ELLISTON — Along a 303-mile corridor of land stripped bare for a natural gas pipeline, the only trees left standing are here, on a steep mountainside in Montgomery County.
And it is here, not coincidentally, that opponents of the Mountain Valley Pipeline are stationed high above the ground in a white pine and a chestnut oak.
Meant to block construction of the deeply divisive project, the tree-sit marked its one-year anniversary Thursday in a patch of forest that has remained largely untouched as developers build the massive pipeline from northern West Virginia through Southwest Virginia to connect with a pipeline near the North Carolina line.
From her vantage point in the woods, pipeline opponent Lucy Branham had no doubt that the two protesters, who sat in tree stands about 50 feet above her head, were making a difference in the fight.
“All you have to do is look across the road,” Branham said, pointing to a spot on the other side of Yellow Finch Lane where a 125-foot-wide easement for the pipeline had been cleared, right up to the edge of the occupied trees.
“And here we have a beautiful, functioning forest,” she said.
Neither of the masked tree-sitters — who are subject to a pending court action by Mountain Valley to have them removed — was willing to be identified.
But they talked Thursday about why they are willing to live in 4-by-8-foot tree stands to block a pipeline that they say will change the planet’s climate with its reliance on a fossil fuel, pollute the steep slopes and pristine streams it bisects with sediment washed from construction sites, and mar the landscape in other ways.
“The world’s on fire, and I think it’s a pretty terrible idea to continue the construction and the conditions that are making it that way,” the man in the white pine said.
Since Sept. 5, 2018, a variety of protesters have taken turns sitting in tree stands built on a piece of private land condemned for the pipeline. Supporters in a ground camp send up food, water and supplies in plastic buckets suspended by ropes, while keeping their eyes peeled for anyone who might try to broach the blockade.
A tangle of colored string stretching between trees and a barrier of wooden pallets makes any ascent to the tree-sits, already challenging on account of the steep slope, even more difficult.
Although Mountain Valley is unable to cut the occupied trees and ones near them without risking the lives of the tree-sitters and possibly others, the joint venture of energy companies has been busy digging trenches and burying the 42-inch diameter pipe in other locations.
About 238 miles of pipe have already been laid, it said in a court document filed last week, and the only trees that have not been felled are on a 500-foot stretch of the construction zone where the tree-sitters continue to sit.
Since tree-cutting began in February 2018, other opponents have sat in trees, chained themselves to construction equipment and blocked work in other ways. All have been removed or left on their own, and more than 50 people have been arrested in Virginia and West Virginia.
Mountain Valley wants to remove the Yellow Finch tree-sitters with the help of the courts, but so far the company has been left out on a legal limb.
On Aug. 15, the same day that Mountain Valley would have sought removal of the tree-sitters in state court had the case not been transferred, the company told federal regulators that it was suspending construction on parts of the pipeline.
The voluntary suspension came three days after a coalition of environmental groups filed a legal challenge arguing that endangered and threatened species would be harmed by continued construction, which has caused large amounts of sediment to be washed by rainwater into their habitats.
Mountain Valley agreed not to work in the watersheds of streams populated by the Roanoke logperch and the candy darter, two endangered species of fish. That includes the area where the tree-sitters are stationed.
But the suspension has not deterred Mountain Valley’s efforts to remove the protesters.
The company said it plans to complete the pipeline by mid-2020, when it will begin to deliver natural gas to markets up and down the East Coast.
The man in the white pine wouldn’t say how long he has been there.
How long would he stay? “As long as it takes,” he said.