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(Video, Photos) Tree Sitter ‘Warbler’ Goes on a Hunger Strike

| March 29, 2013
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by Deborah Svoboda

Warbler announces a hunger strike. (Deborah Svobada/KQED)

Warbler announces a hunger strike. (Deborah Svobada/KQED)

After camping out in a ponderosa pine 71 feet above the ground for two months,  ”Warbler” has not achieved her goal of blocking a Highway 101 bypass around the Mendocino County town of Willits. Now she is trying a hunger strike.

On Thursday the 24-year-old, whose real name is Amanda Senseman, lowered her remaining bags of food to a waiting police officer who searched the bags and then gave them to protesters at the site.

Warbler said she will drink broth for the next two days and then move on to a water-only diet.

In the meantime, she has gained company in the nearby foliage. Two other protesters climbed up into separate trees last week in eastern Willits, and third climbed a tree across the highway from Warbler’s late Wednesday night.

On the ground, four protesters were arrested on Tuesday for trespassing and blocking work by sitting on a loader, according to Capt. Jim Epperson of the California Highway Patrol in Ukiah.

This video shows a CHP helicopter circling the tree where Warbler is camped.

Last week 40 to 50 CHP officers took over the area where Warbler has been living. Warbler said they cut her off from activists and supporters, while a local contractor began to remove nearby ground cover and oak trees and started building fences.

Warbler lowers her food in a bucket. (Deborah Svoboda)

Warbler lowers her food in a bucket. (Deborah Svoboda)

Following the arrests of eight people last week, a CHP helicopter circled Warbler’s tree at the level of her platform. She believed they were taking photos to prepare to force her to come down. “They were so close, I could have thrown a stone at them,” Warbler said.

“I’m just angry and exhausted from the emotion of it all,” she added.

She still has no intention of coming down and said she believes that the CHP is “aiding and abetting Caltrans in a crime.”

She listed three demands:

  1. Cease all construction on Caltrans’ current Willits Bypass immediately, pending legal resolution.
  2. Allow the public and press to enter the destroyed and disturbed areas to document said destruction and violations of law, nature and common sense.
  3. Adopt the least harmful alternatives and appropriately scaled transportation solutions for Willits and the Little Lake Valley.

Epperson said only Caltrans could make such concessions. In the meantime, the police aren’t trying to force Warbler out of her tree. “There’s a lot of things we could do, but our plan right now is to keep up negotiations with her,” he said.

A California Highway Patarol officer receives Warbler's food bucket. (Deborah Svoboda/KQED)

A California Highway Patarol officer receives Warbler’s food bucket. (Deborah Svoboda/KQED)

Caltrans spokesman Phil Frisbie said the demands have “all been addressed many times.”

He referred readers to Caltrans’ blog about the project. “We are continuing to press on because of the cost to taxpayers and we believe that we have a project that has been developed lawfully,” he said.

The tree sitters can descend anytime without fear of prosecution, Frisbie said.

The pine that Warbler lives in is located on the southern outskirts of Willits in Mendocino County and overlooks Highway 101. She, along with the group SOLLV, are trying to block the construction of a four-lane, six-mile, $290 million highway bypass around town.

Caltrans 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.

Warbler took to the ponderosa pine to protest potential environmental damage to the area, including tree removal and disruptions to migratory birds. Wetlands will need to be filled in order to build the bypass, which could have an impact on spawning streams for endangered coho salmon and steelhead.

Caltrans claims that mitigation work funded by the project will more than compensate for any environmental damage.

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Category: Animals and Wildlife, Environment, Government, Transportation

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  • Gina Covina

    If you’re going to refer to the CalTrans blog in your story, it’s only fair to also include this link: http://www.savelittlelakevalley.org.

    • Debbie Svoboda

      Hi Gina, Thank you for pointing that out to us. I went in and changed it so there is a link to SOLLV as well! I appreciate your comment.

