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Can These Tree-Sitters Cease a Pure Gasoline Pipeline?

Madison McVeigh/CityLab For the previous yr, environmental protesters have led an “aerial blockade” of tree-sitters alongside a proposed pure gasoline pipeline within the Appalachian Mountains. For nearly 5 months, Phillip Flagg has been residing in a chestnut oak tree 50 ft above the bottom. His house is a four-by-eight sheet of plywood, somewhat bigger than a typical eating room desk, that’s lashed to the oak’s boughs. Since going aloft on October 12, he has not set foot on the bottom.

Under him there’s small group of a few dozen scrupulously nameless younger individuals who deal with Flagg’s primary human wants. They’re all right here to halt the development of a pure gasoline pipeline in rural Elliston, within the Virginia highlands close to Roanoke. For a lot of of them, organizing, staffing, and supporting long-term eco-protests like that is as a lifestyle.

Not like his campmates, Flagg, a 24-year-­outdated native of Austin, Texas, doesn’t thoughts revealing his id. Earlier than Yellow Finch, as this specific tree-sitting train is named, he participated in two different “motion camps.” He was additionally at Standing Rock, the much-publicized protests that erupted in 2016 in an effort to cease the development of the Dakota Entry Pipeline. However that doesn’t really matter, he insists: “Everybody was at Standing Rock.”

A house within the timber: Phillip Flagg has been residing on this small platform atop an oak tree since October. (Christine Grillo/CityLab)The Yellow Finch motion camp, named after a close-by highway, is attempting to dam the proposed Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP), a 300-­plus­‐mile underground pipeline that will transport pure gasoline extracted by hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” from shale within the Appalachian areas of Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio, and New York. The pure gasoline is heading to southern Virginia and ports additional south, for export to power markets within the U.S. and abroad. However authorized challenges mounted by teams just like the Sierra Membership have delayed pipeline development, and lots of of native landowners alongside the pipeline’s route have already had tracts of land seized by eminent area after they refused to signal easements that will permit Mountain Valley to proceed.

Yellow Finch is the newest in a sequence of tree-sits, or “aerial blockades,” of MVP, with the primary starting in February 2018. It could even be the longest ongoing blockade for this venture, up to now. About eight others have occurred at totally different websites alongside the pipeline route, supported by organizations comparable to Appalachians Towards Pipelines; all have been shut down by way of authorized processes.

However Yellow Finch endures, in defiance of Mountain Valley Pipeline, LLC, and the weather. In his months within the treetops, Flagg has up to now endured single-digit temperatures, snowstorms, ice, rain, and even a hurricane. He’s protected solely by tarps and a rain fly, leaving him simply sufficient room to face up below the height. He worries about lightning strikes, however solely “in a form of imprecise manner,” he says. “I’ve by no means heard of a tree-sit being struck by lightning.”

In a close-by white pine, he has a neighbor who chooses to stay nameless; this, says Flagg, is his “tree buddy.”

To Flagg and his cohort, an “activist” is a broad time period that may embody individuals who stay and toil within the mainstream and go to marches. What the Yellow Finch camp does represents a special degree of dedication to direct motion. “I do activism,” he says, “however I wouldn’t name myself an activist.” They provide up one other label for who they’re—“soiled children.” However they take pains to differentiate themselves from soiled children who do medication and go to music festivals. “We appear like them, however we truly do stuff,” one protester tells me.

Flagg explains to me why he’s right here: “We’re actively creating a special world whereas concurrently preventing the dominant tradition,” he says.

And the world they’ve constructed right here within the wintry woods presents a form of sylvan idyll, a brief utopia of the donated and scavenged. For the younger individuals who select to name it dwelling, an eco-protest encampment can even function a form of intentional neighborhood for aficionados of off-the-grid residing.

Cities are altering quick. Sustain with the CityLab Each day e-newsletter. One of the simplest ways to observe points you care about. “We don’t pay lease; we don’t purchase meals; we don’t have jobs,” says one other protester, my information on my go to to Yellow Finch. “We’re actual pleased.”


