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Photograph by Doug Thron

Forest guardian: After two high-profile years in a giant redwood, Julia Butterfly Hill has hit the ground running, determined to save all of America's ancient trees.

Butterfly Blues

Julia Butterfly saved her beloved redwood, but her struggle is just beginning

By Patrick Sullivan

SHE'S SPENT the last two years living high among the branches of an ancient redwood tree, so you might think Julia Butterfly Hill would need time to find her land legs. Instead, the 26-year-old activist has hit the ground running.

In December of 1999, Hill triumphantly ended her high-profile struggle to save her beloved Luna, a 1,000-year-old redwood tree in Humboldt County, by reaching a landmark protection agreement with Pacific Lumber and then climbing tearfully down to solid ground amid international media attention.

But her fight is far from over. Armed with Legacy of Luna, her frank new book about her experiences, Hill has launched a national crusade to keep forest protection in the national spotlight.

On Friday, March 31, she arrives in Sebastopol to give a sold-out talk at the Vets Memorial Building.

However, the world's most famous tree-sitter is finding her quest complicated by both her own fame and controversies over the deal she made to end her high-profile tree sit. All told, it seems a lot to handle for someone still getting used to life on solid ground.

"Two days out of the tree I found myself on the ground in New York City," Hill explains in her pleasant, slightly breathy voice. "So I have definitely been on a fast track of learning and transformation since coming down."

Speaking by phone from an office in Marin's Muir Woods where she is meeting with ABC News, Hill passionately discusses a range of topics, from the Headwaters Forest deal to the intense public scrutiny she's experienced since coming down from Luna to the growing power of grassroots environmental activists.

Above all, however, she wants to talk about ancient trees and irresponsible logging.

"Ninety-seven percent of the original ancient forests are gone," she says. "Of the remaining 3 percent, only 1 percent is protected. Our government and corporations are failing us, so we as citizens have to get involved."

You couldn't get involved much more quickly than Hill, a preacher's daughter who took on the name Butterfly when she first began her famous tree-sit in 1997. Having discovered during a cross-country vacation the beauty of the redwoods and the danger confronting them, Hill returned home to Arkansas, sold most of her belongings, and returned to Humboldt County determined to help stop the pell-mell logging operations being conducted by Pacific Lumber.

Hill plunged almost immediately into the thick of the struggle. After casually embarking on her tree-sit, Hill displayed remarkable tenacity in the face of El Niño storms, lightning strikes, and harassment by Pacific Lumber helicopters and security guards.

Her feat of endurance and her natural charisma turned her into one of the world's most famous environmentalists, leading her publisher (HarperSanFrancisco) to call her "the Rosa Parks of the environmental movement." But talk like that seems to make Hill a little uncomfortable.

"I have a hard time being compared to other people. I'm just me," she says. "I followed my heart and my spirit, and I did what I felt I had to do. I think for Rosa Parks it was the same.

"At the same time, I don't want people to think that I'm different from them," she continues. "I'm a human being who is doing her part, and I ask that other people do their part too."

There are, of course, some people who think Hill falls far short of being a hero. Timber company supporters call her two-year sit a dangerous stunt. More surprisingly, some radical environmentalists have criticized the details of the deal that saved Luna--even going so far as to heckle Hill during speaking engagements for agreeing to pay $50,000 to Pacific Lumber.

Hill notes that the money was actually turned over to the forestry department at Humboldt State University. She also points out that hers was one of the few tree-sits that actually ended with the tree still standing.

"If we can use money to protect the environment, that's what we'll do," she says. "Our government should get involved and protect these forests, but until that happens, we have to use the tools available to us."

You might expect such controversy to discourage Hill. But she seems to take it comfortably in stride.

"It's a rule of activism that for every action there's an equal and opposite criticism," Hill says. "Because we are all different people, we all have different ways of looking at the world. I don't expect everyone to agree with me. But if we all get up every morning and do what we think is right to help save the earth, we will succeed."

Of course, some of her critics may be further incensed by her book, which offers a frank account of the difficulties Hill sometimes had with unnamed members of the radical environmental organization Earth First!, which organized the occupation of Luna.

But in her phone conversation, Hill insists that her account is simply honest. "Nowhere in the book does it attack anyone," she says. "The book is only about being truthful about what I went through, because so many people had such romantic notions about what I was doing."

Still, Hill does admit that relations with Earth First! were not always easy.

"I love and respect many people in Earth First!" she says. "I also had many, many difficulties with the organization."

What does the future hold for Hill? She says she plans to remain in Humboldt County and continue her crusade through a wide variety of means, from walking the halls of Congress to engaging in direct action. But will she embark on another tree-sit?

"Every day I wake and I say, 'Creator, how can I best be of service?'" she says.

"If that guidance leads me up another tree, then I'll go."

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From the March 30-April 5, 2000 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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