  • Guest

    This is a “bypass to nowhere.” by far most of the northbound traffic that pours into the south end of Willits on Highway 101 is local traffic which isn’t going any further than Willits. That traffic won’t use the bypass, which has no in-town exits. Another chunk is traffic heading to the Mendocino Coast via Highway 20. None of that traffic will use the bypass either. Want to see the traffic your hundreds of millions will be spent on? . Check the Caltrans web cam 1 mile north of town — it shows an empty or almost empty highway almost all of the time: Click on each of the photos to see views over the last 8 hours. Tonight (March 29) if you click back through the photos, you’re seeing holiday weekend traffic: and there’s hardly any cars at all. The bottleneck? Caltrans FINALLY has agreed to restripe the northbound mid-town bottleneck to eliminate an unnecessary merge into 1 lane, and give traffic turning west at the Highway 20 a lane of its own all the way to the light. They’ll do it next year, at an estimated cost of $100,000. That will relieve the mostly local traffic at the bottleneck more than the bypass ever will. The restriping should’ve been done years ago. Wonder why it wasn’t? This is a boondoggle, and a waste of taxpayer dollars. and Bay Area drivers stuck in traffic every day should be outraged. Willits does need a second route through town, to get the big trucks and in-a-hurry through traffic off Main Street, with easy egress and access for locals. Locals pushed such a route along the railroad right-of-way (alongside the tracks, not instead of them) for years, but Caltrans refused to ever consider such a common-sense low-cost solution. p.s: the biggest chunk of funding for this “highway to nowhere” is Prop. 1B bond money, so once interest is paid on the bonds, the cost to the taxpayers will be considerably higher than what Caltrans says the cost will be.

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

    This is a “bypass to nowhere.” by far most of the northbound traffic that pours into the south end of Willits on Highway 101 is local traffic which isn’t going any further than Willits. That traffic won’t use the bypass, which has no in-town exits. Another chunk is traffic heading to the Mendocino Coast via Highway 20. None of that traffic will use the bypass either. Want to see the traffic your hundreds of millions will be spent on? . Check the Caltrans web cam 1 mile north of town:

    http://www.dot.ca.gov/dist1/d1tmc/1_cam.php?cam=27

    It shows an empty or almost empty highway almost all of the time: Click on each of the photos to see views over the last 8 hours. Tonight (March 29) if you click back through the photos, you’re seeing holiday weekend traffic: and there’s hardly any cars at all.

    The bottleneck? Caltrans FINALLY has agreed to restripe the northbound mid-town bottleneck to eliminate an unnecessary merge into 1 lane, and give traffic turning west at the Highway 20 a lane of its own all the way to the light. They’ll do it next year, at an estimated cost of $100,000. That will relieve the mostly local traffic at the bottleneck more than the $357 million (if they ever build the full 4 lanes) bypass ever will. The restriping should’ve been done years ago. Wonder why it wasn’t? This is a boondoggle, and a waste of taxpayer dollars. and Bay Area drivers stuck in traffic every day should be outraged.

    Willits does need a second route through town, to get the big trucks and in-a-hurry through traffic off Main Street, with easy egress and access for locals. Locals pushed such a route along the railroad right-of-way (alongside the tracks, not instead of them) for years, but Caltrans refused to ever consider such a common-sense low-cost solution.

    p.s: the biggest chunk of funding for this “highway to nowhere” is Prop. 1B bond money, so once interest is paid on the bonds, the cost to the taxpayers will be considerably higher than what Caltrans says the cost will be.

    • Lark

      Caltrans promised to restripe next year? More job security…it will support their claims that the bypass helps. I’ll be impressed with nothing less than restriping it FIRST, and collecting data on how that affects the bottleneck.

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

        yes, I understand your point. and it’s what I thought (re: “supporting claims that the bypass helped) until the recent announcement re: restriping “next year.” Because the Willits bypass won’t be finished next year. The end date posted on the Caltrans web site is still November 2016, but that doesn’t take into account Caltrans’ own 6 month start delay. Might be finished in mid 2017. So if Caltrans does restripe next year, we may well see the bottleneck eased significantly before the bypass is finished.

  • gator goforth

    go warbler and all the other tree sitters! you are all my heroes. keep on stalling the destruction!

  • Lark

    Many of us watched years ago as Caltrans restriped and created our town’s current bottleneck. Seems like some excellent job security…create a costly problem and then perform an even costlier solution. As California struggles w/ serious budget woes and watches funds being cut to our children’s education and others of the most defenseless among us, Caltrans seems to feel no such pain in their own budget. Big money talks. It seems only reasonable for Caltrans to delay construction until the time for the scheduled lawsuit this summer. Instead, Caltrans is forcing it’s way across as much of the precious land as possible, and clearly has no concerns that anyone will stop them. Something is wrong here, people.

  • Lisa vS

    Willits has a traffic bottleneck coming into town from the south at rush hour, which has never, perhaps deliberately, been adequately addressed by Caltrans. This bypass arguably will introduce a similarly annoying bottleneck at the south end, will definitely negatively affect our downtown businesses, which just barely hold on as it is, while causing extensive wetlands damage, agricultural land removed from production, disruption of Steelehead salmon creeks, etc.

    The scale of the project is completely disproportionate to the local problem, and is being forced on Willits at taxpayer expense in the interest of establishing a northbound freeway, for which there is no demand. There are good, much less destructive, alternatives which have never been seriously considered by Caltrans.

    I hope people will come see for themselves what is at stake. Willits valley is so beautiful, and sadly the destruction has already begun.

