By Mason Adams
Photography by Will Solis
Flowing water saturates the Terry family property, which sits atop Bent Mountain roughly half an hour outside the city of Roanoke, Virginia.
Streams and brooks wind through the land, with skunk cabbage, a pungent broad-leafed plant that signifies wetlands, growing throughout the property. Behind the house owned by Theresa “Red” Terry and her husband, John Coles Terry III, a few old apple trees linger from an old orchard, and behind that the land rises farther up the mountain.
“If they’re going to stomp on my heart and kill me anyway, why not go up in the tree?”
“This land is my heart,” Red Terry, 61, told me. “Every day you look around and think, ‘How can I be so lucky to have all this beauty around me?’”
So when the Terrys found out their property was in the path of the proposed 303-mile-long, 42-inch-wide Mountain Valley Pipeline, the family was determined to defend their land.
“In the beginning, none of us thought it was going to come to fruition,” said Theresa “Minor” Terry, Red’s daughter. “We looked at the landscape and the waterways and thought, ‘No way. There is no company stupid enough to put a pipeline through here.’ It turns out there is.”
Over the last four years, the Terrys fought the pipeline every step of the way. They attended open houses and protests. They filed comments with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ). They worked with other pipeline opponents to hire scientists, engineers, and archaeologists to study the land and produce counter-arguments to the pipeline’s studies. They resisted the company’s attempts to buy their land.
“When they tried to buy this place, I told them, ‘You don’t have that much money,’” said Red. “This place is priceless.”
Despite their resistance, the pipeline moved forward. FERC approved the project, as it has all but two pipelines over the last 30 years. The DEQ didn’t stop the project either. Meanwhile, Mountain Valley Pipeline hired a construction company that had been cited by environmental regulators for failing to control erosion, sediment, or industrial waste on three previous pipeline projects in Pennsylvania and West Virginia.
By March, when a judge awarded the pipeline eminent domain and immediate possession of a portion of their land, as well as more than 300 other properties in Virginia, the Terrys were running out of options. In that moment, they drew inspiration from a trio of anonymous activists who had taken to the forest canopy farther west, near the West Virginia border. Two individuals began tree sits in the Jefferson National Forest in late February to protect Peters Mountain — which is part of the Appalachian Trail — through which the pipeline planned to burrow. On the other side of Peters Mountain, a woman known as “Nutty” occupied a monopod atop a felled log that was erected to block an access road to a pipeline construction site. They had succeeded in delaying the pipeline for weeks.
The Terrys walked the line a surveyor had marked on their land, chose some strategically located trees, and built two stands located several hundred yards apart. On April 2, Red and Minor went up, and didn’t come down for 34 days.
“If they’re going to stomp on my heart and kill me anyway, why not go up in the tree?” Red said. “I know that makes no sense, but it was a lose-lose: Do nothing and have them steamroll over us, or do something and be a pain in their ass and hopefully slow them down. We were hoping to slow ’em down and give people a chance to get through the courts.”
Red and Minor were protecting land that had been in the Terry family for seven generations.
Red and Minor were protecting land that had been in the Terry family for seven generations, as well as Bottom Creek, a mountain stream that flows from the Terry land into a Nature Conservancy and eventually into the Roanoke River. The Mountain Valley Pipeline, which, if completed, will carry gas from West Virginia to points southeast, will cross Bottom Creek 16 times.
Not long after they went up, the Terrys heard pipeline crews arrive and start cutting trees elsewhere on the property.
“The day they cut my trees, I cried most of the day,” Red said. “My toilet paper was my tissues and my toilet paper. That day i went through a lot of my toilet paper because I could hear my trees hitting the ground. I called Minor and said how are you doing? She said, ‘Mom, I’ve been crying all day. I’m so hungry but I can’t eat because I’ve been crying so much.’ And I couldn’t help her.
“The next day I asked for more toilet paper. They [law enforcement] looked at me and said, ‘Well, that is a hygiene item. I reckon we could get you some.’ Yeah, that hurt.”
Two weeks into their tree-sit, Red and Minor were charged by county police with trespassing — on what had been their own land — and other charges. When local and state police declined to force them from the trees, Mountain Valley Pipeline went to federal court, where a judge found them in contempt of a court order allowing the pipeline to be built. For every day past May 5 they remained in the trees, they’d be charged $1,000, to be paid to the pipeline. If they remained after May 10, federal marshals would move in.
Less than 24 hours after the May 4 ruling, Red and Minor climbed down. Minor came first. Red took a while longer to descend a ladder extended by the local volunteer fire department.
The instant she touched down, a pipeline crew carrying chainsaws emerged from the woods. They were shooed away, but not for long.
“They came in on Sunday and cut everything,” Red said. “They dropped them in the creeks, dropped them in Minor’s brook, dropped them in the wetlands, and just left them.”
The trees once protected by Red and Minor have now been felled, but the fight against the Mountain Valley Pipeline continues. One of the two tree-sitters on Peters Mountain came down in late April, but the other remains. Nutty is being denied food, water, and medical assistance, but nearly 50 days since she went up on the monopod, she’s still there as well. Three more tree-sitters went up on a farm in Franklin County. Meanwhile, half a dozen lawsuits involving the pipeline are still making their way through the courts.
