What you can learn from a really long walk
The last two tree sitters fighting the 300-mile Mountain Valley Pipeline project in Jefferson National Forest surrendered to police. Will others take their place?
Last Friday, the two remaining protesters against the Mountain Valley Pipeline climbed down from their perches in the trees. The MVP is a 303-mile proposed project to shuttle natural gas through the Jefferson National Forest—and right over the Appalachian Trail. To stop construction, these two holdout protesters took to treetop camps near Peters Mountain, close to the Virginia and West Virginia border. For three months they defied weather and intermittent sieges on their food supplies by law enforcement. But after Catherine “Fern” MacDougal and a man known only as “Deckard” came down, it seemed the fight against the MVP had finished.
Then on Monday a group of interlopers from Massachusetts bound themselves to construction equipment. It only took two hours for police to pry Sydney Patricia White, Evin Tyler Uger, and Maxwell Harry Shaw from the machinery and put them in cuffs. It was a short-lived protest, but it signaled that anti-pipeliners aren’t done just yet.
The group Appalachians Against Pipelines said as much Friday, shortly after authorities plucked MacDougal from the tree stand she’d lived in since May 21. “Before MVP and law enforcement even begin to breathe a sigh of relief, thinking they are one step closer to their goal of padding the pockets of executives at the expense of this forest and the lives of all along the route, let’s show them that they have not won,” the group wrote in a statement.
Pipeline protests have taken on almost war-like qualities since the Dakota Access Pipeline, and this was no different. A handful of rotating tree sitters have come and gone since February, including a mom and daughter. At 95 days, Deckard lasted the longest. Throughout that time U.S. Forest Service officers and police from multiple agencies—even Virginia’s anti-terrorism unit—watched over the protesters day and night.
Police even laid their own mini psyops-siege, shining floodlights on protesters as they tried to sleep. (Police have said it was to see if anyone came or went.) On Earth Day, police tackled and handcuffed supporters trying to run water and supplies to one tree sitter named “Nutty,” who’d been cut off from support for three weeks. Later, backup arrived armed with assault rifles. It was a bizarre scene along one of the most famous trails in the U.S.
As Outside contributor Kathryn Miles wrote in April, pipelines along the AT are nothing new. About 60 already cross the 2,200 mile path. But what riled protesters in this case was that the the Forest Service and the National Park Service, which oversees the AT, changed the rules that protect the trail in order to approve pipeline construction.
From Miles’s reporting:
Prior to this weekend’s protests, I contacted JoBeth Brown, a spokesperson for the Forest Service, who said that following the Jefferson National Forest’s management plan was not feasible for the construction of the pipeline, so the federal government decided to alter them. These modifications allowed the agency to relax restrictions on a variety of issues, ranging from riparian damage to the clearing of old-growth trees to the impact of the pipeline on the AT.
It’s not just the crunchy-haired hippie types who want construction stopped. The company behind the MVP (which goes by the same name) seized chunks of land under eminent domain from locals to build its pipeline. The project itself is also a risky prospect—it’s 42 inches in diameter and weaves over rocky hills. That hasn’t eased the minds of locals, who worry about what all this construction will do to their water wells. The land there is mostly limestone, which is porous and fairly unstable.
Now with the protesters out of the way, construction appear to be back on. Local and environmental groups have filed lawsuits, but those will take time, more than it will take to clear-cut a path through the forest for the MVP.
And with the protesters out of the trees, they have their own legal issues. The mysterious Deckard will appear in court on Wednesday, although it’s not clear what he’s being charged with. MacDougal faces a slew of misdemeanors, including blocking a Forest Service road and trespassing. The three from Massachusetts were charged with similar misdemeanors.
They were released a few hours later, and not long after they issued a statement that sure makes it sound as if more protest are to come: “We were amazed at the resilience shown by the tree-sitters, and viewed their eviction not as an ending but as an opportunity to diversify tactics … What will you do to keep the fire burning?”