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Chainsaws Level Memorial Stadium Grove

By Richard Brenneman
Thursday September 11, 2008 - 09:39:00 AM
A tree-sitter watches as a member of the scaffold crew looks out over the crowd that had gathered to witness the final hours of the protest on Tuesday.
by Richard Brenneman
A tree-sitter watches as a member of the scaffold crew looks out over the crowd that had gathered to witness the final hours of the protest on Tuesday.
A lone contract worker, armed with a chainsaw to cut the last tree to go at the stadium grove.
By Richard Brenneman
A lone contract worker, armed with a chainsaw to cut the last tree to go at the stadium grove.

UC Berkeley brought out the chainsaws Friday, and by the time their engines went silent Tuesday, the Memorial Stadium grove was gone. 

A state appellate court ruling Thursday cleared the way for the clear-cutting, which began Friday and continued through Saturday afternoon, leaving upright only one of the 41 trees scheduled to fall. Another tree is scheduled to be transplanted elsewhere on campus. 

The last tree to fall before the chainsaw was the redwood ascended by the first tree-sitter, Zachary Running Wolf, on Dec. 2, 2006. 

The four tree-sitters still aloft Tuesday had been confined to an ever smaller, ever higher section of the redwood, finally driven to a few remaining branches and their crow’s nest, fixed to the top of the redwood by a heavy plank. Running Wolf, who had descended months earlier, watched from the crowd, yelling in protest.  

The end came when a scaffolding contractor hired by the university surrounded the redwood with a metal framework starting at 8:37 Tuesday morning and rising, layer by layer, throughout the day as workers hammered sections into place and added prefabricated platform sections and stairway segments. 

The scaffold builders, wearing hard-hats with clear face masks, worked beneath three large fabric panels held overhead by three cherry-pickers run by university athletic department staff. 

One campus police officer said the panels were deployed to protect the workers from objects hurled by the tree-sitters. But the only objects hurled by the protesters were small objects with fishing line attached and aimed toward the crowd, perhaps in an effort to deploy heavier lines that could be used to escape from the double layer of fencing and two police lines standing between them and freedom. 

The effort failed when the line became entangled with overhead wires. 

By 11:30 a.m. Tuesday, the highest platform had reached the lowest level of branches remaining on the tree, with campus police simultaneously deploying along the median strip on Piedmont Avenue to contain the growing crowd of tree-sit supporters.  

Throughout the day campus police approached the tree-sitters from above and below. 

Campus Chief Victoria Harrison, accompanied by Assistant Chief Mitch Celaya and one or two other officers—one always recording with a video camera—took to the air in a rectangular metal basket suspended from a massive crane, attempted to talk the tree-sitters down. 

Occasionally other officers ascended in a cherry picker, pulling down supplies and belonging accumulated by the tree-sitters on their wooden platform about a dozen feet from the redwood’s crown. 

“They’ve been threatening us,” tree-sitter Huck told reporters over a cell-phone speaker late in the morning. “All we want is for the university to hold negotiations with the community” over future land-use decisions, he said. “Why should we compromise our values just because they’re threatening us?” 

The protester said the university was threatening both a forcible extraction and additional felony charges unless the tree-sitters agreed to come down peacefully. 

Throughout the day a percussive symphony of sounds accompanied the drama, spawned by the hammers of the scaffold builders, the impromptu drumming of the spectators on large cans and five gallon plastic buckets and the intrusive thrumming of the engines of news helicopters circling overhead. 

By noon, the scaffold had reached the tree-sitters’ platform itself, which was broken up and hurled to the earth to make way for a larger metal platform as the tree-sitters ascended to the final refuge. 

By 12:42 p.m. the platform had be ringed by a double railing, and a minute later the builders descended, replaced by campus police who deployed lines to link themselves to the railings as they began the final breakup of the wooden platform. 

At 12:54, the last sleeping bags were tossed over the edge, and at 1:01 p.m., the surrender began. 

“The tree-sitters agreed to come down because UC agreed to create a meaningful forum where the community can have meaningful input to UC development decisions,” announced Ayr, one of the most prominent supporters of the tree-sit. 

At 1:10 p.m., the first of the tree-sitters was on the ground, followed by a second three minutes later. 

Then the two remaining tree-sitters reversed their climb down, heading back to their perch. Finally, the third tree-sitter surrendered at 1:24 p.m., and the last, Huck, finally touched his bare feet to the earth at 1:33 p.m. 

By then, Berkeley Police had closed off the northbound lane of Piedmont, and campus police had pulled back their barricade, allowing the crowd to pour onto pavement. 

