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The Bird vs. the Bypass: Tree-Sitter Fights Mendocino Highway Project

| March 12, 2013
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By Deborah Svoboda

If you want to talk face-to-face to Warbler, you have to be OK with heights.

Warbler, the name adopted by a 24-year-old farmer, is living indefinitely in a ponderosa pine on the southern outskirts of Willits, up in Mendocino County. She’s been up in the tree since the end of January to try to block construction of a four-lane, six-mile, $290 million highway bypass around town.

A couple weeks back, I drove north on U.S. 101 through Marin and Sonoma counties and up into Mendocino to interview Warbler (also known as Amanda Senseman) for a journalism class assignment. I brought along a camera (I’m a photojournalist first) and sound recording equipment (which I was just learning to use). And when I got to Warbler’s tree, and she agreed that it was OK, I climbed the 71 feet to her platform–”two rooms,” she calls it–overlooking 101.

Why is she up there?

To build the bypass, Caltrans will need to cut down trees along the superhighway-size right-of-way, and that could harm migratory bird species. It will need to fill wetlands along the route, the construction could impact spawning streams for endangered coho salmon and steelhead.

The agency has planned the bypass for decades, and says it’s necessary to allow through traffic to avoid the bottleneck of downtown Willits, where U.S. 101 narrows to two lanes. There’s debate about whether there’s enough traffic through town to justify the project and whether diverting traffic away from downtown will help or hurt the local economy. But Caltrans spokesperson Phil Frisbie Jr. says that as the state’s economy rebounds, “Traffic volumes will increase, both for commerce, and people will go out and they’ll vacation more, so the need for the bypass as things recover is going to be felt even greater.”

For years, bypass opponents have held meetings, proposed alternatives, written letters and protested. Last May, environmental groups sued Caltrans to halt the project. They failed to win an injunction, and the case is scheduled for trial this June.

The transportation agency was scheduled to start work along the right-of-way in late January–and that’s when Warbler climbed her tree. After six weeks of cold, snow, rain, and some harassment, she’s got no intention of coming down.

“People talk a lot about my jobless hippie self up here, but this is my job, this is all of our jobs, because our system has failed to do theirs,” she says.

The most difficult thing about living out in the open, seven stories off the ground? Well, there’s the constant highway noise, for one. And then there’s the wind. “I get motion sickness from being up in the tree,” she laughs. “It’s kind of a lot like being on a boat, just constant movement.”

Warbler’s favorite part of this experience? “The people that I have been living with and see every day in this valley, and all of a sudden I’m seeing in a different light, and we’re all coming together to support each other, and that is really the most inspiring thing.”

For now, work on the project has been stopped by some real birds. Caltrans and the state Department of Fish and Wildlife are conferring on what to do about nesting birds that have appeared in the construction zone during Warbler’s tree-sit.

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Category: Environment, Transportation

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  • 7 Barks

    Praise for Warbler. She is right. She sees what is really happening and wants the rest of us to open our eyes, and say NO. The big box stores want that roadway widened to accommodate their massive trucks transporting their junk, seems like those trees are in their way. Most of us are too lazy and just hope that somebody else will take on these “job muckers” as they destroy this planet in their greedy pursuit of MONEY. Just follow the money, and you will see who is behind this destructive road project. Tourism?….please. A nation of lazy sheep. Baaah…..

    • bored official

      Do you even know what you’re talking about? What’s the real issue, the environment or corporations? Are you anti-progress and anti-free market? Rather than suggesting anything viable alternatives you just incoherently ramble about money.

  • http://www.facebook.com/john.wagenet John Wagenet

    An excellent article by Deb Svoboda. I was at the tree sit during the time she was here and we were able to discuss the proposed bypass. A couple of points I would like to add: The lawsuit was filed by The Center For Biodiversity which has a 90 plus percent rate of success in their lawsuites. The Mendocino Chapter of the Sierra Club and The Willits Environmental Center are also part of the lawsuit. The California Farm Bureau, joined the lawsuit when it learned of the extreme loss of agricultural land due to wetlands mitigation. So, this is not a lawsuit by just environmental groups but includes, what I would consider a conservative group, The California State Farm Bureau. This is premature, but this Thursday it is highly likely that the Willits Chapter of the Grange will pass a resolution opposing the bypass as well.
    You may hear one of the new protest songs and see a few pictures by searching Jand Band on youtube.

  • Yancy Picklefeather

    I bet I can guess what she “farms.”

    • Howard R. Finch – God Bless!

      I think she farms the drugs.

      • FINE GREEN FARMS

        IT IS JUST A PLANT HOWARD WHO ARE YOU TO JUDGE FOR SHAAME

      • Liebe

        She’s a goat farmer.

