The woman who went up a hill and came down a butterfly

The Butterfly has landed. Julia “Butterfly” Hill, 25, became an instant media celebrity last month when an agreement with Pacific Lumber ended her two-year tree-sit near Stafford, California, atop the magnificent 300-foot redwood she christened “Luna.” Hill toured Good Morning, America, the Today Show, and other national media, proving she was not only a determined tree-sitter but also an articulate spokeswoman for direct action in the forest and the ethereal beauty and power of the redwoods.

For the length of her two-year tree-sit, Ms. Butterfly, 180 feet up a tree with little else to do but meditate and fend off the PL helicopters, used the tree-sit (and her cell phone) to call attention to the plight of the trees. She received attention for her issue in a way that similar (though less long-standing) efforts in the Pacific Northwest have not. The courage necessary for her to go through this trial of endurance, weathering isolation, winter windstorms, and harassment by PL, cannot be overstated. Her action was clearly a success. But she returns to earth on somewhat shaky terms.

The details of Butterfly’s agreement with PL are being painted as a victory by media friendly to environmentalism. For one thing, she was not required, as PL originally demanded, to not speak publicly about her action and to forego all profit from it. (A book deal and a movie are reportedly in the works, the latter to feature Winona Ryder. It’s hard to imagine how you’d fill 90 minutes on screen staring at a redwood.)

But there are some problems as well. PL’s boss, Charles Hurwitz, also of Headwaters, Maxxam, Kaiser Aluminum, and failed savings and loan fame, has always proven himself a crafty negotiator; the talks that got Butterfly out of her tree were mediated by California Senator Dianne Feinstein, architect of the Headwaters deal, another bad sign.

The final terms went like this: Butterfly’s supporters would pay PL $50,000 (the approximate value of one old-growth redwood when it’s slaughtered). PL then agreed to donate that $50,000 to the famously pro-logging forestry program at Humboldt State University. PL also didn’t prosecute for trespassing; agreed not to cut Luna; and agreed to give Butterfly (but nobody else) permanent visitation rights to “her” tree. PL also said it would not cut any trees in a 200 foot radius of Luna—except for salvage purposes. Connoisseurs of logging industry doublespeak will recognize “salvage” as a euphemism for “clear-cut,” as in the Clinton Administration’s “Salvage Logging Rider” of 1995.

This is the agreement that Butterfly hailed as follows: “an unprecedented, courageous first step towards ending the timber wars . . . a new era of peace and cooperation has begun between the timber industry and environmentalists—between corporations and communities.”

Charles Hurwitz’s new halo may come as a surprise to Kaiser Aluminum’s 3,000 locked-out steelworkers in Tacoma, Spokane, and elsewhere—workers who have reached a fragile working relationship, evident during anti-WTO protests, with environmentalists. They may not be all that trustful of a new-agey hippie with a noun for a last name who tends to spout mystic and is now claiming corporations as a friend on the basis of one very dubious agreement. Hill/Butterfly came to Luna new to the environmental movement, a drifter from Arkansas who had a revelation that she was meant to work to save the redwoods. She can be forgiven her naﶥt鬠but this sort of talk is at minimum premature and at worst can be divisive to a movement that needs all the solidarity it can get.

While the publicity was assuredly useful, the actual victory of Butterfly’s negotiated settlement turns out to be rather hollow: One tree won for all that effort, a tree that itself might not survive if all the trees around it are mowed down.

One source estimates that at $50,000 a tree, the environmental movement would have to pony up $3 trillion to save what remains of the Pacific Northwest’s old growth. Factor in the sheer stamina and the resources needed for the deed itself, and tree-sitting doesn’t appear to be, in eco-speak, a very sustainable strategy.

As a catalyst, though, it can be hugely effective. That was proven this fall at Watch Mountain and Fossil Creek, two parcels of old growth included in a controversial public land exchange with Plum Creek. The land was slated to be given to Plum Creek for certain destruction. Instead, a tree-sit began at Watch Mountain, near Randle, with widespread community support. Eventually, Plum Creek was faced with such extensive public opposition that it renegotiated the swap to essentially exclude the two parcels.

So all hail Julia Butterfly. She didn’t get much out of the deal for the trees in question, but for the larger forest, she may just prove to be a catalyst—a very necessary catalyst for saving a natural wonder that is disappearing rapidly for no reason other than shortsighted corporate greed. And who knows—maybe it’ll make a good movie, too.

Giving in to fear

The decision to cancel the Space Needle’s public party last week due to possible terrorism is, in its minor way, both foolish and tragic. More people die drunk in New Year’s Eve auto crashes each year than have ever died in the US due to foreign terrorism—but we don’t let the fear of bad driving keep us from our parties. This once-in-a-lifetime event was called off for fear of possible accomplices to an alleged terrorist who may have been targeting Seattle at the year’s cusp before his arrest. That’s awfully shaky grounds for canceling a public celebration, unless there’s much more definitive information we’re not being given. Or maybe, after the WTO, the city is just afraid of too many people gathering in one place for any reason. Regardless, this is allowing terrorism to dictate the agenda, and thus win. It’s a shame.