  • Anna Zbitnoff

    go Warbler!!!!

  • Catherine Davenport

    I don’t think there can be mitigation for the loss of wetlands. When I took a geology class at S.F.State in the early 90′s, nine tenths of the wetlands on earth were already filled in. Cal Trans plans to have thousands of wicks drilled into the wetlands to evaporate the water. They really don’t know how that will affect the aquifer.

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

    The CalTrans Bypass should not be built. In 1991 CalTrans created the bottleneck by re-striping 101 from the hospital to the highway 20 traffic light. This needs to be re-striped immediately. There are numerous other routes in town that need to be developed to further relieve Main Street traffic. CalTrans refused to build a 2 lane labeling it as “too dangerous.’ Now they want to build a 2 lane superhighway. Wrong, wrong, wrong. The lies just keep on coming. Stop the bypass destruction now. The CalTrans Desolation Road is a 1950′s engineers warped fantasy.

  • Jack

    Caltrans seems to be accountable to NOBODY. It seems like all these agencies just bend over and give them whatever they want. Who is Caltrans really tied with? What is really going on here? Caltrans seems really corrupt.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100003892672079 Dennis Miller

      I have the same question (see my post above): I’m wondering why in the world local politicians have completely ignored their constituents in this matter. They have smoothed the path for Caltrans at every turn and have turned a deaf ear to the clear majority of citizens who oppose the bypass. The only thing I can think of that would lure a politician into destroying his/her career: money, and lots of it. They talk about how much money the project will bring to the area – my question is how much money has already been handed over to the bypass supporters in our city and county government?

  • http://www.facebook.com/michael.foley.7334 Michael Foley

    Warbler isn’t alone! She has mobilized this community like no other person or action in recent memory. So far, over 1500 people (out of a population of 12,000) have signed a petition to state and local officials supporting her demands. People whose grandparents settled this valley have written in that their ancestors must be “turning over in their graves” in Little Lake Cemetery (which borders the current construction area) at the thought of this monstrous project, which threatens to gobble up over a third of valley lands in the forlorn hope of “mitigating” the damage to wetlands and salmon runs this project represents.

  • Judi Berdis, OTR/L

    For the past decade, Caltrans has refused to even STUDY the Willits alternatives, saying the two lane surface truck route ($20 million) outside downtown, along the existing railroad tracks was not an option because it was a two- lane road.
    Now they are wanting to build a two lane road!
    Caltrans refused to study a north/ south route through downtown to get around the bottleneck at Route 20 West in front of Safeway- which, by the way, they purposely created in 1994 hoping to garner the support of Willits citizens for a bypass to relieve the “bottleneck” -the N/S option would be connecting three roads: Baechtel, Shell Lane and Railroad Avenue.
    Willits will still have traffic at Route 20/ Route 101 interchange, because there is no planned exit on the $400 million bypass.
    Eight thousand vehicles/ day = Willits traffic for the past 20 years by Caltrans own study. 20-30 thousand vehicles
    / day = Caltrans phase 1 two lane bypass. 40-80 thousand vehicles / day phase 2 4 lane freeway bypass. Willits doesn’t need a freeway thru it!
    Caltrans and the state want a freeway for triplet semi trucks, for movement of military forces and equipment along the western front and for transporting spent nuclear waste that is shipped in to Eureka south to Yucca burial ground.
    Caltrans does’nt care about Willits.
    That ‘ s what infuriates and confounds we residents.
    It is about big business and the big monied bullies having their way!
    Please help us stop the rape and pillage of our beau colic valley.
    Caltrans must win the lawsuit and get an additional $46 million from the Dept of Transportation for wetland motivations in order to build this unneeded and devistating project.
    Go to: Savelittlelakevalley.org for more info and photos.

  • http://www.facebook.com/donna.schindel.3 Donna Schindel

    This project defies logic! Why are they forcing this massive overkill on us?

  • Kelly Larson

    We keep hearing the same statements from officials, like the above “Caltrans 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.” But this on again off again project is very clearly less about addressing local issues and more about Caltrans push to get 101 prepared for the larger interstate trucks from Mexico to Canada. In fact, the main bottleneck was caused by a Caltrans re-striping 20 years ago.

    Locals have invested many thousands of hours over the years coming up with alternatives that would address the local traffic problem, with Caltrans always rejecting each proposal, usually because they were not a four lane highway. The current Caltrans is a 2 lane highway, and wouldn’t connect to the other highway in town – Hwy 20!

    The local contractors are frustrated, because they want work, but very few are being employed. Local landowners are concerned about their wells, since this project would “de-water”, (a Caltrans term), the area of the bypass, which is about 30% of the valley. This project is unnecessarily destructive and wasting our precious tax dollars. No wonder our country is having money troubles! When you see what government is wasting on just this one project, it puts it all in perspective.

