Southern California Tree Sitters Arrested

January 24, 2011- By Jen Noelken

Veteran tree sitter John Quigley, along with three other protesters were arrested earlier this month in Arcadia, California. Construction was slated to begin in the area for a dam improvement project affecting the Los Angeles suburbs of Arcadia and Sierra Madre.  The construction was zoned to bulldoze several acres of century old sycamore and oak trees.  Tree sitters disrupted expansion efforts for a time, but the daylong standoff ended with the removal and arrest of the activists.    

Los Angeles County Public Works spokesman Bob Spencer said the project was approved by federal and state agencies and has been developing for three years.  He goes on to state the project is a must for the Santa Anita Dam, built in 1927, to meet seismic safety standards.  Currently the dam provides drinking water for 56,000 residents in Arcadia and another 10,000 residents in Sierra Madre.  Without the improvements, Mr. Spencer says the dam could become unsafe.  He explains that throughout the years “sediment has built up behind the dam, limiting water capacity and compromising its safety in the event of an earthquake.”

John Quigley, an environmental educator and social activist, is best known for his tree sit during the fall of 2002 through the early part of winter 2003.  During those months Quigley occupied a 400 year old oak tree he called “Old Glory.”  His protest gained community and eventually national recognition with over 20,000 people visiting.  Quigley “has worked with every major environmental organization in the US, served on National and International Boards for Earth Day and is the Executive Director of Earth Day Los Angeles.” 

Quigley, along with other environmental activists, disagreed with the sediment site.  He acknowledged the sediment removal project needed to progress forward, but he said it was a tragedy to pick such a beautiful habitat. 

Located just 20 miles northeast of downtown Los Angeles, the wilderness area was a popular destination for local hikers and bicyclists.  Nestled below the San Gabriel Mountains near a residential area, the site offered a wilderness park as well.  Many argued that the site could be placed in any number of nearby areas, including a large gravel pit ten miles away.  The clearing project came against several oppositions to stop progress.  Ending last week was a 30-day county order moratorium.  Despite the tree sitters’ best efforts, authorities confirmed a majority of the trees had been removed.

The history of tree sitting protests are unclear, but was successful in New Zealand during the 1970s.  Mikal Jakubal is recognized as the first man in the United States (during the 1980s) to use tree sitting as a form of protest.  Used for a variety of reasons, from tactical to symbolic, tree sitting participants are known to become deeply attached to “their” tree.  An unsuccessful protest can result in emotional distress for the sitter if and when the tree is cut down.

One of the more famous North American tree sits took place during the 1990s in Humboldt County, California.  Julia Butterfly Hill sat in a redwood from December 10, 1997 – December 18, 1999; a total of 738 days.  The 180 foot, 1,000 year old redwood, Hill affectionately named Luna, was scheduled to be cut down by the Pacific Lumbar Company.  Her efforts successfully brought recognition to the plight of ancient forests, along with saving Luna and a three acre buffer zone. 

Tree sitting’s effectiveness is highly debatable.  Though the act does draw valuable attention to an environmental issue, often development companies successfully remove the person or persons.  Tree sitting typically involves trespassing, making the act illegal.  Lawsuits are filed against both tree sitters and their support crew, since tree sitters cannot survive without ground support. 

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