Living in a 1000 Year Old Tree: Julia Butterfly Hill during California’s Redwood Timber Wars

Disclaimer: The following blog post is not a reflection of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s opinion on the below topics.

By Cindy Barbosa

A black and white photo of a woman on a tree branch looking at the camera.
Julia Hill perched in Luna, 1998.[3]

On December 10, 1997, Julia ‘Butterfly’ Hill at 24 years old, climbed Luna, an over 1000-year-old, giant redwood tree, and would not touch ground for the next two years and eight days.[1] Earth First! activists had constructed a platform 180 feet in the air within the tree’s canopy, naming her Luna in appreciation for the full moon that had guided their build. Hill’s purpose for the tree-sit was to protect Luna and the surrounding Headwaters grove from being cut down, push for stricter regulations to slow down logging, and raise public awareness for the remaining 3% of old-growth redwoods.[2] The greatest challenge in preserving the redwoods was they were almost completely privately owned, unlike other ancient forests across the Pacific Northwest that were largely on public lands stewarded by the federal government. Therefore, forcing private landowners to give up their property rights over their land “ensured that the redwood timber wars would be fought in the terms of property and person that occupy the center of American national cultural identity.”[4]

Luna is located on a steep slope overlooking the basin of Stafford, California which, a year prior on New Year’s Eve, had been filled with between eight and seventeen feet of mud by a catastrophic mudslide, burying the town of Stafford, California and destroying many homes in its wake.[5] A resident who had been at home recalled what he saw, saying, “This thing was like a tidal wave, a tsunami of stumps and trees, and a redwood stump as big as a Peterbilt [large truck] or a Mac tractor. And they were floating on top of this flow just like marshmallows.”[6]

This mudslide had been the result of excessive clear-cutting. Trees hold soil in place, give hillsides stability, and absorb water. Without them, the earth becomes too saturated resulting in erosion and mudslides.[7] Stafford has been a dominant lumber producing community since the seventeenth century, predominantly run by Pacific Lumber Company, and local residents have built their livelihoods in this timber gold-mine for generations.[8] But in 1985, Maxxam Corporation, a company based in Texas, took over Pacific Lumber Company and tripled the rate of logging, a plan so aggressive that it would eventually clear-cut all of the last ancient redwoods in the area.[9] The influence of this new management was so merciless that the generational logging community of Humboldt, “steeped in working-class lumber-mill culture,” who struggled with growing public sentiment for forest preservation, were resentful of Maxxam.[10] The community wanted to see responsible management of the timber lands.

“We’ve been tolerant of Maxxam since the takeover. I was tolerant when they altered my viewshed by clearcutting the hillside across from my home. I was tolerant when they destroyed the osprey nests I’d looked at all my life. I was tolerant when they smoked us in for 3 weeks when they burned the clearcut. I was tolerant when they turned the only access road to my property into a string of potholes. But I became intolerant when I could no longer drink the water from my river because they had turned it into a river of silt…People accuse me and my neighbors, the affected residents, of coming from an environmental position. I’m a farmer. My family has farmed apples on this land for 100 years. Stewardship of the land is something I’ve been taught. My very livelihood depended on it growing up. The old Pacific Lumber did great forest stewardship.”[11]
– Kristy Wrigley, age 51, 3rd generation Humboldt County resident

The following summer of 1997, a few months after the mudslide, Julia Hill arrived in Stafford for the first time. Her trip had been the result of an event in her life one year prior. Hill had been in a near-fatal car accident, suffering damage to her brain and body when her head collided with a steering wheel and dislodged her skull.[12] It took 10 months of intensive therapy to recover, and would be a pivotal moment in her life. She recalled that “As [she] recovered, [she] realized that [her]whole life had been out of balance…the crash woke [her]up to the importance of…doing whatever [she] could to make a positive impact on the future.”[13] Almost a year after her traumatic accident, Hill headed West to reassess her purpose, “following [her]spirit to an unknown destination.”[14] Here, her first encounter with California’s old growth forest would move her deeply, ultimately changing her life forever; “When [she] entered the ancient redwoods for the first time, [she] dropped to [her] knees and began to cry.”[15] Soon after, she sold all her possessions and left indefinitely for Northern California.

