Yellow Finch Tree Sitters Continue to Defy Mountain Valley Pipeline
Sitting high in the trees in Montgomery County, Virginia, the tree sitters off Yellow Finch Lane are in their 853rd day of blockading construction of the Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP) and the 50th day of defying a court order to vacate. Mountain Valley Pipeline, an in-progress 303-mile natural gas pipeline traversing through West Virginia and Virginia, is currently embattled in a sea of legal challenges, contentious approval processes, and intense scrutiny from land defenders and conservationists. The Yellow Finch tree sitters have long been on the frontlines of the anti-pipeline movement.
No Movement to Remove Yellow Finch Tree Sitters
According to Appalachians Against Pipelines, the loose collective of activists and organizers behind the protest, there has been no attempt by law enforcement to remove tree sitters. Long-standing tree sits, like those at Yellow Finch, are made possible by protestors rotating in and out of tree sits with ground support to provide food and supplies.
However, an injunction that removed the group’s ground encampment over a month ago leaves the remaining tree sitters alone this winter. “We all have a little grief for the loss of a space we cared about,” said Acre, one of the anonymous tree sitters, “but the space is only made out of the people who ran it.”
Acre was also quick to correct that the ground camp did not belong to them, or anyone. “It may seem like semantics but it’s not my ground camp,” they said. “I don’t own it or tell anyone what to do. We are all here to support each other.”
Acre’s explanation of the movement’s non-hierarchical and autonomous nature reflects the DNA of tree sitting, a form of protest that came into the public eye in the 1980s with the timber wars of Northern California. In that instance, after 20 years of violent clashes between the Pacific Lumber Co. and tree sitters, activists declared a tenuous victory when Pacific Lumber Co. came under new ownership and vowed to protect old-growth redwoods.
Natalie Cox, a spokesperson for MVP, has said repeatedly that the safety of everyone involved in the project, whether for or against, is their top priority. “The actions taken by a few opponents,” Cox stated, “have created unnecessary safety risks for everyone involved, including law enforcement, security personnel, project workers, and opponents themselves.”
Crossing the Appalachian Trail
The Mountain Valley Pipeline is set to cross Jefferson National Forest (the Forest) and the Appalachian Trail on the border of West Virginia and Virginia atop Peter’s Mountain, not far from where the Yellow Finch tree sitters are based. The project is inching closer to gaining the permits required to cross the Forest with a recent environmental impact statement from the Forest Service in favor of the crossing.
Additionally, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) recently approved MVP’s request to narrow the buffer zone around the Forest from twenty-five miles to just seven in a 2-1 vote.
MVP says that it plans to resume construction in the area and expects to have authorizations from the Forest Service and US Bureau of Land Management to cross the Forest in the coming weeks, allowing it to cross under the Appalachian Trail via its planned route.
A Turnaround From the ATC
After previous opposition to the pipeline, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) entered a voluntary stewardship agreement with MVP in August. As part of the agreement, MVP donated $19.5 million to the ATC. Funding is earmarked for use in West Virginia and Virginia to protect land in the trail corridor and support local outdoor-recreation based economies.
Since entering the stewardship agreement in August, the ATC has removed most criticisms of the pipeline project from their website. According to the ATC, “There is no relationship between this voluntary agreement and the various federal or state permitting decisions, and Mountain Valley will continue working directly with the agencies to fully address their concerns related to the places, resources, and public values for which they are responsible. Similarly, the Conservancy will continue to engage in the federal permitting process, as it has previously done.”
Local activists and ATC members were not all thrilled with the agreement. Maury Johnson, a local landowner whose 150-acre farm is in the path of the pipeline, told Energy News Network, “It shocked me so much that I almost fell to the floor. At first, I wanted to drop my membership in the Conservancy. But then I thought, wait a minute, membership gives me power because they have to be responsive to members.”
Sandi Marra, president and CEO of the ATC, said in response to criticisms, “We’re not the Sierra Club. We never say the trail is a green wall to stop all energy projects. That’s not our role.” The ATC is already making use of the $19.5 million donation with the recent acquisition of almost 600 acres of land adjacent to McAfee Knob.