  • William M Popper

    Thank You Warbler for your integrity, personal courage and dedication to protecting and preserving what is important to the local community and not succumbing to the proposed highway road widening. Could not motor vehicle operators be required to reduce vehicle speed so ingress and egress can be achieved without multi million dollar expense to the tax paying public. What about the lack of funding for essential human services which are constantly under duress and scrutiny? Public tax funds for people and not freeway expansion and “improvement” we need to slow vehicle traffic down too many people killed and injured each day as it is.

  • Wolf Thistle-Dolphyn

    Forget about the bypass, Willits itself should be bulldozed down to make room for a larger highway. Then we let nature reclaim the rest of town and become a forest paradise! The people of Willits can then all live in trees like ewoks.

    • Kite Tempest

      Have we looked at how much trauma and damage warbler is doing to the tree she currently resides in? It can’t be completely harmless to the creature to build a tree fort in it. Plus I find it offensive that she used wood at all for the fort. It’s like tree cannibalism.

    • Wiener Snitch-owl

      Is there film of her peeing of

  • Johnny Krandle

    Clearly the bypass should happen – 60 years in, it is time for progress to finally reach Willits. The traffic in town is intolerable – why should main street be 101, and why should it take 45 minutes to cross town during peak traffic?

    Heavy duty transport traffic should not pass through a small town’s main drag anyway. Get the project done, quickly, and call it good.

    Everyone can look to more important matters – like what they’re going to do when pot is inevitably legalized, market forces drop the black market pricing, and they have to get real jobs.

    • caution balance

      Thank you for an actual insightful, coherent comment, you really don’t know how much I appreciate this. Seriously though, growers don’t want legalization because marijuana will be about as valuable as, oh say, corn.

  • Kern Foost

    They’ll pull her down via injunction and get this project back on track. Let’s get started – these constant delays are madness. Every other alternative was investigated by Caltrans and found lacking – literally SO much due diligence was done, as was appropriate, before the final plan of action was approved.

    I for one am excited about the fix to traffic. HWY 20 traffic is a tiny amount compared to 101 – and the people saying there won’t be an improvement clearly don’t fully grasp the situation.

    Next up (hopefully): carve a new path up Sherwood, which safety sorely requires with the amount of people living up there.

  • Doug Pate

    Tree sitter is one of the best jobs people can get in Willits.

    • Cougar Anthony Reese

      My fear of heights precludes me from such lucrative endeavours, but anyone wishing to fund my small firm, ShrubSittery – Keep CA Shrubbed, we have one full time shrub sitter available to mess up any kind of construction you have in shrub-lands.

  • Whisper Shanahan

    Its often left out of stories like these, but the tree sitter cannot do what they do alone. They need a whole family of other people to provide them food, changes of clothing, and removal of feces (if this is not done the waste can pile up around the tree and actually hurt it). While Warblers stand is heroic, lets take a moment to recognize the many other humble heroes that remove her poo.

    • Oren Ludmark

      I for one would like to know if the platform in the tree is made from sustainable materials, or if, per the photo, is in fact just standard lumber.

      • Todd Lumpkis

        If only there had been a tree sitter in that tree too it might have been saved :(

        • Lex

          The wood for Warbler’s platforms were previously used and donated, and one must remember that this is not about one tree, nor one forest. This is about several ecosystems in addition to the economy, and common sense. It’s much easier to criticize and nit-pik one aspect of an issue than it is to actually think about the full range and depth of the situation.

  • Sam Mantooth

    Can I protest the bypass by eating at Chick-fil-a or something? I only like the protests where I get to eat stuff.

    • Big Ben Wessler

      Maybe you can eat a huge Exhaust Burger, marinated over an hour in the idling big rig traffic driving through Willits’s mainstreet.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1263701172 Jennifer Poole

    those who doubt the traffic problem in Willits is mostly local traffic (as Caltrans’ own traffic/destination study done for the bypass shows), here’s a link to Caltrans’ web cam 1 mile north of WIllits. http://www.dot.ca.gov/dist1/d1tmc/1_cam.php?cam=27

    Pictures posted by Caltrans at least every hour show an empty or almost empty highway almost all of the time. This is the through traffic (well, some of it, some of these vehicles will stop in Willits for lunch or gas even if a bypass a built) that Caltrans is spending millions of taxpayer dollars to relieve.

    • Geraldo Pinto

      Well once that reaches a single lane each way in Willits, backs up pretty mightily doesn’t it.

      • Jeb Quelman

        Well hold right there Geraldo, we oughta find a middle ground.

        Howe about this – they change the speedlimit on 101 mainstreet to 75 MPH, and build a series of utilitarian sky bridges over the street for foot traffic, caged in for safety with chain link fence.

        Tarffic blazes through, people can walk, sky bridges don’t affect the various grasses.

