cross-posted from The Willits News, by Linda Williams
A coalition of environmental groups staged a protest Monday morning along Highway 101 to protest the construction of the highway bypass around Willits.
Dozens of protestors from Earth First! joined with a newly formed Willits group called Save our Little Lake Valley in an effort to stop the planned tree cutting along the bypass footprint. In addition to picket signs, a local woman is now living on a platform nestled in top of one of the trees slated for removal. Picketers on the ground vowed to support her tree sitting protest for as long as it takes.
“CalTrans did not cut today, it was definitely a victory,” says organizer Sarah Grusky of Save our Little Lake Valley. “We plan to hold vigils as often as possible to keep a lookout.”
CalTrans has been working for the past few weeks, placing markers along the project right of way preparing for the contractor to begin work. The first significant work scheduled for the contractor is to cut the trees along the bypass route to prevent migratory birds from nesting in them. Tree cutting is expected to start within two to three weeks according to CalTrans spokesman Phil Frisbie.
CalTrans awarded the $108 million construction project to the partnership of DeSilva Gates Construction and Flatiron West Incorporated late last year with the expectation most of the heavy construction work would not start until 2013 after the seasonal rains subsided.
A lawsuit filed by The Center for Biological Diversity, Sierra Club, Willits Environmental Center and the Environmental Protection Information Center in May 2012 is seeking to delay the project until a more thorough examination of alternatives is conducted. The California Farm Bureau joined the lawsuit in August 2012. In November a federal judge denied the groups’ request for an injunction aimed at stopping construction until the lawsuit issues were settled. The trial date is scheduled for June 7.
While the courts settle the overall legality of CalTrans bypass design, some area activists are concerned about the damage being done in the meantime. Protestors brought informational signs and held them up to wave at travelers along the east side of Highway 101 south of Walker Road aimed at stopping any construction through peaceful protest.
“Caltrans has not considered the many other viable and sensible solutions to Willlits’ traffic problems developed by the people,” said Warbler, a Little Lake Valley farmer occupying the tree. “This Bypass will not improve local traffic and will create no permanent jobs, but it will permanently scar the Little Lake Valley. The Army Corp of Engineers is mandated to choose the least harmful alternative and the Bypass as planned isn’t it.”
Warbler is 24-years-old and has been living and working in the Willits valley for the past four years. This is her first tree sit. She volunteered for this role when planning for the protests began last year. She received tree climbing instructions from Cascadia Forest Defenders who also helped her get settled into the tree located at the south end of the new planned bypass not far from the current Highway 101. She has tarps to protect herself from rain and two sleeping bags to keep warm.
When asked how long she planned to stay in the tree she said, “that depends on CalTrans and local authorities.”