Willits Tree-Sitter Resumes Highway Bypass Protest on the Ground

by Deborah Svoboda

Warbler might be back on the ground, but she is continuing her hunger strike and says this fight is not over.

Warbler lived in a tree for nine week (John Wagenet)
Warbler lived in a tree for nine weeks (John Wagenet)

California Highway Patrol officers on Tuesday used cherry pickers to nab Warbler and other tree-sitters who were trying to block the construction of a Highway 101 bypass around the town of Willits.

Amanda Senseman, the 24-year-old who goes by Warbler, said the officers also pitched most of her possessions off the platform where she had lived for nine weeks. Within half an hour, the Ponderosa pine was on the ground as well.

“It’s been really difficult to watch all of the destruction,” she said.

CHP referred all questions to a spokesperson who did not return calls.

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Activist Naomi Wagner said five tree-sitters were arrested in all, as well as three people on the ground. Most protesters – including Warbler — have been quickly released, she said.

Police tactics in the operation have piqued the concern of local state Sen. Noreen Evans (D-Santa Rosa). “I am shocked and dismayed at what seems to be an excessive use of force on unarmed protesters,” she said in a statement.

The arrests came just before Evans was scheduled to meet with California Transportation Department Director Malcolm Dougherty to discuss the situation, and she was not notified of the operation, she said.

The agency’s spokesman, Phil Frisbie, said that the tree-sitters were told a week ago that they were trespassing. "It was imminent that we were going to need to remove those trees," he said. "As soon as each tree-sitter was removed, we were able to clear those areas and proceed."

Caltrans has begun construction on a plan to build a 6-mile, four-lane bypass around the town of Willits. Frisbie said that the plan is necessary to relieve the traffic problems in Willits and that Caltrans has explored more than 30 alternatives.

People in Willits opposed to the bypass have been protesting the plan as long as it has been around. They want an alternative because they said the bypass will destroy 89 acres of wetlands and cross six streams with coho salmon and steelhead. They also said that there are a large amount of migratory birds in the area, and accused Caltrans of violating the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

One tree-sitter, who goes by the name Falcon, spotted an active nest from his own perch.

Frisbie confirmed that the nest Falcon spotted has now been protected. "Active bird nests have been found and a 100-foot diameter has been established around each nest," Frisbie said. He is unclear on how many nests, but said there are several and that they have been "in areas that will not impede our work this summer."

Meanwhile, Warbler said, "It’s bittersweet to be back down." She says it’s good to reunite with friends and to join supporters, some of whom she didn't meet during her two months aloft.

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She plans to continue the fast she began on Thursday. "This is not over at all," she said. "We’re entering phase two, stronger than ever. Taking a step back, organizing ourselves and getting ready to go full force again."

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