Save Little Lake Valley

Stop the Caltrans Willits Bypass!

Since late-May, opponents of CalTrans’ Willits Bypass have conducted four occupations of the wetlands area where Big Orange’s construction contractors are installing 80-foot drainage tubes, or “wick drains.”  The initial three of these non-violent direct actions delayed the wick drain installation for anywhere from 90 minutes to a full day.

More recently, there have been two blockades of trucks hauling soil to fill in the Little Lake wetlands.  The resistance was previously best known for tree sits, but it branched out into various other tactics since shortly after The Warbler’s tree sit began in January.

First, a note on the impact these actions have exerted on the Bypass construction.  Most notable is that they have created the political space for people to envision and work toward a different outcome, even though CalTrans is already in the process of destroying a large swath of Little Lake Valley to put in the freeway.  This transformation of the political climate impacts everything from the stances taken by elected officials, to the attitudes of judges who preside over ongoing litigation concerning the Bypass, to the attitudes and activities of people who live in Willits and would thereby be most affected by the Bypass.

Direct actions also slow the construction of the Bypass, putting stress on CalTrans and its contractors, who are under deadlines with the project.  For example, not only did the occupation of the wick drain stitcher entirely immobilize the tower Will was on for 11 and a half days; it also put the other stitcher out of commission for at least one extra working day after he and another climber attach a truck rope traverse line between each of the machines. It is estimated that there are currently around 3,000 fewer wick drains in Little Lake Valley than there would be had it not been for the occupation.  Taking into account their cumulative impact, delays like these can translate into far-reaching consequences political consequences, while helping buy time for the ecosystems that are at stake.

Jan. 28th (Direct Action Begins)– Willits resident Amanda Senseman begins a tree sit in the path of the planned Bypass’ southern interchange area.  She adopts the nickname “Warbler,” beginning an ongoing tradition of tree sitters being christened with bird monikers.  The tree sit is located in a ponderosa pine just off of the existing Highway 101, at mile marker 43.74.  It is about two miles south of town, less than half a mile south of the entrance to Walker Rd.   Roughly 50 people turn out for a rally at the base of Warbler’s tree.

Warbler’s tree sit galvanizes on-the-ground resistance to the Bypass, also generating widespread scrutiny of the project.  Among other media coverage, Warbler is the subject of front-page articles in the Santa Rosa Press Democrat and the Sacramento Bee.

Feb. 25th (Delaying The Start of Construction) CalTrans officially begins construction activities when their sub-contractor, Arrow Fencing, begins installing so-called “Environmentally Sensitive Area” (ESA) fencing to mark off the construction area.  Under the banner of Little Lake Valley Defenders, a group of people blocks the path of the t-post stake driver that is installing the fencing.  Meanwhile, some members of the opposition detect bird nests in the brush that CalTrans has already plowed to make way for the fencing and reports the discovery to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW). Big Orange has failed to conduct bird habitat surveys of the area as required by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, so the CDFW shuts down work for the day.  CalTrans and their contractors are sent home after completing only about two hours of work.

Feb. 26th to March 20th (Ongoing Blockades) – Little Lake Valley Defenders and Earth First!blockade efforts to clear brush and construct fencing four additional times. In every case, the California Highway Patrol is called out to manage the protests, but they decline to make any arrests.  Thus, for the first four weeks of official construction activities, CalTrans fails to make any significant progress with its construction of the Bypass.

March 17th (Second and Third Tree Sits) 
Little Lake Valley Defenders and Earth First! install two new tree sits in a grove of roughly 30 mature ponderosa pine trees off of East Hill Rd., near DripWorks. The tree sitters go by the names “Celsius” and “Caspian.”  Their platforms end up being nearly 100 feet off the ground.

March 21st (CHP Occupation and Construction Begin) More than 50 CHP officers, many from the San Francisco Bay Area and the Central Valley, stage a highly coordinated disruption ofprotesters’ activities, complete with a check-point on East Hill Rd. and creation of a CHP command post with a satellite communications unit at the CalTrans engineering office in town.  Four people are arrested for trespassing near The Warbler’s tree.  On the same day, CalTrans begins cutting trees and removing other vegetation in earnest.  CHP sets up a 24-hour guard at the base of the trees to deny food and water to the tree sitters.  Nearly 30 CHP officers remain on hand for the next week to guard the construction effort.

March 26th (Direct Action Arrests Continue) – Four people, including three Willtis residents and one Redwood Valley resident, are arrested after walking into the area where CalTrans contractor Atlas Tree Surgery is felling oak trees near The Warbler’s tree and holding out a piece of Caution tape.  The disruption of tree cutting lasts about 20 minutes.

March 28th and 30th (Fourth and Fifth Tree Sits) — 
Despite the CHP’s presence, the Bypass opposition installs two new tree sits near The Warbler.  First, Falcon’s tree sit begins in the early morning of March 28th in a large, old oak tree on top of the hill directly across Highway 101 from Warbler.  CalTrans intends to remove much of this hill to use as fill dirt for their freeway. After a few days in the tree, Falcon identifies a white-breasted nuthatch nest in a tree adjacent to his, causing it initially to be marked off for protection by Caltrans biologists, but they fell the trees anyway soon after.  Second, on March 30th, tree sitter Eagle scales a several hundred-year-old oak tree only about 150 yards from The Warbler’s tree, draping a banner that reads “Save The Old Growth.”