WILLITS (CBS / AP) — Seven people camping in trees to protest construction of a Highway 101 bypass in Mendocino County were arrested Tuesday by dozens of California Highway Patrol officers who were lifted into the trees on cherry-pickers.
The officers — specially trained and experienced in using climbing equipment — arrested two women and five men, bringing the nine-week demonstration to an end and clearing the way for crews to cut down the trees so that the project could go forward, said CHP Officer Steve Krul, an area spokesman for the agency.
“Today there were trees that were scheduled to be removed. This meant that the trespassers could no longer remain in the trees,” Krul said.
“We asked them to move, again they refused,” he said.
Most of the protesters — some camped about 70 feet above the ground — were taken into custody on suspicion of trespassing, though one protester was arrested on suspicion of assaulting a peace officer and assault with a deadly weapon when an officer was grabbed and the protester swung a rope with a metal object tied to the end of it, Krul said.
Other officers at the scene opened fire with what Krul described as “nonlethal beanbag rounds,” allowing officers to take the protester into custody and be lowered to the ground.
Protesters and people on the ground screamed and swore at the officers, while at least one protester in the trees dropped feces on the CHP officers. None of the officers were hurt, Krul said.
Protesters and a state senator who represents the area criticized the arrests, claiming the officers fired rubber bullets at the protesters, though the CHP says only the beanbag rounds were used.
Sen. Noreen Evans, D-Santa Rosa, said in a statement that she was “shocked and dismayed” at what she termed “an excessive use of force.”
“I met today with Caltrans Director Malcolm Dougherty to express my dismay at today’s events. I have additionally requested an immediate meeting with CHP Commissioner Joseph Farrow,” Evans said in the statement.
Among those arrested was Amanda “Warbler” Senseman, 28, who took to the trees more than two months ago, said Naomi Wagner, a spokeswoman for an organization called Redwood Nation Earth First, one of the groups protesting construction of the bypass.
Wagner and the protesters oppose the highway bypass, which would reroute drivers out of downtown Willits, though city leaders have come out in favor of it.
“This bypass is an expensive and unnecessary boondoggle,” Wagner said. “The data underlying the need (for the bypass) is faulty.”
Hillsides for the project were being used to fill wetlands and the work was also threatening nesting birds, Wagner said.
Caltrans representatives did not immediately respond to requests for comment after hours about the arrests, but in awarding the contract for the $210 million project last year, the agency said it would relieve congestion, reduce delays, and improve safety for traffic and pedestrians.
Willits is a community of 4,800 people about 140 miles north of San Francisco.
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