that in addition to the Today show, she appeared five other major TV programs Tuesday, and made arrangements to be on others this week. Appearances on Good Morning America and the David Letterman Show were in the works, but the dates were not firm.
Asked how she is being treated in New York, she said that she had been told by many that network TV people are “numb” to most of the stories they cover day after day, and are used to celebrities and news makers. But the friends traveling with her tell her that at every appearance they see media workers get up from their computers and offices and go to the studio or the nearest TV to watch what’s happening on the set. “People are waiting for me after it’s over saying ‘I want to shake your hand; I want to say thank you for the most inspirational story we’ve ever had come through our newsroom.’ It just makes me cry every single time. That was my hope that we would accomplish with this agreement; that we would reach people’s hearts, even the people who seem to be numb, and give them hope, and through that to inspire them to realize that they can do something too.”
Julia said she was glad to be doing outreach, getting her message out in the hectic media beehive of Manhattan, but there is little doubt where her heart lies. When asked where she planned to live, she replied with laughing understatement, “I think I’ve put down roots in Humboldt County.” Her plans are to go south from New York to spend the holidays with her family, then to return to Southern Humboldt for the new year. She plans to hold an open house at the community center there to meet some of the many people who have supported her in so many ways over the past two years. Her father, Dale Hill, a former traveling preacher and now a reporter for the Garberville Independent, moved there about a year ago to be near her. Of him, Julia said that he had raised her to have strong principles and to stand by them no matter what the adversity. Obviously, she learned that lesson well.
KMUD News and KZYX News contributed to this article