Activists hope the tree-sits will influence the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s review of its pipeline approval process.
For the pipeline’s opponents, the most frustrating aspect of this fight is that they have done everything right, more or less. They organized early, packed open houses, flooded agencies with public comments at the appropriate times, conducted studies to gather evidence of the negative impact the pipeline would have on the region’s sensitive geology and ecology, activated allies over threats to the Appalachian Trail, filed lawsuits, and voted for politicians such as Virginia gubernatorial candidate Tom Perriello, who promised to fight for them.
The tree-sits, it seems, are the only tactic to have had any impact — at least when it comes to drawing national attention.
One glimmer of hope is that such attention will influence the FERC’s review of its two-decade-old pipeline approval process, which was launched in April with the Mountain Valley Pipeline tree-sits in full swing. Environmental groups are trying to use the review as an opportunity to improve FERC’s review of environmental impacts, strengthen property rights, and change the process so that the commission considers the bigger picture of whether a particular project is needed in a market. Currently, so-called market demand is often determined by the utilities funding the pipelines, and not by actual utility customers. In mid-April, 11 environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, the Southern Environmental Law Center, and the Natural Resources Defense Council, sent a letter to the FERC with recommendations. In addition to urging the FERC to consider environmental impacts, the letter suggests considering alternatives to meet purported demand, “such as using underutilized existing pipeline capacity or alternative, cleaner energy resources.”
Peter Anderson, the Virginia program manager for Appalachian Voices, a regional environmental advocacy organization, is typical of anti-pipeline activists who are skeptical of the FERC — currently chaired by a Trump nominee — but don’t want to miss an opportunity for reform.
“I’m not holding my breath that the current FERC commissioners will enact a new guidance policy that is perfect or even that we like very much, but you can’t just write FERC off completely and ignore it,” he said. “If this certificate process is going to be opened up and looked at, we’re going to put our best foot forward. At some point you have to go to the root of the problem.”
FERC’s approval isn’t the last word. In the Northeast, states like Connecticut and New York have blocked pipelines by denying certification and permits based on the Clean Water Act. New York’s 2016 denial of the Constitution Pipeline was upheld last year by the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals, and on April 30 the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case, effectively upholding the appeals court decision and confirming the right of states to deny pipelines this way.
In Virginia, anti-pipeline activists are trying to follow this model, and are applying pressure on state agencies and elected state officials. Of course, the companies behind the pipelines are working on elected officials, too. According to the Virginia Public Access Project, EQT, the Pittsburgh-based company behind the Mountain Valley Pipeline, has given more than half a million dollars to politicians and PACs in Virginia elections since 1996, with nearly half of that handed out since it announced the MVP pipeline in 2014.
The largest business donor in Virginia is Dominion Energy, a major utility and one of the partners in the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. It has pumped well over $11 million into state elections since the mid-’90s, and nearly $3 million since 2014.
The result of all that spending? Several anti-pipeline bills were introduced into the Virginia General Assembly earlier this year, and all of them were killed.
Despite such setbacks, some elected officials are starting to come around to the tree-sitters’ cause: In mid-April, more than a dozen Democrats in the General Assembly held a news conference to put pressure on Gov. Northam regarding the pipelines.
“We have a lot of politicians heading our way,” said Red, shortly after returning home from a post-tree-sit speaking tour across Virginia, which included a demonstration outside the annual Dominion shareholders meeting in Richmond. “They’re leaning toward us and not Dominion or EQT.”
Some elected officials are starting to come around to the tree-sitters’ cause: In mid-April, more than a dozen Democrats in the General Assembly held a news conference to put pressure on Gov. Northam regarding the pipelines.
Asked what she learned from her activism, Minor said that you have to “hit the ground running…. Do not wait until they’re starting to cut down your trees to inform yourself and educate yourself. Spread the word.”
Andrew Downs, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy’s regional director for central and southwest Virginia, advises activists to familiarize themselves with FERC’s information portal. That’s where pipeline companies post pre-filing material and is the best source of information on a project.
“You’ve just got to take your lumps and become an expert at that information portal. That’s where all the meat and potatoes are,” Downs said. “If you’re concerned you’re in a path of a project like this, watch the pre-filing. That’s where a lot of the larger routing decisions are made.”
With their tree-sits and speaking tour over, Red and Minor are now left to take stock of the damage to their land.
“My whippoorwills that sang me to sleep every night, they nest on the ground now,” Red said.
As for Minor, she’s worried about the effects of having spent more than a month in the trees, cut off from friends and family, and living in fear of being further isolated by federal marshals.
“There’s probably some really strong coping mechanism going on right now so that I don’t have a mental breakdown,” she said. “I’ve had a couple of people mention that I am or probably will be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. I cry at the drop of a hat now.”
Meanwhile, some good news for pipeline opponents came out of the courts earlier this week. On Tuesday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit invalidated a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service review regarding the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which temporarily halts the project. The decision was handed down by the same three-judge panel considering challenges to regulatory approvals of the Mountain Valley Pipeline.
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