Tree Sitters In Appalachia Mad As Hell About Natural Gas Pipeline And They’re NOT Gonna Take It Anymore!

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Deep in the woods on either side of the border between Virginia and West Virginia, a battle is raging that pits ordinary people against the full might of the fossil fuel industry and the government agencies they control. The issue, at least on the surface, is the construction of a natural gas transmission line being built through the forest by Mountain Valley Pipeline, LLC, which in turn is owned by EQT Corporation.

pipeline protest
Credit: Garrett MacLean/The Guardian

The pathway for the pipeline was secured by a process known as eminent domain — a legal process enshrined in the Constitution that permits governments to expropriate private property for public purposes, provided the property owner is compensated. Eminent domain was never intended to allow government to take private property and give it to another private person or corporation, but over the years and decades, as corporations have come to exert more direct control over government, that is what has happened.

People opposed to the pipeline have exhausted all the normal channels available to voice their objections. They have sat through an endless number of interminable meetings, navigated the public comment process, and seen the courts rule in favor of pipelines again and again. Finally, with no other path left open to them to prevent the desecration of the land, they have resorted to civil disobedience. They have become tree sitters — protesters who sequester themselves high above the forest floor in makeshift shelters where they stay for weeks or even months, defying the efforts of authorities to remove them.

The protesters are almost all women. On May 23, one woman known only as Nutty ended her tree top vigil. She was in her aerie for 57 days, during which she ate and drank little. The last three days, she ate no food at all. Supporters who sought to bring her life-sustaining supplies were turned away by police. Some were arrested for the crime of trying to help a fellow human being survive.

There is a fire access road through the forest that supporters of the tree sitters once used to bring supplies to the protesters, but the US Forest Service closed it, citing “safety” as the reason. That forced the supporters to clear their own trail through the woods. The alternate route to the protesters was arduous and often took an hour or more each way. They were constantly under surveillance by police and ultimately blocked from delivering their life-giving supplies.

The struggle against Mountain Valley goes much deeper than just opposition to a pipeline. “We’re dealing with an ecology of oppression and violent structures that are tied together and interwoven, structures that are opposed to human survival, freedom, autonomy and the land,” Nutty shouted down to supporters from her perch. After abandoning her temporary home in the trees, she gave a written statement to The Guardian.

“I was and remain tremendously grateful to have been able to make an impact in the struggle against the Mountain Valley pipeline, and am committed to continuing to participate in the global struggle against the processes of violent extraction, and against the structures of colonization, capitalism, white supremacy, and patriarchy it feeds.”

Red and Minor Terry are a mother – daughter team who were incensed that the government took land that has been in their family for 7 generations and gave it to EQT. They spent 30 days in the trees until a judge threatened to charge them $1,000 a day for daring to oppose the established order. The money was not a fine. It was to be paid directly to Mountain Valley Pipeline. So much for government being responsive to the needs of its citizens.

They tell The Guardian they see this pipeline as one more physical manifestation of the loss of personal agency in the face of an impersonal and uncaring government. They say it’s about the little guy — in this case almost all women — being pushed too damn far and being unable to take it any more.  Red says the pipeline company “knew they bought the legislature, they knew they bought the governor, they knew they bought the politicians, so they knew they could walk all over us. We just had enough. We had enough.”

Virginia governor Ralph Northam took $50,000 for his latest election campaign from EQT, which prides itself on being a good corporate citizen, as evidenced by its Corporate Social Responsibility Report. Northam also happily pocketed $199,251 from Dominion Energy, a major shareholder of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline being constructed nearby. The Guardian also points out the pipeline was approved by two members of the Federal Energy Regulatory Agency who were appointed by Donald Trump. Energy companies donated millions to Trump’s election campaign.

The pipeline fight is being fought deep in the heart of Trump country, a place in Appalachia where the hillbilly descendants of hardscrabble Scots-Irish immigrants have been battling government authority since colonial days. And yet, historically, their politics have been diametrically opposed to the Trumpian love affair with big business and blatant disregard for ordinary people.

Just across the state line is the West Virginia Mine Wars Museum, which tells the story of the largest armed insurrection in the US since the civil war. It marked the beginning of the unionization movement in America. Many mine workers were killed by private security guards supported by the US government, which ultimately bombed its own citizens.

Wilma Steele is a member of the museum’s board of directors and is married to a retired miner. Her grandson has been out in the forest actively supporting the tree sitters. “They are not out of touch with reality,” she says. “They are steeped in their history and know something needs to be done. This is their future. This is their world. And they’re going to do whatever it takes to be heard. I’m proud of them.”

Several supporters of the tree sitters The Guardian spoke to reiterated the need to take personal responsibility for protecting the environment. “You can’t ask politicians whose livelihood depends on these projects to change it for you,” said Kim Ellis. “People have to be able to use their own power and change it for themselves.”

“Our politicians are bought and sold like any other commodity, and resisting in other ways that remove them from the process is very powerful and also liberating and empowering,” said one man camped out in a tree house in West Virginia who identified himself only as Deckard.

Another man who calls himself Ink is nearby. “For me, I’m not here because I’m a tree hugger,” he told The Guardian in a telephone interview. “I’m here because the world as it is structured is unendurable. Climate change, the genocidal war in occupied Palestine, policing in the ’hoods of the US, the carceral system, the massive experience of depression, listlessness, and anxiety, mass shootings, the rise of fascist and white supremacist organizations all are connected and imply the necessity for massive transformation – and that has to start with how you choose to make your life with other people and implies taking risk.”

At CleanTechnica, we pride ourselves on prodding and poking the world to give up its self destructive love affair with fossil fuels, but few of us are prepared to go hang out in a tree for a month or more to make our point. News of the quiet protest deep in the forests of Appalachia has not been reported anywhere else that I am aware of. Bravo to The Guardian for focusing attention on this issue. If you support this form of journalism, consider becoming a Guardian supporter. I have and I know they would welcome your help.

Clean energy is a glorious goal, but this story shows how deeply entrenched the fossil fuel industry is in American society. It is like a cancer that has sent its roots deep into its host, never to let go until both are dead. It has thoroughly corrupted government, taken over the courts, and is firmly in control of major media organizations like Fox News that spread its lies and distortions in an unending torrent of disinformation.

Make no mistake. Civilization as we know it is locked in a cage fighting a death match with the fossil fuel industry, and winning the battle will require much effort and much sacrifice. You and I may not be willing to sit in trees to make our point, but we can make choices in our lives that support a sustainable society.

We can limit our use of plastics, or purchase an electric or plug-in hybrid car the next time we go car shopping. We can bicycle to work once in a while; use a real drink bottle instead of single use container. We can compost, reduce our intake of meat, and make our homes more energy efficient. And we can vote for candidates who oppose the Citizens United doctrine that opened the flood gates to a tidal wave of corporate money in politics. We are all in this together, and it will take all of us working together to win the battle.

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new."

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