It was a huge step for Julia Butterfly Hill, rappelling 180-feet out of a giant redwood tree in northern California 250 miles north of San Francisco. It was also a giant leap for the preservation of old growth forests.
Amid swirls of mist from the sky and tears of joy from supporters, Hill, now 25, climbed gingerly back to earth after spending over two years in a 1000 year old, 200-foot tall redwood she had nicknamed "Luna" ending one of the most persistent and highly-publicized environmental protests in history.
"Before anyone should ever be allowed to cut down a tree like this, they should be mandated to live in it for two years," Hill told cheering supporters at a news conference following her descent.
The standoff, which drew international attention, began on December 10, 1997 when Hill, a preacher's daughter from Arkansas, climbed into the branches of the huge tree as part of the decades long battle over the fate of the dwindling stands of giant redwoods. "I give my word to this tree," Hill said, "the forests and all the people that my feet will not touch the ground until I have done everything in my power to make the world aware of this problem and to stop the destruction."
Only about 3 percent of the once vast stands of giant redwoods remain intact and yet many of those stands continue to be open to commercial logging. The Headwaters Forest, where Hill staged her "sit in", is one of those areas threatened with logging. The 94-square mile region, much of it owned by Pacific Lumber Company, includes thousands of acres of ancient redwoods.
To bring the world's attention to the need to save the forests, Hill picked one of those trees, and climbed it.
Through high winds, the heat of summer, and several harsh mountain winters, Hill steadfastly refused to descend despite an attempted "starve-out", intimidation by sirens and buzzing helicopters, and threats of persecution on a count of trespassing by Pacific Lumber Company. On an 8-by-6 foot platform constructed in the branches of the towering tree, Hill cooked vegetarian meals, listened to a hand-cranked radio, and wrote poetry. Food, water and other necessities, were hoisted up to her by supporters.
The unusual protest drew attention from around the world. By cell phone she gave interviews to journalists from Japan, Germany, Israel and other nations. She became an "in-tree" reporter for a cable television program on the environment, wrote commentaries for newspapers, and played host to visits from celebrities such as singers Bonnie Raitt and Joan Baez, actor Woody Harrelson, as well as from a group of Buddhist monks and Native American leaders.
In March of this year, it looked as though the stand-off might come to an end when Pacific Lumber Company, along with state and federal agencies, signed an agreement to protect about 10,000 acres of the Headwater Forest (about 5,000 acres of giant redwood stands) in a public preserve.
But, Hill and other environmentalists called the agreement, which did not protect the tree Hill was perched in or the area around it, a "sellout" and vowed to continue the vigil. "We have to stop the rape of our forests," Hill said. "We have to stop putting the almighty dollar above the environment."
Finally, late last week, an agreement was announced sparing "Luna", the 1,000 year-old tree, and protecting a 200-foot buffer zone around it from any logging activity. Under the agreement, Hill is required to reimburse Pacific Lumber Company $50,000 for lost logging revenue, money the company plans to donate to Humboldt State University for forestry studies.
And so on Saturday, knowing that the tree that was her home for more than two years will forever be protected and that the world was a little more aware of the need for preserving redwood stands, Hill climbed back down to solid ground for the first time in 737 days. On wobbly legs she walked barefoot to a press conference successfully ending the longest tree-sitting protest on record.
"Those things of real worth in life," she said, "are worth going to any length in love and respect to safeguard." Even if it means climbing 180 feet into a tree.