“Protecting the areas surrounding McAfee Knob is a clear example of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy’s focus on conserving the areas essential to the unique experience the Appalachian Trail provides,” said Marra. “Land conservation is an essential element of our work, helping ensure the ecosystems and inspiring views the Trail is known for are available for all of us to enjoy and benefit from for centuries to come.”
In response to the turnaround from the ATC, Yellow Finch tree sitter Acre questioned the integrity of the donation. “Maybe 19.5 million dollars would change my mind too,” they said.
This is the second time in recent years that the AT has had a brush with a natural gas pipeline in the Peter’s Mountain area. In 2014, the trail was rerouted over the top of Peter’s Mountain so that a 12-inch Columbia Gas pipeline could be constructed. The reroute, which moved another section of the AT onto permanently protected lands, was partially funded by a $40,000 grant from Columbia Gas.
Not Your Average Pipeline
Mountain Valley Pipeline is 42 inches in diameter, much larger than most pipelines. It poses a significant risk of soil erosion and landslides when traversing steep slopes.
According to reporting in the Virginia Mercury, MVP is routed over 75 miles of slopes steeper than 30 percent grade and has already been plagued by erosion and a landslide that threatened a down-slope residential home. Landslides have caused at least five gas pipeline explosions in the area since 2018.
In addition to the dangers of the pipeline and the contributions to climate change, opponents cite the 125-foot right of way as an eyesore and damaging to iconic views from the Appalachian Trail.
In a 2017 op-ed, before the stewardship agreement, Andrew Downs, the Virginia Regional Director for the ATC, said, “The ATC finds that MVP’s proposed routing could not be worse. The route snakes through the Appalachians requiring thousands of acres of forest to be cleared and creating gashes the width of a 12-lane highway. The resulting eyesores would be devastating to the trail and surrounding landscape, and would be seen from as far as 20 miles away.”
The pipeline project has long been plagued by legal opposition. Construction has been delayed by permitting issues and multiple work stop orders from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission amid environmental concerns.
MVP maintains that the pipeline is safe, stating on their website, “The natural gas system has the best safety record of any energy delivery system according to the National Transportation Safety Board and the U.S. Department of Transportation.”
Proponents of natural gas pipelines also favor the efficiency of pipelines over trucks and railroads to haul fuel and point to the fact that natural gas is cleaner burning than other fossil fuels.
Anonymity in Resistance
Using aliases similar to thru-hikers’ trail names, tree sitters remain anonymous to protect themselves and each other. Acre finds the names empowering, as well as practical. “I think everyone deserves a chance to rename themselves,” they said, “It’s good for personal autonomy.”
Throughout the history of tactical nonviolence and civil disobedience, aliases have played a key role in protecting protestors. The Yellow Finch tree sitters are currently racking up $500 a day in fines for every day they violate the court order.
But with their identities hidden, and the number of days each protestor has spent in the trees a mystery, it’s unclear how fines or criminal charges will stick.
“It’s less to do with protecting my identity and more to do with protecting my friends.” Acre said. “You can’t commit perjury if everyone is wearing masks and using funny new names.”
Above the Fray
The Yellow Finch tree sitters pose a unique threat to the pipeline that goes beyond permitting obstacles and legal actions. According to reporting in the Roanoke Times, MVP estimates that tree sits have cost them and their private security company a combined $213,000 so far.
MVP also accuses tree sitters and protestors of harassing their employees and private security personnel. To that, Acre responded, “If you quit your unethical screwed up job, you wouldn’t get yelled at by hippies.”
Accusations of harassment cut both ways in this standoff. Acre also recounted instances of MVP personnel leaving their beeping machinery on all night or playing radios directly under blockades to keep people from sleeping.
It’s hard to imagine the completion of MVP as anything but inevitable, but tree sitters look to activists across the country, like those protesting the Line 3 pipeline in Minnesota, for inspiration to keep going. As for a future after tree sitting, Acre is considering a cross country trip or even an Appalachian Trail thru-hike.
“The beauty and biodiversity of this country is astounding,” they said. “I think the thru hikers and I share a love of this insane American landscape.” It’s doubtful that Yellow Finch will be Acre’s last act of tactical nonviolence.
As they said in a recent Instagram post, “I see my place as being a thorn in the side of this massive expansionist corrupt system every time I’m given the opportunity.”
Featured image via Appalachians Against Pipelines.
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