She was first made aware of the danger facing redwoods when she was shown a photograph of one of these devastating clear-cuts by volunteers for the Environmental Protection Information Center (EPIC) who informed her, “This is what Pacific Lumber Maxxam Corporation does to the forest and calls business.”[16] It was the moment she decided this was her purpose, thinking that, “It was not so much a choice…it was more of, Julia, you cannot turn around and walk away from this. You have to do something.”[17] Julia Hill was born in Missouri but moved to Pennsylvania where her father started a church when she was 3. At 12, she moved to Arkansas where she spent the rest of her adolescence, and at 15 started breaking away from her Christian upbringing.[18] As the daughter of a traveling evangelical preacher, she grew up in a very religious household which later translated into a deep spirituality and reverence for the earth. This connection to nature later fueled her determination during her 738 day tree-sit.

For the past decade, local environmental groups had been conducting a campaign of civil-disobedience to Save the Headwaters Forest for the past decade as a result of Maxxam’s exploitative clear-cutting and the infamous Headwaters Forest Agreement, locally known as “The Deal.”[19] It posed as a solution between the government and Pacific Lumber Company (PL) to preserve 3500 acres of forest, but at the expense of thousands more acres, essentially giving PL license to kill endangered species and devastate their habitat for the next 50 years.[20] One of these groups, Earth First!, was looking for volunteers for an extended tree-sit in a redwood. Hill, who was new to the environmental activism scene, had only made a few acquaintances during the few weeks she stayed at a nearby base camp in Eureka. She had taken on a pseudonym for protection, like most members of Earth First!, choosing the name ‘Butterfly’. When she heard about the potential tree-sit, she enthusiastically volunteered, finally having an opportunity to contribute to the cause. Hill almost wasn’t chosen because of her lack of experience, but no one else volunteered. She took part in a short tree-sit that ended because of illness forcing her to come back down, but in December of 1977, Hill made her final ascent into Luna.[21] She hadn’t been completely aware of the politics that were deeply intertwined with the fight for redwood preservation and learned that the tree-sit was an Earth First! organized action for the first time when she was trekking to Luna with two other activists.[22] This didn’t change her desire to participate, but had she had known what this ‘two-week’ tree-sit would entail, she may have reconsidered.

“The first few weeks were especially hard. There was a two-week period in January when I had no real shelter, and I was constantly raked by storms. One night, the wind blew me three feet sideways with every gust.”[23]

Hill would be climbing into one of the worst winters in recorded California history and would endure the 1997-98 El Niño storms, one of the most powerful climate oscillation events. She recalled that “I was broken, emotionally, mentally, spiritually, suffering frostbite, cut off from the only people that care whether I live or die.”[24] Her living circumstances were fully exposed to the elements, living on a 6 by 8 platform surrounded by tarps, so small that her feet hung over the edge, her main possessions were one pot, one cup, and one hand crank radio and she, but she faced continuous harassment from Pacific Lumber Company.

Image of a woman on a tree branch touching leaves.
Hill tending to Luna.[26]

Since no one at PL could climb Luna due to the tree’s missing lower branches, they resorted to intimidation tactics. Loggers began felling trees around her and cutting off the baby trees on Luna’s trunk. Large trees crashed to the ground around Luna narrowly missing Hill, one so close that it hit Luna and almost knocked Hill out of the tree. They also cursed and threatened her, “It was pretty vile. They described in great detail all the things they planned to do to me.”[25] Only a few weeks into her tree-sit, Pacific Lumber sent men in a helicopter to fly low, directly above her precarious perch, trying to rip the tarps off and scare her down. Hill had videotaped the attack and sent it to the Federal Aviation Administration, who sent a letter of indictment to Pacific Lumber stating that it was illegal for a helicopter to be flown within 200 feet of a human, ending the helicopter attacks. PL hooked air horns up to her generator and blew them throughout the night so she couldn’t sleep.

Image of a woman reading surrounded by a tarp and sleeping bag.
Hill in her platform shelter.[27]

She was under siege for 10 days when Pacific Lumber employed security guards to remain at the base of Luna 24/7 to cut off Hill’s resupplies in an effort to starve her down.[28] As days passed, Hill’s food supply began to wane to the point where she considered coming down until Earth First! attempted a risky resupply. Twenty members arrived with bags of food and signaled for Hill to distract the guards. She rolled out a 25 foot banner and started singing, distracting the guards for crucial seconds in which the suppliers made a run for Hill’s supply line.[29] Two out of the twenty bags made it up to Hill, allowing her to continue her sit. Two days later, the guards left as a result of weather and expense.

Earth First! asked her to come down because they didn’t have enough resources to support Hill’s tree-sit or any control over her safety. They barely had any resources to begin with, as many members of Earth First! didn’t have food to eat or places to live.[30] Many lived together in the same house, committing all of their time to the movement. However, Hill refused. She didn’t consider herself a member of Earth First! and, in fact, felt it would be an injustice to the movement.

