Tree-sitter takes activism to the next branch

Julia Hill, who’ll be speaking this week at UNR, spent two years living in a 1,000-year-old California redwood

Here’s the woman willing to put her rear end on the line—or in the branches of a tree—to preserve forests.

Here’s the woman willing to put her rear end on the line—or in the branches of a tree—to preserve forests.

Mention environmental activist Julia Hill to a knowledgeable Renoite, and you’re likely to get mixed responses. One fellow said, “Yeah, she was up in that tree for so long!” His face twisted with disgust, making me wonder why people around here dislike environmental activists so much. He continued, “But I heard that she has a house with a great big ol’ wooden deck! Who is she to tell folks to stop cuttin’ trees when she has a patio made out of wood?”

Nevada’s like that. It’s hard to find many in favor of stopping the clear-cutting of ancient forests. Just the mention of Hill or her activism on behalf of ancient forests—spending two years in a 1,000-year-old redwood dubbed “Luna"—automatically inspires contempt for some.

A drinking buddy of mine who had just finished reading former Nevada prison inmate Jimmy Lerner’s book said, “That chick is a sideways talkin’ J-cat!” He laughed and swallowed a pint of Guinness, unable to take anything seriously. “Is Luna short for lunatic? She was strained up in a tree for two years? Ha!” His sarcasm was infectious. I told him he was talking out of the side of his neck and lit a cigarette. We laughed and joked at Hill’s expense, but shouldn’t we be supporting her?

Shortly after leaving her tree-sit, Hill wrote a book, The Legacy of Luna, that tells the adventure story of her two arduous years in the tree. Julia now focuses her efforts on being the spokesperson for the Circle of Life Foundation, traveling around evangelist-style to speak and make public appearances.

“I want the world to know that the destruction happening to our environment is a direct reflection of the destruction that is happening to our lives,” Hill told me during a recent phone interview. Hill’s coming to Reno this week to lecture on regional environmental efforts and chat about her new book, One Makes the Difference. The book includes Hill’s advice on how to “promote change and improve the health of the planet, distilled into an essential handbook.”

On Dec. 10, 1997, near Garberville, Calif., Julia Hill went up into Luna, and her feet didn’t touch the ground again for about two years—738 days, to be exact. Her goal was to help make the world aware of the plight of ancient forests.

She had help on the ground from a support team that kept her supplied with food and books and carried away her “refuse” for two years. This was not an effortless task. The tree was on private property owned by Pacific Lumber Co., which employed a staff of security thugs whose primary duty was to spray Mace and discourage activists like Hill. They were well-funded by their corporate bosses, and generally, the corporate guys had the support of the local population, many of whom depended on the logging industry for their paychecks.

From her tree-sit, Hill stayed in contact with the world by way of cellular phone and the occasional visitor. She lived on a wooden platform attached to the upper branches, approximately 200 feet off the ground. She protected herself from the savage weather and the Pacific Lumber helicopters that frequently buzzed her roost with plastic tarps. Bathroom duties were performed with a funnel and a bucket.

Life up in the tree wasn’t easy. While still in the tree, Hill was quoted as saying, “Every time I think I’ve got it under control, something else happens.” Living in the tree was demanding and unrewarding. “If I’d known what I know now, I probably would have run screaming in the opposite direction going, ‘Nooo! I can’t do that!’ “

Hill persevered, and her gritty determination won her international coverage in the alternative media. Soon well-known supporters came to visit—people like Woody Harrelson, who actually spent the night on the ground beneath the tree.

Corporate media outlets and their advertisers salivate at the sight of a titillating story—and a little controversy never hurts. So it wasn’t long before Hill’s face was seen in places like CNN, Time magazine and USA Today. Dozens of mainstream media sources began to give time to her story. The awareness that she was hoping to share with the world was finally becoming a reality, even if it was being presented as a quirky human-interest story.

California’s governor expressed full support of Julia’s position to stop the clear-cutting of ancient forests. Reps from the state of California and the lumber companies negotiated for an amicable settlement to the dispute. The resulting Headwaters Agreement preserved a portion of the remaining 3 percent of the ancient forest, including Julia’s tree, Luna, and created a buffer zone of approximately three acres.

John Campbell of Pacific Lumber had this to say: “I think the key part of our reaching this decision is her own safety. We’re concerned about her health and welfare, as we have been from the very beginning.” He didn’t mention the day-and-night harassment efforts—loudspeakers, spotlights—or the Pacific Lumber helicopters that flew overhead, in violation of FAA regulations.

Since the Headwaters Agreement, Pacific Lumber, owned by Maxxam Inc., has shut down at least two of its nearby mills, reporting a negative cash flow totaling more than $200 million. The mill closures will cause the loss of approximately 140 jobs. In February of this year, Maxxam’s stock hit a 10-year low.

On Dec. 18, 1999, Hill finally came down out of the tree to the open arms and teary eyes of her fellow activists. She knelt and, as you might imagine, kissed the ground at the base of the giant redwood. "I understand to some people I’m just a dirty, tree-hugging hippie," she said. "But I can’t imagine being able to take a chainsaw to something like this."