On a winding Northern California highway, under a 120-foot-tall ponderosa pine, a group of environmentalists gathered to observe the birds.
Everyone was waiting for a pair of bald eagles to enter the nest. The ravenous raptors have nested here for years, hollowing and hollowing it out every year in preparation for their young in the spring.
But this year, if the eagles — who spend the fall and winter months away from their nests — didn’t spot them in the tree by mid-January, they would lose it.
That’s because Pacific Gas & Electric, the largest utility company in the U.S., has obtained a permit to cut down a felled pine, claiming it could fall on the company’s nearby power lines and cause a catastrophic wildfire. Environmentalists and the Coyote Valley Band of Pomo Indians have contested that PG&E — which faces mounting pressure to stop its equipment from starting fires across the state — should move the power lines.
The tribe’s lawyers asked the utility company to reconsider. Locals printed signs to save the nest. In recent weeks, activists and tribal elders have protested, prayed and physically barricaded themselves in front of the tree as PG&E crews arrived — along with sheriff’s deputies — to cut it down.
“They had a cherry picker and a wood chipper ready,” said Polly Girvin, an environmental and indigenous rights activist. “But we weren’t going to back down.”
Now, armed with binoculars and cellphones, they stood watch on a foggy January morning. Bald eagles are protected by state and federal law, and PG&E could only take down the tree as long as the nest was not occupied or abandoned. “We have to continue to prove that this is an active nest,” Girvin explained.
The eagles came that day, arriving just as the heavy rain began. A few days later, PG&E said it would back down.
But the standoff with this lone tree, near a power line that serves just one property, raises difficult questions about PG&E’s approach to fire safety and its strained relationship with the communities it serves, many of whom live in rural, wild areas.
The company has come under increasing legal and financial pressure to act after its power lines were blamed for a number of fires, including a deadly 2020 blaze in northern Shasta County. Last year, it reached a $55 million settlement for several other fires in six counties, including the Kincaid fire and the Dixie fire.
As PG&E rushes to trim trees and clear brush near power lines to prevent future disasters — and avoid liability — environmentalists worry that local nuances are being overlooked.
“PG&E says wood is dangerous, it’s a hazard – but that’s not true. It’s their lines that are the danger,” said Naomi Wagner, a local activist with the environmental group Earth First! “So why is there a tree that has to go?”
dDuring their recent Bald Eagle party, Wagner, Girvin and a half-dozen other activists settled around a small campfire lit in the rain. Old environmentalists who had been campaigning since the 1960s were joined by their children, grandchildren and dogs. Coffee, muffins and binoculars were passed around, with warnings not to yell or scream to avoid surprising the eagles.
Priscilla Hunter, former chair of Coyote Valley, winked and moved closer to the fire. “It’s a miracle they’re here,” he said. Michael Hunter, the tribe’s current chairman, stepped up. “Hey, birds, where are you?”
Activists and tribal leaders for whom the eagle has cultural significance argue that the power company and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service failed to adequately inform and consult with the tribe about the decision to remove the tree, which could remain and become habitat. For this eagle pair, or their offspring, over the years.
And here was a bird that was not only sacred to Native American tribes, but also a symbol of the United States. And yet, crews came to remove the tree on Jan. 9 — the day before National Save the Eagles Day. “I mean, how unpredictable can PG&E be,” Wagner said.
Moreover, the owner of the property where the tree stands, as well as the residents who live there, all supported alternative solutions – rerouting or burying the power line, or installing a solar microgrid.
In TV commercials, PG&E touts its plans to bury 10,000 miles of power lines underground to reduce the risk of hitting trees, so why not do the same here? “Come on,” said Girvin. “They just want to take the quick and easy route.”
Meanwhile, PG&E argued in public statements that the tree “contains an inactive bald eagle nest, is a hazard and is at risk of failing and striking a PG&E line in a high fire danger area.”
Ultimately, the company was proven wrong when the Eagles finally entered. They first arrived as activists and tribal elders sang and prayed under a tree hours before PG&E crews arrived. And they came back every day. “It was magical,” Girvin said.
A few days later, PG&E released a statement saying it would finally bury the lines. “This solution allows us to protect our hometowns while also respecting the values of our local tribe, property owners and environmentalists,” Ron Richardson, PG&E’s North Coast regional vice president, said in a statement to the Guardian.
It was a hard-won concession – one that activists will remain wary of until they make a legally binding commitment to leave the tree standing. Although the company cannot remove nesting eagles from the tree, they will return if the eagles leave again. “It seems like you just have to show how ineffective it is,” said Hunter, chairman of the Coyote Valley group.
This was the second year that PG&E had tried to take down the tree. Also in 2022, a pair of eagles returned to their nest just in time to remove the saws. “And they had a baby!” said Joseph Seidel, a hemp farmer who lives on the property and led an early protest against PG&E’s plans. “I mean, just look at that,” he pointed out. “This giant pile of beautifully woven twigs holds this beautiful, sacred bird.”
In August, the utility shut off power to an overhead power line, just in case the tree eventually fell and caught fire, and asked Seidel to agree that he would not interfere with crews when they arrived to take down the tree. future. “It was devastating,” he said.
TThe ordeal left tribal leaders and environmentalists concerned that the utility — and the government agencies that oversee and permit its fire plans — failed to properly communicate and consult with communities before beginning work that would affect significant wilderness areas.
Although the Fish and Wildlife Service sent a letter informing Hunter of PG&E’s intent to cut the tree in December, tribal officials said the authority did not wait for a response and did not give tribal authorities enough time to review the permit. during the holiday season.
The agency did not respond to the Guardian’s request for comment before publication.
The Fish and Wildlife Service, which has a codified “fiduciary responsibility” — a binding moral obligation — to tribes, could do more to consult with tribal governments, said Don Hankins, a pyrogeographer and Plains Miwok fire expert at California State University. , Chico.
“There is clearly a need for better coordination on these kinds of issues,” he said. After two years of fighting over one tree, he noted, it’s unclear why recent government officials and PG&E haven’t coordinated with tribal leaders.
Hankins said PG&E and the Fish and Wildlife Service have policies in place to ensure they don’t impact vulnerable species, but those laws and policies don’t always take into account the complexities of a particular environment.
In Mendocino County, which has a dark history of logging dating back to the 1800s that destroyed old-growth redwoods and violently displaced some local villages, the lack of proper communication and care by PG&E and the Fish and Wildlife Service adds to the stress.
And even now, the Coyote Valley Band of Pomo Indians is engaged in a protracted battle to stop commercial logging in the nearby Jackson Demonstration State Forest, the nearly 50,000 acres it manages. California Department of Forestry and Fire Protectionor Cal Fire.
And while the region’s various government and private operators have made some gestures to work with local tribes — who have crucial, generational knowledge of the fragile landscapes here — they often fail to follow through meaningfully, Girvin said.
According to him, crews from different agencies have been working “involuntarily” for years. “They didn’t care at all about putting trails in sacred places, or thinking carefully about protecting the habitat and the species that were affected in the area.” Those incursions can be especially frustrating when the government has ignored, denied and criminalized traditional tribal custodianship practices up and down California for decades, he noted.
“Residents, whatever or whoever is running the business, they’re just undercutting,” Priscilla Hunter said. “That’s what those eagles reminded me of.”
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