Mason Adams Published

Two Months After Judge Ordered Them Down, Tree-Sitters Still Block Mountain Valley Pipeline

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As 2020 gave way to a new year, and Donald Trump turned the White House over to Joe Biden, tree-sitters in western Virginia held their position against construction of the interstate Mountain Valley Pipeline.

Activists have blocked the pipeline in a mountain hollow just outside Elliston, Virginia, since fall of 2018. A judge ordered them down in November — but more than two months later, tree-sitters remain in place. And they’re not alone.

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Mason Adams/Inside Appalachia
A look at the Yellow Finch tree-sits, still occupied by protesters despite a judge’s order.

“There’s all kinds of like, local youth organizers that would come up to this space,” said a tree sitter known as Acre. “They clean up around the stream and read speeches and make banners. There’s been all kinds of local folks that have written letters to us, and stood under the trees and read them.”

Acre said that local support has kept them in the treetops through the winter months, even after the judge’s order. Like other activists who’ve occupied the blockade known as Yellow Finch — named for the dirt road that runs through the hollow just below the tree-sits — Acre uses non-binary gender pronouns and declined to reveal their real name.

“Using a pseudonym lets you do cool stuff that you wouldn’t be able to do with the same amount of integrity with the real name,” Acre said.

That includes writing posts that are published on the Facebook page of Appalachians Against Pipelines, which functions as the public face of the direct-action campaign against the Mountain Valley Pipeline.

“I don’t have to write everything,” Acre said. “I don’t always have to be the same person. There can be other people signing [posts as] Acre. If people can just walk up here like this, you know, you could be Acre, for all you know.”

The Mountain Valley Pipeline, or MVP, was announced in 2014 and approved by the federal government in 2017, but it’s still incomplete. Now, a shift in White House administrations and accompanying change on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) signals a new phase in the fight.

In mid-January, FERC deadlocked on — and therefore denied — a request by MVP to bore beneath waterways and wetlands along 77 miles of pipeline route in West Virginia. With one of the FERC commissioners in opposition to this process ascending to the commission’s chairmanship, some analysts see further obstacles in MVP’s future.

The pipeline was originally supposed to be in service by 2018, and its cost has gone up from a projected $3.3 billion when it was announced, to nearly $6 billion today. The pipeline did not respond to requests for comment, but its website reports that construction is 92% complete. Still, it remains unfinished — in part because of activists like Acre, who have put their bodies in the pipeline’s way.

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Mason Adams/Inside Appalachia
Hand-drawn art can still be seen on boards among the remnants of the former Yellow Finch support camp.

Tree-sits first went up against MVP in 2018, on the Virginia-West Virginia state line. Others followed, but all were forced down after a few months. Then, that fall, Yellow Finch quietly went up at a more defensible site, in a steep hollow near the south fork of the Roanoke River. It became a destination for pipeline fighters across the East Coast and the Midwest. They came from all kinds of backgrounds, too: Black Lives Matter, criminal justice reform, mutual aid, and fights against tar sands extraction, fracking, and other pipelines.

The Yellow Finch encampment became a hub for activism, not just against the pipeline but also for jail reform, mutual aid and other efforts. Its relatively accessible location made it easy for visitors to find and locals to plug in, while the steep slopes around the tree-sits made it difficult for law enforcement and pipeline security to remove.

The topography around the tree-sits underscore the activists’ argument against the pipeline. On one side of the hollow, the land has been cleared down to mineral soil, and it looks like pipeline workers are using a giant sheet of plastic or some other material to stabilize the ground. On the other side — where the tree-sits are located — the slope is still forested.

After the judge’s order in November, the activists took down the support camp. In late December, the pallets they used as a streamside barricade lay in piles, and the bunkhouse they slept in had been dismantled.

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Mason Adams/Inside Appalachia
The remnants of the support camp at Yellow Finch, which was removed by activists in November

But a skeleton crew of tree-sitters stayed behind, living 40 feet off the ground on a series of platforms connected by rope lines and covered with tarps. Acre said they’ve got a pile of sleeping bags to keep them warm, but that the weather’s been fairly mild so far this winter. And, it turns out that weather many of us see as an annoyance is crucial for Acre’s ability to stay in the trees.

“The water I drink is all rainwater, so I’m really grateful when it rains,” Acre said. “And then my solar panel charges my phone. So when it rains, I have to take my face away from a phone and read a book, and I get more water from my water-catchment system. In some ways, my setup is reliant on the elements and keeps me in tune with with the daylight and with the weather.”

Acre’s presence in the trees feels like a last stand against the Mountain Valley Pipeline. And it may signal the end of the Yellow Finch encampment. However, the tree-sits, while a focal point for news coverage of the pipeline fight, represent just one front in a long-running, multi-pronged campaign that also includes legal, regulatory and political action. Environmental groups are fighting the pipeline in court, and an army of trained volunteers monitor the pipeline for erosion and other environmental violations.

While the pipeline continues to make progress toward removing its remaining legal and regulatory obstacles, including receiving an important approval from the U.S. Forest Service in January, its fate remains unclear.

In the meantime, Acre and other tree-sitters remain, continuing to hold their space and block the pipeline.