Tree-­sitting as a type of civil disobedience is at the very least 50 years outdated. Throughout the late 1980s and 1990s, environmental activists in Northern California famously used the tactic to stall logging initiatives in old-growth redwood forests; one celebrated tree-sitter, Julia Butterfly Hill, maintained her vigil for 2 years. The protesters’ assumption, after all, was that the loggers wouldn’t fell timber if it endangered human lives. In 1998, one protester was killed by a falling tree.

The final Northern California tree-sitter got here down in 2008, having outlasted the timber firm. Over the many years that protesters and loggers performed cat-and-mouse in woods, tree-sitting has developed with a set of practices meant to maintain protesters protected. (The creation of the Earth First! climbers’ guild established higher security protocols and suggestions for rigging buildings to timber.) Within the 1980s, tree-sits weren’t at all times as effectively supported on the bottom as they’re immediately; lately, sits have assist camps from Day One.

Utilizing a knowledge plan paid for by a supporter, he’s watched all of the obtainable Bob Ross movies and has just lately begun watching The Wire.In 2019, at Yellow Finch, the sport works like this: The pipeline firm has rights to the easement, however not the land straight adjoining to it. The tree-sits are on the easement, and the motion camp has stationed itself totally off the easement on non-public property.* Due to the tree-sits, MVP has halted development, and the corporate is attempting to make use of eminent area to have them eliminated legally. Whereas the landowner is just not explicitly supporting the protest, he’s wanting the opposite manner. MVP, along with attempting to make use of eminent area, is searching for an injunction from federal courtroom.

Yellow Finch was established in September, as a part of a unfastened community of tree-sits and assist camps which have sprung up within the forests alongside the MVP route. In line with Flagg, a few of the volunteers and gear got here to Elliston from an earlier assist camp in Giles County, Virginia, the place a lady lived in a monopod—a form of pole-mounted protest perch. The marketing campaign, Flagg says, emerged organically, with out founders or leaders. “The blockades transfer and we transfer, not essentially all collectively, and never essentially to the identical locations. Individuals come out and in as they please.”

It’s not a lot of a neighborhood, he says, as it’s a way of life.

The variety of action-camp residents varies from month to month, however holds regular someplace between 9 and 12 at anybody time. They use propane and campfires to prepare dinner, they usually warmth dishwater over a hearth. There are about half a dozen tents unfold throughout a steep, muddy hill, protected by tarps. Within the middle there’s an open­‐air, coated space created by greater than a dozen tarps tied to timber—downtown Yellow Finch, because it have been. “We name this Tarpington Heights,” says one of many campers. “Due to all of the tarps.”

After six months, Yellow Finch seems to be like every other lengthy­‐time period campsite within the woods; there are benches, and worktables and plastic wash basins, and a rack for hanging pots and pans rigged with ropes from tree limbs. There’s a spice rack and cabinets holding condiments, salad dressing, and jelly. Piles of firewood are in all places. Hanging out on the compost pile, the place it’s in all probability good and heat, is a gray tabby.

The camp eats three meals collectively daily, even those residing within the timber. (Christine Grillo/CityLab)Most of their meals, together with a pair instances of Arizona Iced Tea, is donated by native supporters—professors and college students from close by Virginia Tech, together with space farmers, residents, and others who oppose the pipeline. They convey cooked meals, drinks, cake, and the occasional tank of propane. Over the vacations, they introduced the protesters a roasted turkey.

What meals isn’t donated comes from the dumpsters positioned behind close by grocery shops and eating places. “If we’re out driving for any cause,” says one of many campers, “I’ll get the motive force to tug in behind the grocery retailer so we are able to do some dumpster-­diving.” The one behind Panera is the place one of the best scores are made. For consuming water, they draw and deal with water from a close-by creek, or simply use rain. “It’s superb,” says one of many campers. “All this water simply falls from the sky.”

