From WILL PARRISH
[The Warbler sent this message to supporters of her tree sit yesterday:
This land belongs to nobody, but it needs somebody’s protection. We must stand together if we expect a livable future.
As put by John Wagenet, we are the “Federation of People with Common Sense.” Our efforts are a common sense reaction to the destruction here and everywhere. The options are life or death. This bypass would not harbor life. It would harbor asphalt and CO2 emissions, and take much of the life of this valley in the process.
My courage and inspiration comes from knowing that what we are all doing is right. I thank all of you for your courage in standing up and protecting this fragile matrix of life we are all a part of.
Me in a tree
Plus you on the ground,
Together we can turn
Rah! Rah! Rah!]
Members of California State Senator Noreen Evans’ staff, including her resident guru on environmental policy issues, Jeff Tyrell, visited The Warbler’s tree sit on Feb. 20th to get a feel for the opposition to the CalTrans Bypass of Willits and hear first-hand its members’ grievances. Evans herself had planned to visit the tree sit, but she canceled after being called to a vote in Sacramento. Her staffers also met with regional supporters of the Bypass, including at least one member of the bloc of three Willits City Council members who publicly favor the proposed six-mile superhighway.
Probably the most instrumental part of Evans’ staff members’ visit was an afternoon sightseeing tour of the freeway’s planned route through the Little Lake Valley’s wetlands north of Willits High. Some members of the Save Our Little Lake Valley (SOLLV) campaign know in great detail exactly how the freeway would impact each specific part of the valley, having led nine so-called general invitation “Bypass Bootprint” tours (full disclosure: I’ve helped lead many of these tours).
Roughly 150 people from all areas of inland Mendocino County, and as far away as Oakland and Arcata, have taken part in the tours, which meet every Sunday at 1 p.m. at the Little Lake Grange, 291 School St.
It’s difficult for anyone who isn’t completely somnolent to remain unaffected by this direct perspective on CalTrans’ intention to “wick drain” the wetlands, dump an enormous quantity of fill upon them, and build a freeway upon their corpse. Though the wetlands are only of what they once were, they teem with mallard ducks and other wetland bird species at this time of year.
As Jennifer Poole of Willits Weekly, a new online news publication founded by the former Willits News reporter, revealed last week, Noreen Evans is now the first regional elected official to raise public objections to the Bypass. On March 5th, she sent a letter with “pointed questions” about the project to California Transportation Secretary Jeff Tyrell.
The letter hits on many of the issues that seemingly have the most currency in policy debates about the subject: CalTrans’ refusal to consider much cheaper, exponentially less destructive, and arguably much more effective ways of reducing traffic; the agency’s insistence on building out the footprint of a four-lane freeway when it only has funding secured for a two-lane freeway; the fact that “70 percent” (and that’s a conservative estimate) of traffic on Main St. is local and thus won’t be diverted from town; that there is no medium barrier and no emergency access on the route as designed.
“There is a perception that Caltrans has refused to seriously look at other two lane alternatives,” Evans writes in a key portion of the letter. “Has the agency thoroughly examined the Baechtel Road-Railroad Avenue Corridor, a route through Willits’ eastside industrial area that was initially the focus of a 2004 community-led study funded by Caltrans? Some participants in this study say that the route is a viable alternative for through-town traffic which avoids wetlands. This route has tremendous popular support, avoids environmental problems and could save taxpayers millions of dollars in scarce transportation funds. Are there reasons why it shouldn’t be seriously examined?”
Evans’ letter is courageous given that other powerful members of her party have so far lined up in favor of the project. Rep. Mike Thompson was one of the project’s most influential cheerleaders. While 1st District Congressional Rep. Jared Huffman has yet to take a position on the project publicly, Word is that he supports it on the stated grounds that all its permits are now in order, and that the public had an opportunity to express input at the time the permits were under review (only for that input to be marginalized or ignored by CalTrans, I might add.)
Wes Chesbro, Evans’ counterpart in the State Assembly, has reportedly been preparing to make a public declaration in support of the Bypass. Sensing a dramatic shift in the political winds, he may be holding off until momentum shifts back in CalTrans’ favor (if it ever does).
Some of the subtext for Evans’ public stand, which essentially expresses opposition to the Bypass, even if it is couched as a series of questions, is the successful direct action against CalTrans’ attempt to initiate the construction phase of the project on Feb. 25th, which I described in the previous two editions of the AVA. Not only did the action delay actual construction by at least six weeks, it also punctured the sense that CalTrans is too mighty to be stopped. By stopping Big Orange in its tracks, the opposition demonstrated that its members are trenchant, effective, and actually far better informed about CalTrans’ own project than their own “public information” office.
Aside from John Pinches, who vehemently favors the Bypass, none of the Mendocino County Supervisors have taken a strong position. Supervisor John McCowen did visit the tree sit a few weeks ago, though, and even engaged The Warbler in a roughly one-hour phone conversation in which he waxed fondly about his own participation in the Redwood Summer and Headwaters forest defense campaigns of the 90s. McCowen even sent his personal copy of Julia Butterfly Hill’s autobiography, The Life Of Luna, up into the tree as a friendship offering.
Besides The Warbler, who has now been perched in her ponderosa pine for 45 days, as of this writing, the real heroes of the effort to stop the Bypass have been the birds who were building their nests right in the swath where CalTrans’ sub-contractor plowed through a vernal pool, wetlands, patches of Dutch broom, several manzanitas, and other habitat on Feb. 25th as part of its fence construction effort. According to bird experts who have since done independent survey work of the area, the species that would most likely have been constructing the nests include California Towhees, Oak Titmice, Winter Wrens, Fox Sparrows, or Anna’s Hummingbirds.
CalTrans personnel has submitted a proposed protocol for its required bird survey work, which they initially attempted to skirt around, to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. As of last report, Fish and Wildlife has not yet signed off on the protocol but is likely to any day. At that point, CalTrans must conduct a complete survey under the terms of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, after which it would be unable to begin construction for 30 days even if no active bird nests were discovered.
The new regional commander for California Highway Patrol, whose name is Lt. Effington, has visited the Warbler’s tree sit a handful of times and attempted to form some rapport with members of her ground support crew. Most recently, he informed them that he is receiving a lot of pressure to bring the tree sit to the end. He indicated that he doesn’t want to remove The Warbler from her tree, but that it is his job and he has to.
Effington offered to allow The Warbler and her supporters an area south of the tree sit along Highway 101 as a designated protest and signage display area if she would voluntarily end the tree sit. The ground supporters informed him that they would consider his offer, but that they operate by consensus and would need until the end of this week to get back to him with a response to his offer.