Two bald eagles nested in a pine tree for years. A utility company tried to cut it down

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On a winding highway in Northern California, under a 100-foot ponderosa pine tree, a group of environmentalists gathered to spot birds.

Everyone was waiting for a pair of bald eagles to dive into their nest, a ball of twigs and branches that balanced between the tree’s scraggly branches. The elusive raptors have nested here for years, renovating and upgrading it every year in preparation for young in the spring.

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But unless the eagles – which spend the fall and winter months far from their nests – were observed back at their tree in mid-January, they would lose it this year.

That’s because Pacific Gas & Electric, the largest U.S. utility, had been granted a permit to cut down the aging pine tree, arguing that it could fall on the company’s nearby power line and start a catastrophic wildfire. Environmentalists and the Coyote Valley Band of Pomo Indians countered that PG&E — which is under increasing pressure to keep its equipment from causing fires statewide — should move their power lines instead.

Tribe lawyers begged the utility to reconsider. Local residents put up signs to save the nest. In recent weeks, activists and tribal elders have protested, prayed and physically barricaded themselves in front of the tree as PG&E crews – along with sheriff’s deputies – arrived to cut down the tree.

“They had their cherry picker and their wood chipper ready,” said Polly Girvin, an environmental and indigenous rights activist. “But we weren’t going to back down.”

Now, armed with binoculars and cell phones on a foggy January morning, they kept watch. Bald eagles are protected by state and federal laws, and PG&E was only able to take down the tree as long as the nest was unoccupied or abandoned. “We have to keep proving that this is an active nest,” explains Girvin.

The eagles came that day, arriving just as a heavy downpour began to roll in. A few days later, PG&E said it would back down.

But the confrontation over this lone tree, near a power line serving only one property, has raised difficult questions about PG&E’s approach to fire safety and its fraught relationship with the communities it serves, many of whom are in live in rural, wild areas.

The company is under mounting legal and financial pressure to act after its power lines were blamed for fueling multiple fires, including a deadly 2020 blaze in northern Shasta County. Last year, it reached a $55 million settlement with six counties over several other fires, including the Kincade fire and the Dixie fire.

As PG&E scrambles to cut down trees and clear brush near the power lines to prevent future disasters — and avoid liability — environmentalists worry that local nuances are being overlooked.

“PG&E says the tree is dangerous, it is a danger – but that is not true. It’s their lines that pose the danger,” said Naomi Wagner, a local activist with the environmental group Earth First!. “So why is it the tree that has to go?”


At their recent bald eagle watch party, Wagner, Girvin and half a dozen other activists settled around a small campfire bubbling in the rain. Longtime environmentalists who had been rioting since the 1960s were joined by their children, grandchildren and dogs. Coffee, muffins and binoculars were handed out everywhere along with warnings not to beep or shout so as not to startle the eagles.

Priscilla Hunter, the former Coyote Valley chair, peered up and moved closer to the fire. “It’s a miracle they’re here,” she said. Michael Hunter, the current president of the tribe, jumped up. “Hey, birds, where are you?”

Activists and tribal leaders, for whom the eagle has cultural significance, have alleged that the power company and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service failed to properly inform and consult the tribe in the decision to remove the tree, which could remain standing and could serve as a habitat. for this pair of eagles, or their descendants, for years to come.

And here was a bird that was not only sacred to Indian tribes, but also a symbol of the United States. And yet, on January 9, people had come to cut down the tree—a day before National Save the Eagles Day. “I mean, how stupid can PG&E be,” said Wagner.

In addition, the owner of the property where the tree stands, as well as the residents who live there, all supported alternative solutions, including rerouting or burying the power line or setting up a solar-powered microgrid.

In TV ads, PG&E has promoted its plans to bury 10,000 miles of power lines underground to reduce the risk of them hitting trees, so why not do the same here? “I mean come on,” Girvin said. “They just want to take the quick and easy route.”

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Meanwhile, PG&E argued in public statements that the tree “contains an inactive bald eagle’s nest, poses a hazard and is at risk of failing and hitting a PG&E line in a high fire hazard area.”

In the end, the company was proven wrong when eagles finally dove in. They first arrived as activists and tribal elders chanted and prayed under the tree hours before the PG&E crews arrived. And they came back every day after that. “It was magical,” Girvin said.

A few days later, PG&E issued a statement saying it would bury the lines anyway. “This solution allows us to protect our communities while being mindful of the values ​​of our local tribe, property owners and environmentalists,” Ron Richardson, vice president of PG&E’s North Coast Region, said in a statement to the Guardian.

It was a hard-won concession – one the activists will remain wary of until they get a legally binding commitment to keep the tree up. While the company cannot remove a tree with nesting eagles, they may return if the eagles leave again. “It seems you just have to show how inefficient this is,” said Coyote Valley band president Hunter.

This was the second year PG&E had attempted to remove this tree. Also in 2022, the eagle pair returned to their nest just in time to blow off the saws. “And they had a baby!” said Joseph Seidell, a cannabis farmer who lives on the property and led early protests against PG&E’s plans. “I mean, look at this,” he gestured. “This giant pile of beautiful woven twigs contains this beautiful, sacred bird.”

In August, the utility de-energized the overhead power line, in case the tree fell and started a fire, and requested Seidell’s permission that he not interfere with crews when they came for the tree in the future. “It was devastating,” he said.


The ordeal has left tribal chiefs and environmentalists concerned that the utility — and the government agencies that oversee and authorize the fire safety plans — have failed to properly communicate and consult with communities before undertaking work that impacts key wilderness areas.

Although the Fish and Wildlife Service had sent a letter informing Hunter of PG&E’s intention to cut down the tree in December, lawyers representing the tribe claimed authorities had not waited for a response and tribal authorities had not had enough time given to review the permit. during the holidays.

The agency was unable to respond to the Guardian’s request for comment prior to publication.

The Fish and Wildlife Service, which has a codified “responsibility of trust” — a binding moral obligation — to tribes, could do more to engage and consult with tribal governments, said Don Hankins, a pyrogeographer and Plains Miwok fire expert at the California State University, Chico.

“There clearly needs to be better coordination on this sort of thing,” he said. After a two-year battle over one tree, he noted, it’s unclear why government officials and PG&E didn’t coordinate with tribal leaders earlier.

PG&E and the Fish and Wildlife Service have policies to ensure they don’t impact vulnerable species, Hankins said, but those laws and policies don’t always take into account the complexities of specific environments.

In Mendocino County, where there is a dark history of logging in the 19th century, decimating ancient redwoods and violently displacing some native villages, a lack of proper communication and care by PG&E and the Fish and Wildlife Service is creating an additional angel.

And even today, the Coyote Valley Band of Pomo Indians is engaged in a long-standing battle to curb commercial logging in nearby Jackson Demonstration State Forest, a nearly 50,000-acre area managed by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Prevention. or Cal Fire.

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And while several government and private operators in this region have made some gestures to partner with local tribes with crucial generational knowledge about the fragile landscapes here, they’ve often failed to meaningfully follow through, Girvin said.

Crews from various agencies have operated “willingly and knowingly” for years, she said. “They didn’t care at all about putting slipways through sacred sites, or putting much thought into protecting habitats and the affected species in the area.” These raids can feel especially frustrating when the government ignored, denied and criminalized traditional tribal stewardship practices in California for decades, she noted.

“For the settlers, whatever or whoever got in the way of doing business, they would just cut back,” said Priscilla Hunter. “That’s what these eagles reminded me of.”

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