“But I knew in my heart that, to come down at the time they wanted me to, would have been a disrespect to Luna. It would’ve been a disrespect to the Earth and would’ve actually been a disrespect to the Earth First movement because it would’ve been saying, okay all we’re doing is playing in trees and when it gets too hard for us to handle we’re gonna come down, so all you have to do is wait us out. And that to me was such a weak position. What power do tree-sits have if we’re just gonna come down when things get rough? I just couldn’t be a part of that. So I told them no, I sent a letter down to them.”[31]

Black and white image of people holding down someone who appears to be in distress.
Police apply pepper spray directly into protestors eyes.[33]

Meanwhile, on the ground, the timber wars continued raging. Many nonviolent civil disobedience tactics were used by activists to protest Pacific Lumber. There was no membership process or hierarchical structure involved in Earth First! as it relied solely on a loose form of organization which allowed for anyone, anywhere to contribute to their message of, “Acting locally, directly, and without compromise under the global principle of resistance to destruction of ecology.”[32] Their actions included trespassing, blocking access to property and roadways, and preventing the use of equipment by chaining themselves onto it. They used heavy steel tubes called “black bears” which were self-releasing lock down devices used to create human blockades, sitting together, unflinching. Other devices called “dragons” were made by pouring cement into the ground and doing something similar with a piece of metal that they lock themselves to.[34] In response, police would threaten protestors with pepper spray, proceeding to pull their heads back by their hair and foreheads, forcibly opening their eyes, and applying pepper spray directly into their eyes.[35]

Although the battle over Headwaters had been going on for over a decade, the publicity that had been generated in that time wasn’t important enough for any significant high-level action to take place until Hill. Her story began being featured in more news publications. As media coverage drastically increased, she started receiving visits from photographers and news outlets who wanted to see the young woman who had been living in a tree. Hill debated John Campbell, president of Pacific Lumber Company, about the massive mudslide of 1996 below Luna on CNN.[36] She began publicly speaking out against the Headwaters Deal, drafting a statement against it and held a phone conference with both the State Assembly and the Senate.[37] Previously, she had been regularly calling John Campbell, who never returned the calls, but a few months into the summer of 1997, Campbell started picking up which established a foundational relationship that allowed a space for negotiation.[38] Hill’s actions gave the redwood preservation movement immense national attention, as people were fascinated and moved by her conviction. Her influence trickled into pop culture when, during their 1998 tour, the band, The Grateful Dead, would dedicate one song to Hill and everyone fighting for the redwoods every show they played.[39] She was receiving hundreds of letters a day and would respond back to all of them.[40] As her determination inspired globally, Hill and Luna became the face of the movement, a symbol that represented a beacon of hope.

Image of a woman in a red jacket standing atop of a tree with a sign below her saying "RESPECT YOUR ELDERS."
Julia ‘Butterfly’ Hill standing atop Luna.[43]

“In all her majestic glory, [Luna] has become our platform to the world. From her branches we are making people aware that the destruction of the environment is a direct reflection of the destruction of our lives.”[41]

A turning point came in the development of the timber wars and Hill’s tree-sit on September 17, 1998. David ‘Gypsy’ Chain, 24 years old, had been with a group of Earth First! forest defenders when he was killed by a tree.[42] It had been felled directly at the group by a Pacific Lumber Company feller. In court, video footage recorded by the environmental protestors had been played, clearly showing the feller verbally threatening to kill them, “Get outta here! Otherwise I’ll fuckin’ make sure I got a tree comin’ this way!…Better get a hard hat, ‘cause this one’s comin’ for you.”[44] But the Humboldt District Attorney refused to deliver charges against Pacific Lumber, instead threatening to bring manslaughter charges against the forest defenders.[45] Chain’s death was a climax in the movement and resulted in an investigation. It was revealed that between 1995 and 1997, The California Department of Forestry & Fire Protection had charged Pacific Lumber with at least 250 violations of the California Forest Practice Act.[46] Two months later, Pacific Lumber lost their logging license, becoming the first company in California to do so. With the pressure turned up, negotiations began between government authorities and PL to purchase Headwaters Forest, the last and largest unprotected redwood forest ecosystem.

