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GOLIS: Protesters taking a bough

A CHP officer on Tuesday helps protester Mark Herbert down from a tree he had been inhabiting along Highway 101 south of Willits.

KENT PORTER / The Press Democrat
Published: Sunday, April 7, 2013 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, April 7, 2013 at 8:35 a.m.

After California Highway Patrol officers arrested eight people, including five tree sitters, at a Willits highway construction site last week, state CHP Commissioner Joe Farrow told reporters that the intervention was news to him.

Here was a startling admission. An assignment that involves helmeted officers climbing trees, riding cherry pickers and arresting people 70 feet in the air doesn't sound like another day at the office. If I were the boss of the CHP — you need to use your imagination here — I would want to know before my officers began an operation certain to generate controversy.

Two days after the arrests, state officials still hadn't explained why the crackdown on the 9-week-old protest needed to happen on this day.

Most elected officials chose to keep their opinions to themselves, but state Sen. Noreen Evans, D-Santa Rosa, was not among them.

The CHP and Caltrans decided to stage the intervention on the same day Evans was scheduled to discuss the Willits highway bypass with Caltrans Director Malcolm Dougherty, and she was not happy about it.

“I'm shocked and dismayed at what seems to be an excessive use of force on unarmed protesters,” Evans' press release said. (And, yes, she did say “shocked and dismayed.”)

The press release posted on her official website doesn't mention that one protester was arrested for assault after allegedly flinging human feces and urine at the arresting officers. (Sorry if you were eating breakfast.)

In the showdown at Willits, you will recognize two North Coast political traditions — tree-sitting as a form of protest and squabbling over the routing of a new highway.

The people who were arrested are trying to stop construction of the long-planned, $210 million Highway 101

bypass around Willits.

No one doubts their dedication. Sitting in trees for days on end is nobody's idea of a good time.

Their arrests are, of course, the price of civil disobedience. You're welcome to demonstrate your opposition, and you're welcome to spend a few hours or a few days in the local slammer.

As with every protest involving civil disobedience, whether you approve of their tactics probably depends on whether you think the Willits bypass is a good idea. Some will cast the tree sitters as heroes, and some will cast them as misguided zealots.

The protesters say the project threatens second-growth trees, wetlands and wildlife habitat.

And they've found common ground with some local residents who worry that steering traffic around Willits will be bad for business.

This is how it goes with highway realignments. When the work is done, the good news is there will be less traffic in the downtown, and the bad news is there will be less traffic in the downtown.

Fifty-one miles south of Willits, Cloverdale merchants complained about a loss of business after Highway 101 began bypassing their downtown.

But a few miles south of Cloverdale, there was a different outcome. As Press Democrat letter writer Jeanne King reminded us last week, Healdsburg wouldn't be Healdsburg if the traffic on Highway 101 still rumbled through the middle of town. (In recent days, Healdsburg has been listed among the best small towns in America, and the Healdsburg Plaza has been named one of the most beautiful town squares in the country.)

So, would Willits be like Cloverdale or Healdsburg?

And another question: How do we weigh local concerns against regional needs?

Sacramento Bee columnist Dan Walters, who once toiled as a newspaper editor in Eureka, pointed out last year that Willits remains one of three major bottlenecks on 101 between San Francisco and the Oregon border.

Up the road, people who depend on 101 for tourism and economic development, or who simply want to get from here to there, don't like being stuck in traffic in downtown Willits on a hot summer afternoon.

By the way, these disagreements over highway realignment are nothing new.

When the state began extending the freeway north from San Francisco, it wanted to locate Highway 101 west of Santa Rosa, but nervous downtown merchants lobbied for the current location.

The decision to divide the downtown with a freeway became a decision that Santa Rosans will always regret.

In the aftermath of last week's arrests, some will conclude that the two sides could have worked out their differences without a confrontation, and some will conclude that the protesters would have never given up.

Life is complicated, isn't it? Most of us drive cars, live in houses made of wood and wish for the prosperity made possible by transportation improvements — even as we complain about highways, the logging of trees and the removal of trees in the path of highway construction.

Welcome to California, where protests sometimes lead to better outcomes and sometimes lead to nothing at all.

Pete Golis is a columnist for The Press Democrat. Email him at golispd@gmail.com.

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