To the loggers and company officials at Maxxam Lumber in Humboldt, California, 23-year-old Julia “Butterfly” Hill was an “extremist tree-hugging hippy radical environmentalist.” To the environmental activists at Earth First, she was a courageous, inspirational, never-give-up hero. To the media she was months of interesting stories. And to her father, Dale Hill, an itinerant evangelist, Julia was his strong willed little girl who he raised to make a difference with her life.
In her formative years, home for Julia Hill was a camping trailer as her father preached from town to town across the country. In 1997, the first time she saw the Northern California redwood trees, she was so moved by them that she returned to Arkansas, sold all her belongings, and after purchasing a tent and camping gear, moved to Humboldt. The town was home to Humboldt University and full of environmental activists protesting the clear-cutting of the redwood forests. Hill wasn’t sure what she needed to do; she just knew she wanted to help prevent the magnificent trees from being cut down.
Pacific Lumber, a family-owned business since 1885, had always followed sustainable forestry practices. However, in 1985 the business was sold to Maxxam Lumber, who in an effort to pay off company debt, began to clear-cut the redwoods, and the protests began. When Hill arrived in November 1997, the focal point of the protest was a 1,000-year-old redwood, which Earth First had named “Luna.” The 200-foot giant sat high on the peak of a clear-cut hill where it was visible for miles.
After arriving at the Earth First base camp, Hill agreed to sit in the tree for five days. Her legs were shaking and her heart pounding the first time she used a carabiner rope to climb the 18 stories to the six by eight-foot platform. In December, Hill once again sat in the tree, this time for four weeks. At that point Earth First leaders felt it was unsafe for her to stay up in the tree during the winter and instructed her to come down. Hill refused. She had made a commitment to save the tree and she planned to honor it. Police gave her 24 hours to come down or be arrested. No luck. Loggers harassed her and threatened to blow up the tree, but she remained up on the platform.
In February, after six straight days of some of the worst winter weather on record, Hill was ready to come down. Maxxam guards had created a barricade to try to prevent activists from bringing her food and supplies. They played loud music and shined a light in the tree to make sleeping difficult. Hill was scared, cold, hungry, and exhausted. She journaled, “I can’t go one more night on no sleep, hearing the howling winds and sleet pelting me through the cracks. I can’t do it anymore. I can’t.” But when 20 protesters risked being arrested and stormed the barricade one night to bring supplies, their heroics inspired Hill to continue her sit-in.
On Day 71, a photographer climbed to the platform to take pictures of Hill. When he challenged her to stay 100 days in order to break the 90-day record, she did not think she could last another three weeks. All she thought about was a hot shower and a good meal. But she stayed, and at 100 days, a local Sioux Indian tribe held a ceremony in Humboldt and honored her with a “Defender of the Forest” award.
At the sixth month point the sit-in was making world news. Hill’s 24th birthday was covered by the Los Angeles Times, Newsweek, and People Magazine. CNN came to the tree and staged a cell phone debate between Hill, who was now the spokesperson for Earth First, and Maxxam officials. As Hill’s cause and popularity grew, Maxxam lost interest in trying to get her down and decided to let her stay as long as she wanted. Hill refused to come down until a settlement was reached to stop the clear-cutting.
On December 18, 1999, after 738 days, Good Housekeeping’s Woman of the Year, Julia Hill, a villain to some and a hero to millions, climbed down from Luna. She signed an agreement with Maxxam Lumber committing to never climb another tree or set foot on Maxxam property and Maxxam Lumber agreed to a 100-year sustainability plan. Her dogged persistence influenced the United States government and the state of California to appropriate $480 million to purchase and protect thousands of acres of old growth redwood forests.
“Here’s to the crazy ones…the misfits…the rebels…the troublemakers…the round pegs in the square holes…the ones who see things differently. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.” Steve Jobs