A small group of activists from across California sent sheriff’s deputies and a PG&E tree-cutting crew into retreat Wednesday morning — though it’s unclear how long the now-famous “eagle tree” in Potter Valley they are protecting will remain standing. The group includes young people seasoned in direct action from the Mattole in Humboldt and Native American elders who have been praying and singing for a pair of bald eagles in a decades-old nest high in the branches of a dying Ponderosa pine.
On January 5, the US Fish and Wildlife Service issued a permit to PG&E to remove the tree, on the grounds that it poses a hazard to a nearby power line. PG&E de-activated the line over the summer, and is providing generator power to residents on the property at no extra cost — on the condition that they do not support efforts to protect the nest.
Tom Wheeler, Executive Director of EPIC, the Environmental Protection Information Center, said he’s still “still investigating all potential opportunities” to keep the tree standing, but that “the ability to get into court to stop this is difficult,” in such a short time span. During the two-week public comment period on the permit, which ended on December 27, Wheeler complained that “scheduling a public comment deadline to fall squarely within the winter holiday season is dispiriting, especially as the Service has recognized that this nest removal is the subject of significant public controversy. One can only assume that this was intentional to depress otherwise substantial and hostile comments.”
Environmental indigenous activist Polly Girvin said Monday the group plans to defend the nest for the duration, and that she’s there on behalf of her great-grandchildren. She explained, “I’m here because they massacred the oaks at Coyote Valley,” the home of the Coyote Valley Band of Pomo Indians in Redwood Valley. “It was a very traumatic experience, and I heard the same thing happened at the Yokayo Rancheria. So I’m here in support and solidarity in this Potter Valley territory, just because they have been really decimating the oaks on two reservations that I know of. They went way overboard.”
A Facebook post from Wednesday night thanks Congressman Jared Huffman for expressing his concern to PG&E “about the proposed cutting of the Potter Valley bald eagle nest tree.” Earlier this week, Wheeler expressed his own disgust with PG&E, saying, “This is what a multi-billion dollar industry invests in: to fight over a tree;” and added he was “impressed by the community that’s worked to protest the removal.”
Breeding season officially starts on January 15. Last year, an eagle landed in the nest as a PG&E biologist and local bird-lovers looked on. Plans to cut the tree were called off, and the pair successfully raised a chick last year.
A spokesperson for Fish and Wildlife said PG&E can cut the tree during the breeding season, “in the event the tree poses an emergency or hazard situation.” The Service’s ordinance does not allow intentional, lethal take of eagles, but it is permissible to remove an in-use nest “to alleviate an existing emergency, or to prevent a rapidly developing safety emergency” that could harm humans or eagles. US Fish and Wildlife pointed out that “Eagle nests commonly blow out of trees during winter storms, and nest trees occasionally fall down.”
But as of Wednesday evening, after a series of atmospheric rivers and gale-force winds, the nest tree, which is just a few hundred yards from the Eel River, was still standing firm. An activist named Bat described what he saw during Sunday night’s downpour. “Right across the street, that power line was all snapped up,” he said “And then they had to come out here and redo this whole line.” He added that crews made no attempt to come through the gate to cut down the eagle tree, but “We were here, trying to be in the way of them getting to this tree, so we were just standing by the gate and keeping watch.”
The fallen tree is a moss-covered oak which is still cut up by the side of the road and is marked with a yellow spray paint dot. A branch of poison oak twined around its trunk still bears a piece of red plastic tape. The marks do not comport with standard forestry markings (and their meaning has been known to change from year to year.) PG&E did not answer our question about the meaning of the dot and the tape on the tree that fell Sunday.
The eagles’ nest is just inside the gate to the driveway of a private property off of a narrow, nominally paved public road. There is another dirt driveway across the road that leads to Cape Horn Dam, part of the hydropower facility that is owned by PG&E. The dam was briefly threatened in 2017, when a firestorm caused by PG&E tore through Potter Valley and Redwood Valley.
The birds seem to have gotten used to curious humans, and they made several appearances on Monday morning as people talked and got in and out of cars and opened umbrellas and set up a canopy.
Isabella Azizi is a member of Idle No More SF Bay, an environmental organization that started as an Indigenous women’s prayer group focusing on Native American sovereignty, land and water protection. She left her home in Oakland early Monday morning to accompany activist and videographer Peter Menchini to the site. “It was such a blessing to be able to see the eagle this morning,” she recalled, noting that, as a city dweller, she hasn’t had many opportunities to view the iconic bird. “It just felt like the eagle was paying attention to us,” she went on; “almost like a sense of gratitude to us, being able to use our bodies and our voices to stand up for it and its family that it’s created for over 25 years…My heart’s pounding as I’m talking, just really blessed to have its presence.”
Azizi requested ceremonial Indigenous prayer for the effort to prevent the removal, and Girvin assured the group that she would work to bring roundhouse elders to the site as soon as possible. In the meantime, Larry Aguilera of Willits described a prayer circle that he led at the eagles’ nest last week. “As soon as we pulled in, the eagle just landed, and we saw the eagle flying around, and then there was a second eagle,” he reported. “They just went right to their nest and made themselves at home, because it is their home…It’s one of the things we can do, so we held a prayer circle and gathered around and just did that, and prayed for the eagle.”
Aguilera was singing and praying again on Wednesday morning between seven and eight o’clock, when Mendocino County sheriff’s deputies and PG&E crews arrived on the scene. No arrests were made, and PG&E crews retreated after a brief standoff, leaving the tree and nest intact.
An hour later, activist and videographer Peter Menchini reflected on what he witnessed, as a chipper truck sat silently further down the road. “PG&E thought better of it, and decided that they would say that they are going to leave it and that we won, but that the people who had generators were losing,” he said. “I was raised Catholic, so I recognize the Catholic guilt trip when someone’s pulling it on me.”
Activists also allege that a PG&E crew member tried to shoulder his way between them as they blocked the gate. PG&E did not provide a comment about the allegation.
Residents are unsure if PG&E will continue to supply courtesy generator power to the property. Tenant Joseph Seidell said in a phone interview that he and others are looking for ways to provide solar power if PG&E removes the generators and does not reactivate the line. The property relies on well water, which is powered by an electric pump. Domestic animals and at least one goat also live onsite, making it cumbersome to relocate if the cost of fuel for the generator becomes prohibitive.
A PG&E spokesperson did not directly address our questions about whether or not crews plan to return, and if the generators would be removed, but did provide some hints in a sentence that reads, “Upon removal of the tree, PG&E plans to remove the temporary generation that we had been providing to the property and will safely restore electric service.”