Maybe surprisingly, there are not any guitars in Yellow Finch, however there’s a ukulele. A number of inspirational indicators dangle on timber. One in all them is a ceramic plaque with faux-­Celtic lettering: “It Is What It Is.”

“We discovered that in a dumpster,” says my information.

Throughout the day, the motion campers maintain busy chopping wooden, cooking three meals a day (everybody eats collectively, together with the 2 tree-sitters) and scrounging provides.

“I felt lonely generally earlier than I used to be within the tree,” he says, “and I’ll really feel it generally after I come down.”Nothing right here has been constructed onto the land or timber—no nails, no development—to keep away from working afoul of native laws. The tree platforms are affixed to the chestnut oak and the white pine by what’s referred to as a “wrap 3, pull 2 anchor,” which makes use of webbing and friction. “It’s within the Direct Motion Handbook,” Flagg says, referring to the Earth First! information to non-violent protest methods.

Dwelling in a tree 24/7 is an austere existence. For meals, water, and different important provides, he makes use of plastic buckets, 14 to be precise, hanging on rope and pulley methods, in addition to plastic water jugs. A photo voltaic panel rigged to the construction supplies sufficient energy for him to recharge his sole digital gadget, which he refers to as a “shitty telephone.”

“There’s a bucket for each conceivable want,” he says. 3 times a day, somebody from camp makes use of a bucket to ship a meal. One bucket is designated for medical provides comparable to over-the-counter ache relievers. One other is for hygiene, and one other is for books. The final bucket is what he calls the “poop bucket.” He makes use of child wipes to scrub himself, however by no means his complete physique all of sudden. I ask him if that’s due to the chilly. “Extra like as a result of I’m lazy.” He brushes and flosses each evening.

He spends a number of time simply mendacity down and pondering. He reads a number of books. These days he’s been doing push-­ups and squats for train. Utilizing a knowledge plan paid for by a supporter, he’s watched all of the obtainable Bob Ross movies and has just lately begun watching The Wire.

After I ask if he will get bored, he tells me that he’s nearly by no means bored, whether or not in a tree or on the bottom. “I feel I’ve been bored a few times up right here,” he says. After I ask about loneliness, he says that he’s probably not a lonely individual. Like anybody, he says, “I felt lonely generally earlier than I used to be within the tree,” he says, “and I’ll really feel it generally after I come down.”

He sleeps inside a sleeping bag inside one other sleeping bag. For some time within the fall, mice got here onto Flagg’s platform at evening, and he’d scare them off. Then he bought dryer sheets, and that appears to be repelling them. Regardless of the chilly and rain, he has not been sick as soon as since taking to the tree. He ascribes that to the shortage of direct human contact—no germs.

Flagg’s mom sends him anxious texts. “She worries that I’m going to die,” he says. However his most of his communication with the skin world is together with his campmates beneath, by way of walkie­‐talkie; with out them, he’s helpless. “I really feel like I get unconditional acceptance from floor assist,” he says.

Camp life, say the residents, is peaceable. “There’s a wild lack of battle,” one camper tells me.

“Every thing occurs organically right here,” says my information. “It’s form of miraculous.”

In different communal or collective residing conditions they’ve been in, there are normally “at the very least two individuals preventing,” says one of many motion campers. However not right here. “When somebody desires to go away, they simply depart. We don’t pay lease, so it’s not an enormous deal.”


Regardless of the overall good humor, threats lurk on the planet past Tarpington Heights. The campers concern harassment by MVP or legislation enforcement; they take turns standing watch—what they name “gate shift,” throughout which one individual watches the grime highway (there is no such thing as a precise gate) for sudden guests whereas snuggled up with disposable hand heaters or a hot-water bottle.

Anonymity is infused in every part the protesters do—they fear that if their names and identities have been identified, details about them can be aggregated in fusion facilities established by the Division of Homeland Safety to, in DHS’s language, “detect, forestall, examine, and reply to prison and terrorist exercise.”