Throughout the final hours protesters had yelled at campus police, and on five occasions, officers resorted to arrests—once under a barrage of dry red dust hurled by protesters from the median strips.  

Moments after the final surrender, an impromptu assembly of musicians and drummers began to play, and a dozen or more spectators began to dance. 


University response 

Three hours later, four UC officials held a triumphant press conference in the Memorial Stadium’s Hall of Fame room. 

They spoke before a blue background screen lettered repeatedly in gold with “UC Berkeley.” 

The first order of business was a denial that the university made any concessions in exchange for the surrender. 

“There was no quid pro quo,” said university spokesperson Dan Mogulof. 

Vice Chancellor Nathan Brostrom agreed. “What was really holding us up was the lawsuit,” he said, referring to the litigation filed by the City of Berkeley, California Oak Foundation, Panoramic Hill Association and a collection of environmentalists and neighborhood activists. 

Alameda County Superior Court Judge Barbara J. Miller issued her finally ruling in the 19-month-long case on Aug. 26, ending the injunction that had barred the university from any construction activities—including tree-clearing. 

While the city declined to join the appeal, the other plaintiffs took the decision up to the Court of Appeal, also seeking an order that would reinstate the lapsed injunction. When the court rejected that move late last Thursday, the university was free to cut, and the saws fired up the next morning. 

Once most of the trees were gone, that way was cleared for Tuesday’s action. 

Harrison told reporters that, after the tree-sit began, she had contacted other police department across the country in search of techniques for handling the protest, “and quite frankly, we came up empty.” 

Harrison said the idea of using scaffolding arose “about three to four months ago,” but was impractical unless the surrounding trees were cleared, a move that couldn’t occur until the injunction had ended. 

Had the tree-sitters not surrendered when they did, Harrison said the scaffold would have continued to rise until it encompassed the entire tree. 

“That was the next step,” she said, adding that once the protesters were surrounded by the scaffolding she believed “we would be able to remove them.” 

Athletic director Sandy Barbour praised the police for their work, and said that now the tree-sitters were gone “the Student Athlete High Performance Center can become a reality,” thanks to “the passion of our fans and supporters” who will pay all the costs of a project now estimated to cost about $124 million. 

Brostrom acknowledged that legal questions remain. One issue still to be determined is just how much the university can spend on the next two planned phases of construction. 

While the way seems clear to building the four-level gym and office complex, just how much money the university can spend on the stadium itself remains in question. 

Judge Miller’s ruling indicated that the university would only be able to spend half of the building’s current market value. And considering that the gym is a sadly neglected, 85-year-old, seismically unsafe structure sitting directly over the Hayward Fault, that value could be well beneath the university’s own estimate, which is based on replacement value of a new structure built to modern earthquake codes. 

But Brostrom said that even with if the judge’s valuation prevails, the university would still be able to complete a seismic retrofit of the stadium’s western half, which overshadows the gym. 

Barbour said that while major construction work couldn’t begin until the football season ends Dec. 6, preconstruction work can begin immediately, and Mogulof told reports Monday that bid packages had gone out that day. 


Final action 

Tuesday’s final scene at the grove played out before a much smaller audience than the 400 or so who had been gathered for the final moments of the tree-sitters. 

At 4:43 p.m., a lone arborist, suspended by cable from a massive crane, had cinched a “choke” around the top of the redwood and fired up his chainsaw, A minute later, the crane was hauling off the section, laying it atop a pile of oak logs from the earlier tree-clearing.  

A second section was gone by 4:51 p.m., leaving only the massive base to cut. Once preparations were complete, the arborist was on the ground and ready to go. 

He fired up his saw at 5:15 p.m., and the last of the tree was gone, save for a small section of stump, by 5:18 p.m., its departure greeted with applause by a small audience of students who had gathered in the median. 

All that was left was a fringe of smaller trees along Piedmont Avenue. The massive oaks—including the one Native American protesters had dubbed Grandmother Oak—were gone, their branches and the smaller trunks digested by woodchippers and spewed out as mulch, and the heavier trunks piled up near the stadium and ready to haul away. 

The grove was gone, and with it a colorful chapter in Berkeley history. 


Another tree, another sit 

While Berkeley’s tree-sit is over, the University of California’s problems with tree-sitters continue. 

The day after Berkeley’s arboreal activists surrendered, supporters of another tree-sit in Santa Cruz e-mailed reporters to announce that another UC tree-sit continues. 

“After 10 months of occupying in 100-foot high redwood trees, tree-sitters at UCSC’s Science Hill are ready for students to return to school,” supporters announced. 

That protest, which began last Nov. 7, aims at protecting trees at another campus construction site, where the university plans to build a biomedical sciences facility.