More protests over Willits bypass project

Protester Robert Chevalier locked himself to a Caterpillar to protest a Caltrans bypass construction project.

Controversy over the Willits Bypass continued Monday, as Willits protesters sought to block Caltrans contractors from continuing work on the highway construction project. Protester Robert Chevalier, 66, locked himself to a Caterpillar tractor used for hauling felled logs using a steel “lock box.” At another location, four other protesters unfurled a banner to block work trucks that were preparing for pile-driving tests. Chevalier was arrested along with protesters Sara Grusky and Ellen Faulkner, who is 75.

Meanwhile, a new tree-sitter took to the branches of a rare wetland ash earlier this month. The protester, who goes by the name Condor, stationed himself at the northern end of the bypass on May 2. Since then, Condor has been replaced by a tree sitter who goes by the name of Hawk. “Part of the message of the medium is that birds move around,” explained Naomi Wagner, a spokesperson for Redwood Nation Earth First.

Condor was the eighth tree-sitter to protest the bypass. The first five were forcibly removed by CHP with cherry pickers on April 2. Two others decamped more recently before being arrested.

In the meantime, construction on the six-mile, four-lane highway continues, albeit with a few setbacks. On April 9, an inspector for the North Coast Water Quality Control Board visited the site and found that Caltrans had violated its permits by disturbing ground within 50 feet of streams and failing to follow statewide practices designed to prevent streamside runoff.

Critics maintain that it’s typical of Caltrans to go ahead with construction, even if that means violating the conditions of their permits. Jamie Chevalier of Earth First said, “Caltrans will just do what they’re gonna do and pay a fine.”

According to Caltrans spokesperson Phil Frisbie, however, the inspection was “normal routine business.”

“[The infraction] was an oversight on Caltrans and the contractor’s parts because the vegetation is so dense you can’t actually see the creek.” said Frisbie. “It won’t happen again.”

Last week, the California Transportation Commission approved an additional $26 million for the creation and rehabilitation of approximately 2,000 acres of wetlands. Many of those mitigation projects are years down the road, said Frisbie, a fact that alarms Chevalier and other opponents of the bypass.

Frisbie also said they were aware of the new tree-sitter, and were monitoring the situation.

When the Guardian reached Condor by phone last week, the tree sitter said he’d experienced minimal contact with Caltrans employees so far. “Yesterday they limbed an oak tree about a 100 feet from me,” he said. “I guess that was their response to my presence.”

Chevalier, the protester who locked himself to the Caterpillar, is a retired commercial fisherman who worked for years in Alaska.  He said he felt compelled to take a stand: "One thing we learned from fishing is that taking care of our rivers and forests creates a booming economy that will last. These big make-work projects leave the locals and the taxpayers worse off than before. It's just a waste,” he said. “This project is trashing the land, water, and local jobs that we really do need."

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