  • VeganJessica

    Wonderful story! It’s VERY unfortunate that Warbler has to hunger strike in order to protect an environment that should already be protected from Caltrans, but it’s great that she’s been able to draw attention to the story AND that KQED is covering it for us!

  • Cornelia Davis

    As a priviledged tourist who has repeatedly welcomed the opportunity to visit the beauty of Mendocino County, basking in the quiet charm / hospitality of Willits and untarnished immediate surroundings, I am saddened to learn that the urgent pleas and constructive alternatives that have been put forward by local citizenry have fallen on deaf ears of many elected officials and corporate pirates. If I loved a steady diet of the congested “charm” my own metropolis blighted by it’s six lane urban bypasses, I would never leave Pittsburgh PA to drive directly to (and vacation in) un-spoiled garden spots like Willits, CA.

  • Ben

    Wow! Really glad KQED is covering this story. Haven’t seen this elsewhere.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jane.applebee Jane Applebee

    As far as our state highway infrastructure is concerned – certainly there are more heavily trafficked regions of the state system that need the almost 300 million dollars that Cal Trans is about to pour into this project?

    This plan is far from the needs and desires of the people who live here and the noise and unwarranted destruction to our local environment will inconvenience and sadden us for the next several years if it goes ahead – which is like rubbing our noses in it.

    Here is a quote from the CalTrans website -http://www.dot.ca.gov/aboutcaltrans.htm – that would seem to back Warbler up, (Emphasis is mine.)

    “The 1990s saw fruition of ideas that had been conceived 15 to 20 years earlier. In recognition that California could not merely build its way out of traffic congestion and air pollution, Caltrans began to emphasize the more-efficient use of highways and their integration with other “modes” of transportation. Public sentiment became more receptive to rail and transit, car pooling, ramp metering, telecommuting flexible work hours, and research into intelligent vehicle and highway systems.”

    I want that intelligent highway system for our state, not this nonsense. I want restriping, bike routes, and pedestrian pathways and bridges, to help relieve the school rush hour traffic in the afternoon. I do not want our wetlands drained and our valley paved over without benefit to anyone inter-regionally or locally and at great cost to our state.

  • http://www.facebook.com/robert.s.hooper.1 Robert Shannon Hooper

    Cut that tree down.

  • Matthew Callaghan

    Willits has a very real traffic and safety problem, but we don’t need a highway. The traffic is virtually all local and much of it is to the neighboring township of Brooktrails. We need an in-town traffic redesign employing local people.

  • Barbara K.

    Caltrans needs to be stopped from promoting automobile traffic-they are stuck in the 1950′s – if we allow it they will widen all the highways in the State until the entire State is covered in asphalt! They are an agency with too much money to be allowed to continue without adequate oversight. They are an agency out of control.

  • Joe Knight, Willits

    It boggles the mind to think that the State of California is pushing so hard to spend $200+million on an outdated, ineffective “bypass to nowhere” while schools, social services and state parks go begging. When I moved to northern Mendocino County, Jerry Brown was governor advocating a philosphy that “small is beautiful.” Mr. Brown needs to step in here and order CalTrans to re-think this outrageously expensive boondoggle.

  • lucy

    this is very compelling stuff.

  • Roq

    Hip Hip Hooray for the Warbler! Amanda you are my hero! Julia “Butterfly” Hill only went against a lumber company, small peanuts compared to what you are doing.

    My best to the other tree sitters also! Your strength fills me with hope that this catastrophe can be stopped. Thank you!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100003892672079 Dennis Miller

    There seems to be one issue in all of this that everyone is ignoring – that is the unaccountable cooperative spirit between Caltrans and Willits local government and the Mendocino County government – a cooperation that flies in the face of the clear majority of Willits residents who are opposed to the bypass (68% opposed, 32% in favor according to a news poll). Why would local government officials so blatantly ignore their constituency? Perhaps there is an answer: There is a lot of talk about the millions of dollars this bypass is supposed to bring to Willits – but no talk about where those millions of dollars are going. Is it possible that some money ended up available to local politicians to have made them so decidedly and actively smooth the way for Caltrans? Is it possible that someone in Willits government profited personally by providing a Caltrans-friendly attitude towards the bypass? Just wondering!

  • Spring Senerchia

    So glad KQED is covering this issue. I find it outrageous in our times that this project is going forward. Really massive public outrage is extremely necessary in order to redirect these dollars into a highway project that is located somewhere other than a wetlands, where it will actually address a real traffic need. Anyone interested in fiscal responsibility, corporate takeovers, localization, environmental protection and humanity should take note of ways to contact elected representatives about this project.