Julia 'Butterfly' Hill Made Redwoods a Global Issue

Julia Butterfly Hill up a tree | Photo: ideecontagiose,  some rights reserved

The late 1990s were a contentious time in California's redwood forests. The epidemic of Wall Street leveraged buyouts that started in the Reagan years had hit the redwoods hard, as trees more than a thousand years old were cut to pay off junk bond obligations. By 1997 fewer than five percent of the ancient redwoods that California had boasted a century before still remained, and most of that five percent was on the chopping block.

Eventually, the rampant pace of logging slowed, mainly because the logging companies had pretty much run out of old trees to cut down. But thanks to the efforts of environmentalist activists, a few groves of ancient trees were spared. Those activists had spent more than a decade to stop the accelerating clearcuts of old-growth redwood trees. They'd used lawsuits and petitions. They'd tried to use the state's initiative process. They'd used demonstrations and education and direct action.

But the tactic that got the most attention in the late 1990s was the tree-sit, in which activists would haul themselves up into trees threatened by the chainsaw and refuse to leave. And though dozens of people participated in tree-sits at significant risk to their safety, one woman became synonymous with the tactic: the mediagenic Julia 'Butterfly' Hill, the subject of our fourth profile of California environmentalist women for International Women's Day.

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A bit of context: In 1986, corporate raider Charles Hurwitz, an associate of junk bond trader Michael Milken, snagged the Scotia, CA-based company Pacific Lumber. PL had been a North Coast institution for a century, logging redwoods slowly enough that it would likely be considered a sustainable forester by today's standards. Its extensive holdings of redwood forests were an insurance policy: logged a little at a time, they'd keep the company and its employees afloat for decades.  

But when Hurwitz's company Maxxam bought PL, those redwood trees became merely an asset to be liquidated to pay off Hurwitz's junk bond debt. PL stepped up the pace of logging significantly, threatening untouched ancient groves like the now-famous Headwaters Forest. But though Headwaters got the press attention, other places in the Redwood Belt were being clearcutted just as aggressively.

One of those places was on PL-held land above the town of Stafford, a Humboldt County timber town on the banks of the Eel River. Stafford was the kind of place where loyalty to the timber industry was pretty fierce. That changed when PL logged a steep, "nearly vertical" slope above the town, not only removing the forest cover but carving logging roads into the earth. During heavy rains on December 31, 1996 and January 1, 1997 the hillside gave way, burying much of the town. There were no deaths, but residents suffered catastrophic damages; seven houses were destroyed and more damaged severely. A few days later, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection approved another clearcut on the hill right next to the spot where the slide had originated.

Suddenly, the residents of Stafford were feeling a little more welcoming of the motley group of forest activists trying to save a strip of remaining old growth above the clearcuts that started the slide. One tree in particular, a 300-footer called the Stafford Giant, estimated at around 1,800 years of age, suddenly sprouted a pair of six-by-six sleeping platforms 180 feet up in its branches. The tree-sit had begin.

By the time Julia Butterfly Hill, showed up in Stafford, the treesitters had been up in the Stafford Giant for a few weeks. Hill, daughter of a traveling minister from the Southeastern United States who took the nickname 'Butterfly' at age seven, had been on the Generation X success fast track when she was nearly killed in a car wreck at age 22. Hill was driving a car that was hit by a drunk driver; the steering wheel smashed her skull, and it took some months of physical therapy before she could walk and talk normally again.

The extended convalescence — ten months in total — gave her time to think. "The steering wheel in my head, both figuratively and literally, steered me in a new direction in my life," she told the Washington Post in 2009.

That new direction brought her, as it did many other young people, to Northern California's redwood country, where she heard of the need for relief Stafford Giant tree-sitters at a rally. She volunteered, expecting a two-week gig. Hill climbed up to the platforms on December 10, 1997. 

She would stay in the tree — dubbed "Luna" — for 738 days. It was more than two years later, in late December 1999, that she finally came back down.

It wasn't a picnic. The first few weeks of Hill's residency in Luna were dangerous and uncomfortable. Winter El Niño storms blew through the forest, threatening to pitch Hill off the platform to the forest floor nearly 200 feet below. One particularly violent gust nearly succeeded, and Hill saved her own life by grabbing a branch at just the right moment.

It didn't take long for alternative media journalists to notice what would now be called the "visuals" of Hill's tree-sit. She was articulate. The camera liked her, a striking and telegenic mystic seemingly as ethereal as the fogs that wreathed Luna's branches. Within weeks, filmmakers were hauling cameras up into Luna's branches to interview Hill. Earthfilms' James Ficklin and Penelope Andrews were among them, and their video embedded here offers a fascinating glimpse into Hill's life in Luna.

Hill's new role as redwood rockstar didn't always sit well with other activists. Media focus on Hill, who hadn't been involved in the redwoods campaign before climbing Luna, often downplayed the existence of hundreds of other committed activists in the campaign to save the redwoods. Groups ranging from Earth First! to the Environmental Protection Information Center, which had been doing much of the heavy lifting in redwood issues for years, often went unmentioned in media coverage of Hill. While many were unwilling to criticize Hill given her undeniable bravery and tenacity in the arms of Luna, some criticism did arise over the settlement between Hill and Pacific Lumber that ended her treesit in 1999, in which Hill paid PL $50,000 for the tree, and won the right to visit Luna in perpetuity on private land from which others were barred. Some of that criticism was scathing.

But Hill wasn't an expert tactician; in the decade and a half since, her activist role has tended more toward sage than strategist. Julia 'Butterfly' Hill arguably saved Luna, with the help of unsung activists who did ground support and legal outreach. She also brought a human, sympathetic face to the concept of civil disobedience in defense of the earth. 

And that may prove to be a contribution as enduring as the tree she lived in for 738 days.

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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