The residents of Yellow Finch are additionally acutely conscious that they aren’t alone in these woods: Throughout the way in which, on the MVP easement, there’s one other, a lot smaller encampment, shut sufficient to see by way of the timber.

“Would you want to fulfill our guests?” my information asks.

Protests in opposition to the MVP started in February 2018. However the actual battle will in all probability be determined within the courts, not the woods. (Christine Grillo/CityLab)I observe her up a muddy hill on the easement. It snowed a pair days in the past, and regardless of my respectable snow boots I’m slipping up the wooded slope. On the high, I discover a pair of males wearing discipline jackets and khakis beside a small tent.

“We name these guys Trent and Brent,” she says. “They’re the day shift.”

“Trent” and “Brent” are non-public safety officers employed by the pipeline firm.  They’ve what is unquestionably the misfortune of being handed the duty of standing subsequent to their Walmart tent for twelve hours daily to observe the protesters till they’re changed by the in a single day shift. Typically at evening, the guards shine brilliant lights into the camp.

This stand-off is a part of the mutually noticed guidelines of engagement between protesters and pipeline-makers. Trent and Brent stay silent whereas my information talks about them, in entrance of them. “We’re unsure,” she says, “however we predict they’re making waaaay lower than $12 an hour.”

The safety guys have a small generator and a few gasoline cans; my information tells me they’ve a propane heater of their tent. On actually chilly days, she tells me, a co-­employee would possibly come by to deliver them fast-food espresso. In some way she has realized that for lavatory wants, they’ve a bucket with a bathroom seat they lay on high. “They use it contained in the tent,” she says.

“Right here’s the sunshine they shine on our tree‐sitters at evening,” she says, pointing to a highlight aimed upwards and throughout the easement.  “It’s fairly puny. The tree-­sitters don’t even discover it.” She tells me that she feels badly for them as a result of they’re pawns in a grimy company sport that can exclude them from any earnings the pipeline makes, if it ever will get constructed. Trent and Brent barely transfer.

Quickly three younger males from motion camp clomp by way of the mud to affix us. By means of a megaphone, they start studying aloud from “On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs,” a 2013 essay by David Graeber. “It’s as if somebody have been on the market making up pointless jobs only for the sake of retaining us all working,” they learn.

Flagg says that he too generally yells over to the rent-a-cops. “Simply random issues to fuck with them,” he says. “However I actually pity them. Their lives appear completely depressing.”

After about half an hour, the megaphone children return to camp. They didn’t achieve getting any response Brent and Trent, however they did kill a while. The snow that was within the stockpot over the hearth after I arrived is now sizzling sufficient for laundry dishes, and the campers fortunately get to washing.

RecommendedJust how lengthy this may go on is a thriller. The youngsters are optimistic that they’ll in the end prevail; MVP has already delayed the venture by a few years. However the U.S. District Courtroom in Roanoke has dominated a number of occasions within the firm’s favor during the last yr relating to different tree-sits. Yellow Finch is now ready for the choose to resolve about an injunction that will put the 2 tree-­sitters in contempt of courtroom; if that goes by way of, federal marshals could possibly be introduced in to forcibly take away Flagg and the white-­pine sitter. (Mountain Valley didn’t reply to a request for remark from CityLab.)

The protesters say they intend to combat to the top. And in the event that they lose their perch right here, there’ll solely be extra tree-sits, and extra assist camps. Flagg says he’d like to go to with household and go to a pal’s marriage ceremony this summer season. However he’s in no hurry to return down.

“I feel Mountain Valley will run out of cash and quit,” he says. “I feel we’re going to win.”

*CORRECTION: An earlier model of this story incorrectly said that the tree-sitters weren’t positioned on the MVP easement. Concerning the Writer Christine Grillo Christine Grillo is a science author on the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg College of Public Well being; her work has appeared in Audubon, The New York Instances, and the Utne Reader.