‘Tree-Sitters’ Take Up Residence to Fight Strip Mining
When she climbs to the top of the oak tree that also currently functions as her home, Catherine-Ann MacDougal sees a wall of rock where half a hillside has been stripped away.
She can hear a stream below, which she says sometimes runs gray and orange.
Other than that, her view is of a mature forest thick with hardwoods. The forest canopy is webbed with grape vines.
It has been ten days since she and Becks Kolins scaled neighboring trees and took up residence 80 feet off the ground and less than 300 feet away from the Bee Tree surface mine on Coal River Mountain in Boone County.
Both work with an organization called Radical Action for Mountain People’s Survival (RAMPS), whose mission is to undertake non-violent, locally supported direct action in the coalfields of southern West Virginia to call for an end to strip mining in Appalachia.
A typical day for the tree-sitters begins with a wake-up call from mine security inquiring as to whether the two are still there, and whether they are safe. Then MacDougal might traverse over to Kolins’ tree and, say, play a prank on her neighbor involving fake spiders. Or do laundry with rain water she collects with a tarp.
Kolins brought along a copy of the autobiography of Assata Shakur, an African-American activist icon from the 1970s.
“I’m really glad I read it in this environment,” she says during an interview via cell phone. “She talks about being a black woman and the fight of black liberation. That, to me, resonated with this type of fight, and I thought about how we’re all fighting the same system.”
Sometimes, an Alpha helicopter hovers over the trees to check up on them.
“It’s really pretty relaxing,” says Kolins. “I write a lot in my journal, stare and sleep. It’s not the most exciting life, but it’s not often that we can simply sit here and at the same time be fighting strip mining.”
The tree sitters have also hosted visitors. Several miners have stopped by to say hello, take pictures, and make sure they haven’t been harassed. “Holler if (you) need anything,” they reportedly told the protesters.
“We have only encountered civility and kindness,” say the tree sitters.
Direct action is a form of civil disobedience that aims at immediate social or political impact by going beyond traditional methods of enacting change, such as voting. In recent years, the southern coalfields of West Virginia have seen an increase in the practice, most notably to oppose mountaintop removal.
This past January, five protesters likewise occupied trees on the Bee Tree mine site and demanded an end to blasting on Coal River Mountain. They claim their action stopped blasting on part of the site for nine days and that security personnel from Marfork Coal Company, then owned by Massey Energy, harassed them at all hours with air horns and floodlights. Winter temperatures and lack of sleep finally forced their retreat. All were arrested and taken to court by the coal company.
The conditions of this summer’s tree sit, despite record temperatures and meddlesome insects, seem mild in comparison.
“Our primary concern is the safety of the two individuals suspended high in the trees,” says Rick Nida spokesman for Alpha Natural Resources, which now owns Marfork Coal Company. “Even though what they are doing is clearly illegal, we are concerned that they would voluntarily put themselves in harm’s way.”
As to whether the protesters will face arrest when they come down, Nida says that decision will be made when the time comes and notes that they are on coal company property but not within the permit boundary.
Though both protesters have lived and worked on other, less risky projects in the Coal River Valley, they both came to the area initially with the expressed desire to participate in a direct action.
“I think direct action is a good tactic for me because I’m at liberty to do these things,” says MacDougal, who is originally from Gloucester, Mass. “I’m not under social or economic restrains that prohibit me. I’m healthy, young, able-bodied, and I like trees.”
“Although we are technically outsiders, we’ve definitely experienced the people and environment here and are helping in the way we think is most beneficial,” says Kolins, originally from Ardmore, Pa.
“Both of us have been here long enough to have friends in the community. We’re doing this because we care about the people and the land, not for selfish reasons.”
This week’s tree sit comes at an interesting time. On Tuesday, iconic climate activist Tim Dechristopher was sentenced to two years in prison for a direct action he undertook in 2008. He bid up thousands of acres of land at a Utah oil and gas auction.
Tuesday also saw the publication of a new study from WVU researcher Michael Hendryx, which was conducted in the very area where the tree-sitters are making their stand. Hendryx and his colleagues compared self-reported cancer rates in the Coal River Valley with those in Pocahontas County, where mountaintop removal doesn’t exist. The study reports, “The odds for reporting cancer were twice as high in the mountaintop removal environment compared to the non-mining environment in ways not explained by age, sex, smoking, occupational exposure, or family cancer history.”
According to Nida, the company’s operations have not been significantly impacted by the direct action.
“Scheduled blasting was interrupted for one day when they first arrived, but we’ve been following our normal blasting schedules since then,” he says. “But we continue to take extra care to make sure the protesters are safe.”
Mining Safety and Health Administration regulations say that employees must be at least 1,500 feet away from blast sites, and no blasting can occur within 300 feet of any structure.
Though they are less than 300 feet from the permit boundary, the tree-sitters are about 2,000 feet from active blasting, according to RAMPS.
Though it seems they haven’t completely stopped blasting, RAMPS says that less work is being done on the site than otherwise would be taking place, and little to no mining is happening in Bee Tree Holler, near the tree-sitters’ encampment.
How does a tree sit end? Well, according to a RAMPS spokesperson, the tree sitters will either be forced down by dangerous conditions or a lack of supplies.
MacDougal and Kolins brought their own supply of food, which includes lots of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
They say their food supplies are, for the time being, more than sufficient to continue the sit.