By Deborah Svoboda
If you want to talk face-to-face to Warbler, you have to be OK with heights.
Warbler, the name adopted by a 24-year-old farmer, is living indefinitely in a ponderosa pine on the southern outskirts of Willits, up in Mendocino County. She's been up in the tree since the end of January to try to block construction of a four-lane, six-mile, $290 million highway bypass around town.
A couple weeks back, I drove north on U.S. 101 through Marin and Sonoma counties and up into Mendocino to interview Warbler (also known as Amanda Senseman) for a journalism class assignment. I brought along a camera (I'm a photojournalist first) and sound recording equipment (which I was just learning to use). And when I got to Warbler's tree, and she agreed that it was OK, I climbed the 71 feet to her platform--"two rooms," she calls it--overlooking 101.
Why is she up there?
To build the bypass, Caltrans will need to cut down trees along the superhighway-size right-of-way, and that could harm migratory bird species. It will need to fill wetlands along the route, the construction could impact spawning streams for endangered coho salmon and steelhead.
The agency has planned the bypass for decades, and says it's necessary to allow through traffic to avoid the bottleneck of downtown Willits, where U.S. 101 narrows to two lanes. There's debate about whether there's enough traffic through town to justify the project and whether diverting traffic away from downtown will help or hurt the local economy. But Caltrans spokesperson Phil Frisbie Jr. says that as the state's economy rebounds, "Traffic volumes will increase, both for commerce, and people will go out and they'll vacation more, so the need for the bypass as things recover is going to be felt even greater.”
For years, bypass opponents have held meetings, proposed alternatives, written letters and protested. Last May, environmental groups sued Caltrans to halt the project. They failed to win an injunction, and the case is scheduled for trial this June.
The transportation agency was scheduled to start work along the right-of-way in late January--and that's when Warbler climbed her tree. After six weeks of cold, snow, rain, and some harassment, she's got no intention of coming down.
"People talk a lot about my jobless hippie self up here, but this is my job, this is all of our jobs, because our system has failed to do theirs," she says.
The most difficult thing about living out in the open, seven stories off the ground? Well, there's the constant highway noise, for one. And then there's the wind. "I get motion sickness from being up in the tree," she laughs. "It's kind of a lot like being on a boat, just constant movement."
Warbler's favorite part of this experience? "The people that I have been living with and see every day in this valley, and all of a sudden I'm seeing in a different light, and we're all coming together to support each other, and that is really the most inspiring thing."
For now, work on the project has been stopped by some real birds. Caltrans and the state Department of Fish and Wildlife are conferring on what to do about nesting birds that have appeared in the construction zone during Warbler's tree-sit.