by Micah Wilkins, Web Editor
Hidden under the dark of night, Warren Wilson graduate Fern Greenleaf and her accomplice Becks climb up their respective old-growth oak trees in the Bee Tree holler of the Coal River Mountain in southern West Virginia. They set up their platforms, hammocks, and climb lines, bringing with them enough food, water, and supplies to last them for about two weeks.
Fern and Becks were planning on living in these trees in order to protect this last intact mountain ecosystem in the area that has not been disrupted by mountain top removal.
“One of my goals was to put my body physically in the way so they would have to stop blasting on this portion of the mine,” Fern said. “That would cost them as much money as possible and deflate that artificial profit because they don’t have to pay the full cost of mining coal. [We said] let’s make this a little more expensive for you.”
According to Fern, within the first few days, the tree sitters became “a serious problem” for Alpha Natural Resources, the coal company operating on that mountain.
Fern and Becks chose their location because of its proximity to work and blasting sites. The company is barred from blasting within a certain radius of any person on the site. Fern and Becks also chose particularly tall trees, which did not have branches until about 50 feet above the ground, making themselves inaccessible to people on the forest floor.
After graduating in May, Fern began working with Radical Action for Mountain People’s Survival (RAMPS), a non-violent direct action campaign based in southern West Virginia that works toward putting an end to strip mining in Appalachia.
Fern decided to participate in this direct action because it would be long term, and thus more effective. Furthermore, she said civil disobedience is an effective tactic in an area where coal lobbyists are very influential.
“Politicians are under the thumb of coal,” Fern said. “Legal means for change are very difficult here. Most people here don’t support mountain top removal, but because coal makes so much money, I think civil disobedience is most effective.”
Through RAMPS, Fern had several people supporting her and this direct action, like Warren Wilson senior Kristian Wielunski, who helped the RAMPS campaign with publicity, getting the word out to as many people as possible.
On the ground, Wielunski also helped ensure the sitters’ safety. Prior to their ascent, the sitters anticipated some harassment from contracted security guards.
“I was really concerned when the tree sit started because there had been two tree sits in West Virginia in the past and those were both very intense,” Wielunski said. “In one they actually hired someone who was an interrogator in the military or the CIA who knew how to mess with people… In another they mounted a platform [nearby] with air horns and sounded them continuously. ”
However, the tree-sitters were bothered very little by Alpha. Fern even went so far as to make friends with the security guards who sat under her tree.
When Fern finally came down from the tree, 30 days later on August 18, after staying up as long as they could, she and Becks were both arrested. They were charged with trespassing and conspiracy. However, the two were released the same day they were brought in, without bail.
Once they were down from the trees, Alpha immediately continued blasting the mountain.
“The moment my feet hit the ground, guards said ‘OK she’s out of the tree,’ and I heard a blast really close to me,” Fern said, “They will continue now that I’m gone, and that’s why we need to keep the pressure on and do more tree sits.”
On Wednesday, RAMPS and the tree sitters received word that Alpha Natural Resources is suing them for irreparable damages. Alpha is seeking compensatory damages as well as punitive damages from the sitters.
Fern, however, has moved on to her next battle. On Monday she left for Washington, D.C. to get arrested at the White House, in a sit protesting the expansion of a large-scale project to extract tar sands from Canada and carry them through pipe lines to refineries in Texas.
According to Fern, direct action and civil disobedience are the best and most effective means of seeking change and being heard.
“In the US as a whole we need to wake people from the slumber of complicity,” Fern said. “We need to continue to fight outside of this very corrupt legal system.”