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1263701172 Jennifer Poole

        I just looked at the web cam, it’s 5:28 on a commute day and there are literally no vehicles shown. So, no, in fact that traffic doesn’t “back up pretty mightily” at all. There is a traffic problem in Willits. It’s a local traffic problem, and a bypass, especially without a midtown interchange, won’t fix that problem. The reality is what Willits needs is a second through route on the edge of town, a “truck route” we’d call it back East, for local and through drivers intent on avoiding the stoplights and many crosswalks that do slow down even the smallest amount of in-town traffic. The traffic bottleneck northbound before Highway 20 could be “mightily resolved” with a $100,000 (Caltrans estimate) restripe to use the almost always empty middle lane as a second, left lane all the way to the light, for vehicles turning left/west on Highway 20.

        • Sanjay Prince

          So what you’re suggesting Jennifer instead of a bypass you think there should be a ‘through’ route for trucks and cars that want to ‘bypass’ the town… Sounds awfully like a bypass to me…

          • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1263701172 Jennifer Poole

            Exactly. A reasonable bypass, like the alternatives locals have been suggesting for 15 years, with egress/access for locals so it’s usable by locals, and that will serve through traffic, too. Not an overbuilt and expensive Caltrans bypass that is far more than the traffic will ever require, and doesn’t help solve the local traffic problem. Even Caltrans projections (which assume increased traffic every year, although a study done more a few years ago for another project showed 20 percent less traffic than in Caltrans’ 1998/99 study, let alone no increase every year, yes the economy will come back we hope, but gas will NEVER get back down to the $1.25 to $1.40 it was back then), anyway, even Caltrans’ overstated projections say it will be 80 years before the traffic reaches a level that will demand a bypass like the one Caltrans has designed. So all of that for what? To waste taxpayers money to keep Caltrans busy? Office of Legislative Analyst reports that Caltrans planning department is overstaffed. They’re going to build the “footprint” — clear and fill — for a 4-lane bypass even though they only have funding to build a 2 lane bypass, with not much likelihood of ever getting the expansion funding, thus doing the largest “take” of wetlands for 50 years in N. CA, where there are 5 salmon spawning streams, streams IDd in the EIR as critical habitat for salmon, that feed the longest Coho salmon run in California: Ryan Creek/Outlet Creek/Eel River. This is a boondoggle, there are better alternatives, that actually would fix Willits’ traffic problem, as well as providing for through traffic, too. These are Prop. 1B monies, that CA taxpayers are paying.

  • Naomi Wagner

    Northbound traffic through Willits backs up at the bottleneck by Safeway and the RxR tracks just before the because, instead of addressing the problem at the Highway 20 intersection, Caltrans striped the lanes down to one plus a turn lane and gave up its options to the gas station and the Willits arch. Then they played “let’s you and him fight’ so you’d sit there and scream: “give us a Bypass”. We’ve all been chumped and only the contractors (mostly from out of area and State) will benefit.

    If Caltrans had done their bird surveys correctly in the first place this delay now wouldn’t be happening. How can we trust them with a whole wetland/woodland ecosystem when they can’t even see the birds?

  • Jeb Plimpton

    I thought Willits had a bypass? I stop there every time I go I Granzellas on my way to Shasta.

    • http://twitter.com/danbrekke Dan Brekke

      Williams. You’re thinking of Williams.

      • Jeb Plimpton

        Does Willits have a Granzellas too? Maybe that’s why Williams needed the bypass.

  • http://www.facebook.com/emeraldtrianglenews Emerald Triangle

    SAY NO to the Willits Bypass! Maximum Mess and destruction and no
    highway 20 interchange, if your going to the coast via Hwy 20 you will
    still have to pass through town as there are no other on or off ramps
    except at the North and South interchange.
    Study after study has proven this bypass will not be an effective
    solution to local traffic. The traffic in Willits is mostly our own…..
    Save Little Lake Valley for our children, for the Wild Tule Elk, for
    the Chinook Salmon, for the deer and rabbit. The community of Willits
    doesn’t want this bypass….. Listen to the locals! If Caltrans
    doesn’t listen we will invite the world to protest this destruction! Get
    ready…. Caltrans fencing Contractors Arrow fencing was turned back
    today! They will be back out there on East Hill road at dripworks trying
    to create their “Active Construction Zone” which will be even harder to
    protect under Ca state law……

  • Spire

    xlnt article and pics. Warbler is a warrior. Thanks for getting the word out. It is crucial. CalTrans is a big machine.

    • lonesome dove

      Yes, an armchair warrior, so brave sitting in a tree. I’m surprised people don’t tie themselves to carrots and broccoli since they’re essentially the same as a tree. It’s obvious you know everything there is to know about how something like caltrans works, maybe you would be so kind as to bestow a new route for the millions of vehicles to drive upon, oh wise master of the world.

      • Spire

        i do but fuqueoff anyway. must be terrible to be you, to have to look in the mirror. good luck.