Looking back on the "Bluebird" tree sit, ten years later

Ten years ago, an environmental activist climbed a tree in Brown’s Woods on the west side of town in an ultimately failed effort to prevent an apartment complex from being constructed. “Dolphin” would be the first to live in a tree that spring and summer, but she would not be the last. Eventually, police invaded the tree-sit and forced the activists out, clearing the way for the apartments to be completed.

The Bluebird tree-sit and the events that surrounded it had a significant impact on local politics. One of the opponents of the Canterbury development went on to challenge an incumbent Democratic county councilor and defeated him in the 2002 primary. No Republican bothered to file against David Hamilton, but the GOP couldn’t wait to challenge Lucille Bertuccio – and they won in the general election. One of the other tree sitters, Mike “Moss” Englert, narrowly lost to Joyce Poling in a race for county commissioner in 2004.

The Bluebird tree-sit was a big event in a series of more aggressive environmental activism, but it was also one of a series of events- including arsons of homes under construction, the firebombing of a poultry distribution plant and spiking of trees in Yellowwood State Forest – that turned off more moderate voters and helped the GOP gain control of county government in the 2002 elections. Republicans unseated an incumbent county commissioner for a 2-1 margin. In January of 2003, the Republican Party also held five of seven seats on the county council.

While concern about plans to remove trees was laudable, the tree sit was not morally or legally justifiable. The activists did not own the property, and therefore did not have the right to prevent development on it. So long as they are not harming anyone else, property owners should have the right to develop their own land without interference from government or “activists” who stand in the way of their rights.

But while property rights should be protected, there was no need for the county council to approve $10 million in tax-free bonds. I spoke against the bonds at the June 12 county council meeting, joining with environmentalists in an interesting (if rare) alliance. If a project is economically feasible, a developer should not need a financial boost from government to help it along. The council’s vote was seen as adding insult to injury by people already bitterly opposed to the project, which is one of the reasons why it sparked so much outrage.

Even so, the near-riot that shut down the meeting was inexcusable. There are always times when public policy votes do not go the way we want them to go. I have rebuked the city council every year since 1999 for giving money to Planned Parenthood. I’ve spoken against decisions to designate a property as “historic” over the objection of the property owner and I’ve spoken against efforts to restrict smoking in “public places.” But while I am tilting at windmills virtually every time, I am obligated to maintain basic civility. Those of us involved in politics will win some arguments and we will lose some, but we cannot shout down elected officials and shut down meetings.