Finally, after two years of living in Luna, an agreement was signed that Luna would be preserved and Hill made her descent back to the earth. After over a decade of the grassroots campaign to save Headwaters Forest, all 7,500 acres of the last privately-owned redwoods would become Headwaters Forest Reserve, part of the National Landscape Conservation System.[47] Ultimately, the Headwaters Forest Agreement only saved a small percentage of the 60,000 acres of other forest that had been contested and would fall victim to aggressive logging.[48] The timber wars still rage in Northern California as endangered species and watersheds become increasingly more at risk. However, Hill is still proud of the inspiration that people drew from her tree-sit to get environmentally active in their own communities and the decades of nonviolent civil disobedience that people have and continue to use to fight for our forests.[49]

“I’ve never felt that loggers were the enemy…Maxxam is the problem – a company that has accrued hundreds of environmental violations from the California Department of Forestry in the last eight years…They don’t care about their employees, and they don’t care about their forests. When they’re finished, there’ll be no jobs, no trees – just eroded earth. We don’t have a problem with sustained-yield logging. But this isn’t sustained-yield, and the loggers will ultimately suffer with the rest of us.”[50]

Luna Now: In late 2000, someone slashed a 32 inch deep gash halfway around Luna’s trunk with a chainsaw. But over 20 years later, Luna is making a healthy recovery and healing herself.[51]

Four sequential images of a tree, showing the growth and healing of a gash.
An update on Luna.[52]

[1] Butterfly, directed by Doug Wolens (PBS, 2000). 1 hr. 20 min.

[2] Julia Butterfly Hill, “Behind the Redwood Curtain,” Earth First! Journal 18 no. 4 (March-April 1998): 4.

[3] Trees Foundation Archive, “Then & Now! Julia Butterfly Hill,” Trees Foundation, August 23, 2021.

[4] Richard Widick, Trouble in the Forest: California’s Redwood Timber Wars (Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2009), pg 15.

[5] Olivia Ensign, “Julia Butterfly Hill defends California redwoods, 1999,” Global Nonviolent Action Database, January 5, 2010.

[6] Steve Curwood, “Stafford Slide,” March 2001.

[7] Kateryna, Sergieieva, “Clear-Cutting: Pros And Cons Of The Typical Forestry Practice,” EOS Data Analytics, September 9, 2021.

[8] Ensign, “Julia Butterfly Hill defends California redwoods, 1999.”

[9] Ibid.

[10] Widick, Trouble in the Forest, pg 15.

[11] Adam Miller, “Giant Redwoods Fall to Corporate Raider,” Web Archive, 2007.

[12] Hill, “Behind the Redwood Curtain,” 4.

[13] Glen Martin, “A Year In The Sky,” San Francisco Chronicle, December 6, 1998.

[14] Hill, “Behind the Redwood Curtain,” 4.

[15] Julia Butterfly Hill, “There is No Average Day When you Live in a Tree,” The New York Times Magazine, December 12, 1999.

[16] Steve Curwood, “Treesitter,” April 2000.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Hill, “Behind the Redwood Curtain,” 4.

[19] Widick, Trouble in the Forest, pg 50.

[20] Butterfly.

[21] Ensign, “Julia Butterfly Hill defends California redwoods, 1999.”

[22] Martin, “A Year in the Sky.”

[23] Ibid.

[24] Hill, “There is No Average Day When you Live in a Tree.”

[25] Martin, “A Year in the Sky.”

[26] Trees Foundation Archive, “Then & Now! Julia Butterfly Hill.”

[27] Ibid.

[28] Hill, “Behind the Redwood Curtain,” 4.

[29] Ensign, “Julia Butterfly Hill defends California redwoods, 1999.”

[30] Butterfly.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Widick, Trouble in the Forest, pg 51

[33] Ibid.

[34] Butterfly.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Ensign, “Julia Butterfly Hill defends California redwoods, 1999.”

[37] Ibid.

[38] Ibid.

[39] Widick, Trouble in the Forest, pg 53

[40] Butterfly.

[41] Hill, “Behind the Redwood Curtain,” 4.

[42] Ibid.

[43]Remembering David Nathan ‘Gypsy’ Chain,” EPIC Website (blog), October 11, 2017.

[44] Strong Wood, “A Forest Defender Falls,” Earth First! Journal 19 no. 1 (November-December 1998): 17.

[45]Remembering David Nathan ‘Gypsy’ Chain,” October 11, 2017.

[46] Ensign, “Julia Butterfly Hill defends California redwoods, 1999.”

[47] Steve Curwood, “Luna Mending,” March 2001.

[48] Ibid.

[49] Ibid.

[50] Trees Foundation Archive, “Then & Now! Julia Butterfly Hill.”

[51] Martin, “A Year in the Sky.”

[52] Stuart Moskowitz, “Luna Update,” Sanctuary Forest, June 2021.

[53] Ibid.