Defending the Land, 50 Feet in the Air
Meet the tree-sitters fighting the Mariner East 2 Pipeline.
HUNTINGDON COUNTY, PA. — A small group of land defenders has taken to the trees to stop the Mariner East 2 (ME2) natural gas liquids pipeline. Fifty feet from the ground, a series of ropes connects three elaborate tree houses, where tree-sitters read, write and listen to music.
Hundreds of trees in this patch of wetlands have been cut down for drilling. The sitters at Camp White Pine have saved three at strategic points in the path of construction.
If completed, ME2 will transport highly explosive natural gas liquids 350 miles through Ohio, West Virginia and Pennsylvania.
The land defenders see their work as an important step against resource extraction and environmental degradation. Kari Smitherman, a Hispanic and Blackfoot woman, says she felt called to Camp White Pine because “the Earth and the air and the sky and the sun … they don’t belong to anyone.”
In March 2016, Sunoco Logistics — which has since merged with Energy Transfer Partners (ETP), the company behind the Dakota Access Pipeline — was granted an easement for construction on the 27-acre property of Ellen and Steven Gerhart, and an injunction was issued against the Gerhart family. Tree-sits began when tree-cutting crews, accompanied by police, descended upon the property on March 29, 2016. The Gerharts’ daughter, Elise, and her friends climbed three trees, and several dozen were left standing.
“I was sitting up there in this one tree,” Elise says, “and watching … dozens and dozens of other trees being felled right in front of my face. The police were laughing at me.” Police arrested two of her friends on the ground on charges of contempt of court and disorderly conduct.
Cutting in that area is legally restricted after March 31 to protect the Indiana bat, which awakens from hibernation around that time. But on April 7, 2016, Elise heard chainsaws from her bedroom and rushed to the trees — the crews had returned. Unbeknownst to the Gerharts, the company had made arrangements with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to continue the logging legally.
This time, Elise says, Sunoco called the police; Ellen was arrested and held in jail for three days.
After Sunoco merged with ETP in November 2016, the Gerharts put out a call for more support, and the camp started in February.
Various legal cases against the pipeline sit in court, and the company and police have not come back to finish cutting the trees, though a second injunction against the Gerharts was issued this summer. But the campers are prepared.
Land defenders haul water, cook and otherwise provide “a lot of the caring work” that keeps the camp going, according to Emily, one of the tree-sitters, who prefers not to give her last name. A pansexual woman with a disability, Emily says that while in the trees, “It’s hard not to feel kind of exactly what they want us to feel, which is boxed in and vulnerable.”
Despite the arrests, many sitters say they won’t be deterred. “We’ve got to put our foot down and say no, they can’t bully us forever,” says Smitherman. “They put us into the system where they’ve made us afraid to say no and fight back. I think we’ve got to start fighting now to get that power back for ourselves.”
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