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Willits tree-sitters forcibly removed from protest spots

California Highway Patrol officers search a tree-sitter who was pulled from a tree south of Willits by a cherry picker, Tuesday April 2, 2013.

KENT PORTER/ PD
Published: Tuesday, April 2, 2013 at 9:24 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, April 3, 2013 at 7:39 a.m.

WILLITS -- Dozens of CHP officers broke up a nine-week protest Tuesday over construction of a controversial Highway 101 bypass outside Willits, forcibly removing demonstrators who climbed high into trees and refused to leave in a bid to halt the project.

Officers fired bean-bag projectiles to subdue at least one of the activists as enraged supporters looked on, drawing howls of protest at the construction site and consternation in the state Capitol over how and why the action was launched.

Five tree-sitters and three demonstrators on the ground were arrested during the operation, which began shortly after dawn and lasted most of the day.

The confrontation was an echo of the massive timber-cutting protests of 1990, known as the Redwood Summer, that swept across the North Coast and drew thousands of activists.

The Willits protest, in comparison, is much more tightly focused. Environmentalists contend the 6-mile Highway 101 bypass around Willits will destroy sensitive grassland, wetlands and second-growth tree stands. Some merchants and residents of Willits also oppose the bypass, but in large part out of fear of economic losses to the community.

The incident, initially reported as involving rubber bullets, drew condemnation from state Sen. Noreen Evans, who had scheduled a meeting Tuesday afternoon with Caltrans Director Malcolm Dougherty because of growing concerns from constituents about the impact of the bypass.

Evans, D-Santa Rosa, said she was "shocked" and "upset" to learn about the situation shortly before her meeting and vowed to find out how the decision was made to advance on the protesters despite her efforts to mediate. The CHP had pledged to defer action on demonstrators unless a court order was in hand, she said.

"They literally bulldozed their way through the protesters in a very aggressive manner, removing the ability to try to mediate the issue and try to smooth things over," a furious Evans said late Tuesday.

CHP Commissioner Joe Farrow, who was in Los Angeles for the day, said he was similarly taken by surprise.

"I did know that we were working on a plan," Farrow said. "We were trying to work out the best way to resolve this issue without having to remove people."

But "somewhere along the way, the decision was made to remove them," he said.

A large contingent of CHP officers, mostly SWAT members from around the state wearing riot helmets, arrived at the construction site early Tuesday morning to evict the growing group of tree-sitters, who were employing a tactic used by environmental activists to block timber harvests in Mendocino County in the early 1990s.

The CHP detachment included specially trained and equipped climbers who scrambled up some of the trees to confront demonstrators. Other officers were lifted into the branches by cherry pickers to extract protesters. Though none of the five tree-sitters climbed out voluntarily, most were eventually brought down without incident, CHP spokesman Steve Krul said.

Two tree-sitters used ropes to move between adjacent trees in an effort to evade arrest, pelting officers with human feces and urine, Krul said. One of the protesters, Martin Katz, was shot with bean-bag projectiles when he grabbed at one of the officers who wasn't secured in a cherry picker bucket raised high into the tree, Krul said. A CHP officer in an adjacent cherry picker fired the projectiles to halt the altercation and prevent the other officer and Katz from falling, Krul said.

Supporters on the ground were incensed and frightened, and began shouting profanities at the officers as they wrestled with the man in the branches. Some witnesses thought they were hearing live bullets, said Matt Callaghan, 41, one of those in the crowd of what he said was 40 or 50 people. Eight or nine shots rang out over about five minutes, he said.

Callaghan said he overheard Katz later tell his wife, also a protester, that he'd been hit in both thighs and his gut, but was headed for medical evaluation before being booked at the Mendocino County Jail.

It remained unclear which CHP and Caltrans officials determined the time to make a move had arrived.

But District 1 Caltrans spokesman Phil Frisbie said crews clearing trees and brush from the southernmost segment of the construction zone could proceed no further with the tree-sitters in their path.

Further delays also increased the likelihood that bird-nesting season would interfere with tree removal, preventing Caltrans from taking advantage of a relatively dry spring and moving forward with construction, he said.

"We notified them about a week-and-a-half ago, these two sets of tree-sitters, that they were trespassing and that they could leave at any time without being arrested if they wanted to leave of their own accord."

But, by the weekend, "we could do no more work safely with those two sets of tree-sitters in those trees," he said.

Those arrested for trespassing, a misdemeanor, included Amanda Senseman, 24, of Willits, also known as Warbler, who climbed into a large ponderosa pine off Highway 101 on Jan. 28 and had remained in the tree since. She reportedly had been on a hunger strike since Thursday.

In addition to Katz, the other tree-sitters were identified as Travis Jochimsen, 30, of Lancaster; Mark Herbert, 52, of Willits; and Gean Weilbach, whose age and hometown were not available, Krul said.

Three other demonstrators were arrested on the ground when they tried to block state vehicles, officials said. They were identified as Sara Grusky, William Parrish and Scott Tenney.

All but one of the five tree-sitters and three others demonstrators arrested on the ground Tuesday were cited and ordered to appear in court.

The nine-week protest already has succeeded in directing attention to concern about the environmental impact of the $210 million project -- the first phase of what eventually is intended as a four-lane, 5.9-mile route around the town of Willits.

In its initial phase, only the two southbound lanes will be built to be used in the early years as a two-lane highway, Frisbie said.

But the overall project has to be built to four lanes to meet with Federal Highway Traffic Administration approval for funding, based on a projected increase in traffic and the level of traffic the federal agency is prepared to accept.

What started as opposition based primarily on the environmental effect of the project on wetlands, salmon-bearing streams, birds, trees and other wildlife has grown to include larger questions about traffic projections, the likely availability of funding for four full lanes and, ultimately, the need for the bypass.

Environmental lawsuits by a coalition of agencies are still pending against the project, and, in the meantime, a broader group of ranchers, business owners, regular citizens and others have questioned the plan, Evans said.

"There seems to be a growing awareness of the environmental impact of the project, as well as the minimal positive impacts, and that's really what my analysis was designed to understand," said Evans, who hasn't yet taken a position on the bypass. "What's the cost-benefit here? More and more people seem to be questioning the wisdom of the project."

But Evans said any substantive conversation about the project itself was tabled when she learned about the unfolding events of Tuesday.

"My whole approach to this was to ask some more questions and collect some data," she said. "Now that it's become a flashpoint in the community, with this latest operation, I have to really assess what's happened until I can take the situation any further."

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 521-5249 or mary.callahan @pressdemocrat.com.

You can reach Staff Writer Melody Karpinski at 521-5205 or melody.karpinski@pressdemocrat.com.

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