Up a winding northern California highway, beneath a 120ft ponderosa pine tree, a group of environmentalists gathered for some high stakes bird-watching.
Everyone was waiting for a pair of bald eagles to swoop into their nest, an orb of twigs and branches balanced amid the tree’s scraggly branches. The elusive raptors have nested here for years, renovating and upgrading it each year in preparation for hatchlings in the spring.
But this year, unless the eagles – who spend the fall and winter months away from their nests – were observed back at their tree by mid-January, they’d lose it.
That’s because Pacific Gas & Electric, the largest utility company in the US, had obtained a permit to chop down the ageing pine, arguing that it could fall on the company’s nearby power line and spark a catastrophic wildfire. Environmentalists and the Coyote Valley Band of Pomo Indians countered that PG&E – which is facing increasing pressure to stop its equipment from starting fires across the state – should move their power lines instead.
Lawyers for the tribe beseeched the utility company to reconsider. Locals printed up signs to save the nest. In recent weeks, activists and tribal elders protested, prayed and physically barricaded themselves in front of the tree as PG&E crews came – alongside sheriff’s deputies – to cut it down.
“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 misty January morning, they were on watch. Bald eagles are protected under state and federal laws, and PG&E could only take down the tree so long as the nest was unoccupied or abandoned. “We need to keep proving that this is an active nest,” explained Girvin.
The eagles did come that day, arriving just as a thick rain began to roll in. A few days later, PG&E said it would back down.
But the showdown over this lone tree, near an electrical line that serves just a single 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 live in rural, wildland areas.
The company is under growing legal and financial pressure to act after its power lines have been blamed for sparking multiple fires, including a deadly 2020 fire in northern Shasta county. Last year, it reached a $55m settlement with six counties over several other fires, including the Kincade fire and Dixie fire.
As PG&E rushes to trim trees and remove brush near its power lines to avert future catastrophes – and avoid liability – environmentalists worry that local nuances are being overlooked.
“PG&E says that the tree is dangerous, it’s a hazard – but that’s not right. It’s their lines that are the hazard,” said Naomi Wagner, a local activist with the environmental group Earth First!. “So why is it the tree that needs to go?”
During their recent bald eagle watch party, Wagner, Girvin and half a dozen other activists settled around to a small campfire that fizzled in the rain. Old-time environmentalists who’d been agitating since the 1960s were joined by their kids, grandkids and dogs. Coffee, muffins and binoculars were passed all around, along with warnings not to squeal or shout to avoid startling the eagles.
Priscilla Hunter, the former Coyote Valley chair squinted up and shifted closer to the fire. “It’s a miracle that they are here,” she said. Michael Hunter, the tribe’s current chair, jumped up. “Hey, birds, where are you at?”
Activists and tribal leaders, to whom the eagle holds cultural significance, have alleged that the power company and US Fish and Wildlife Service failed to properly inform and consult with the tribe in deciding to remove the tree, which could remain standing and serve as a habitat for this eagle couple, or their offspring, for years to come.
And here was a bird that was not only sacred to Native American tribes, but also a symbol of the United States. And still, crews had come to take down the tree on 9 January – a day before National Save the Eagles Day. “I mean how clueless could PG&E be,” said Wagner.
Moreover, 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 electric line, or setting up a solar microgrid.
In TV advertisements, PG&E has been promoting 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 fast and easy route.”
Meanwhile, PG&E contended in public statements the tree “contains an inactive bald eagle’s nest, is a hazard and is at risk of failing and striking a PG&E line in a high fire-threat area”.
Ultimately, the company was proven wrong when eagles finally swooped in. They first arrived as activists and tribal elders sang and prayed beneath the tree, hours before PG&E crews arrived. And they returned each day afterwards. “It was magical,” said Girvin.
A few days later, PG&E issued a statement saying that it would bury the lines, after all. “This solution allows us to protect our hometowns while also taking into account the values of our local tribe, property owners and environmental advocates,” said Ron Richardson, vice-president of PG&E’s north coast region, in a statement to the Guardian.
It was a hard-won concession – one that the activists will remain wary of until they receive a legally binding commitment to leave the tree standing. Though the company can’t take down a tree with nesting eagles, they could return if the eagles leave again. “It seems like you just have to expose how inefficient this is,” said Hunter, the Coyote Valley band chair.
This was already the second year that PG&E had tried to take down this tree. In 2022, as well, the eagle couple returned to their nest just in the nick of time to call 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 just look at this,” he gestured. “This giant pile of beautiful woven twigs holds this beautiful, sacred bird.”
In August, the utility company de-energized the overhead electrical line, just in case the tree did end up falling and sparking a blaze, and asked for Seidell’s agreement that he wouldn’t impede crews when they came to take down the tree in the future. “It was devastating,” he said.
The ordeal has left tribal leaders and environmentalists concerned that the utility company – and the government agencies that oversee and permit its fire safety plans – have failed to properly communicate and consult with communities before undertaking work that impacts important 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 alleged that authorities didn’t wait for a response and didn’t give tribal authorities enough time to review the permit over the holiday season.
The agency was unable respond to the Guardian’s request for comment before publication.
The Fish and Wildlife Service, which has a codified “trust responsibility” – a binding moral obligation – to tribes, could do more to engage with and consult with tribal governments, said Don Hankins, a pyrogeographer and Plains Miwok fire expert at California State University, Chico.
“There clearly needs to be better coordination on these sorts of things,” he said. After a two-year fight over one tree, he noted, it’s unclear why government officials and PG&E didn’t coordinate with tribal leaders sooner.
PG&E and the Fish and Wildlife Service do have policies to ensure that they don’t impact vulnerable species, Hankins said – but those laws and policies don’t always account for the complexities of specific environments.
In Mendocino county, where there is a dark history of logging in the 1800s, which decimated old-growth redwoods and violently displaced some Native villages, a lack of proper communication and care by PG&E and the Fish and Wildlife Service brings an extra sting.
And even now, the Coyote Valley Band of Pomo Indians are involved in a protracted fight to curb commercial logging in the nearby Jackson Demonstration state forest, a nearly 50,000-acre area managed by the California department of forestry and fire prevention, or Cal Fire.
And although various government and private operators in this region have made some gestures toward working with local tribes with crucial, generational knowledge about the fragile landscapes here – they’ve often failed to meaningfully follow through, Girvin said.
Crews for various agencies have operated “willy nilly for years”, she said. “They haven’t cared at all about putting skid trails through sacred sites, or thought carefully about habitat protection and the species affected in the area.” These incursions can feel especially frustrating when the government for decades ignored, denied and criminalised traditional stewardship practices of tribes up and down California, she noted.
“To the settlers, whatever or whoever was in the way of doing business, they’d just cut down,” said Priscilla Hunter. “That’s what these eagles reminded me of.”