An east Texas landowner was so determined to block the Keystone XL pipeline from coming through his forest that he took to his trees and built an elaborate network of treehouses eight stories above the ground.
"It popped into my head a long time ago, actually," says 45-year-old David Daniel. "If I had to climb my butt on top of a tree and sit there, I would. It started with that."
It turned out to be Daniel's last stand in a long battle against the Keystone XL, a pipeline project that would bring oil from Canada all the way to refineries in the Texas Gulf Coast.
And he lost.
But Daniel's extreme efforts highlight the agony that individuals around the country are facing as new pipelines are built so a larger portion of oil can come from Canada and into the U.S.
"It feels very invasive, but the reality is that it happens all around the United States. It's not limited to just Texas," says Amy Jaffe, an energy expert from the University of California, Davis. "The bottom line is, it's public good because we use so much oil in this country that we cannot afford in our current lifestyle to turn down infrastructure. We're all participating in that by getting in our car."
An Airborne Fortress
When I visited Daniel this summer at his 20-acre spread outside the town of Winnesboro, he said he was learning that the tar sands oil the pipeline will carry is a "whole new monster."
He worried not only about losing the big old trees he loves, but also about what would happen to his family if a pipeline burst, and the thick, dirty crude flowed out.
He said he had lots of questions that the pipeline company wouldn't answer.
He was also keeping a secret from me: the leafy canopies of his tall oaks were hiding treehouses and platforms that he was building to stymie construction crews when they showed up on his property.
We walked right under them the first time I visited. When I returned this month, I saw a network of seven treehouses and platforms that were connected with cables and ropes. They stretched across 500 feet.
Think of it as an airborne fortress.
Daniel didn't have any money to fight in the courts. But he did have skills very few people have. He used to work for the circus and often rigged the high-wire that he'd ride a motorcycle across and the 50-foot-high platform he'd jump from after lighting himself on fire.
Daniel is now a carpenter. Even so, building structures so high in trees took months.
He says it was an intense time for him, because of all the unknowns, and it shows. He looks older and more haggard than he did a few months earlier. His red beard is shaggier.
Fighting The Law
Around September, the pipeline company spied the treehouses from a helicopter. "Actually we learned from the air. We have an aerial patrol that flies the right of way, looking for any changes, and low and behold, one day there were blue tarps and wires up in the trees," says David Dodson, a spokesman for TransCanada, the company that is building the pipeline.
When TransCanada's crew arrived to start construction, Daniel was there to block them. TransCanada immediately sued Daniel for preventing its work, and a local judge put a temporary restraining order on him, as Dodson says, "to get him to allow us rightfully and lawfully onto the easement."
Lots of people have heard about the controversy over the northern section of the Keystone XL pipeline — that section is still awaiting approval from the federal government. But Dodson points out that President Obama has endorsed the southern stretch of the pipeline.
"America needs energy, and it needs energy security, and that's what this project is about," Dodson says.
TransCanada's lawsuit suggests the company might seek up to $500,000 in damages.
That knocked the fight out of Daniel. He and TransCanada struck an agreement, which neither Daniel nor the company will discuss.
As a result, Daniel never got to protest in his trees. But the protest went on without him.
Staging A Tree-sit
For 80 days, a couple dozen protesters took turns living up in Daniel's treehouses. Some wore masks to hide their identities. TransCanada, in a lawsuit it filed against the protesters, calls them eco-terrorists and put 24-hour security guards around its pipeline route to protect its equipment.
On a cold December day earlier this month, one of the protesters, Grace Cagle, 22, climbs down from the largest treehouse, an elaborate structure three stories tall.
She traverses from one tree to another on cables and ropes, climbs down a cable ladder and bounces off a trunk to land on a platform about 10 feet above the ground. She greets me then puts on a special climbing device so she can spring back up into the tree if TransCanada's security guards — off-duty state police — come too close.
Cagle stretches out on the platform so my microphone can reach her. She looks a bit like a cat on a mantel.
Last spring, right after she graduated from North Texas University, Cagle helped form a group called the Tar Sands Blockade. They were looking for a place to stage a protest and sought out David Daniel.
She says Daniel's trees are just one of several reasons she's against tar sands oil. To get the thick crude out of the ground, companies clear cut forests in Canada and use lots of energy. So tar sands oil has a bigger greenhouse gas footprint than conventional crude.
"I watched YouTube videos about it and it just broke my heart. And, I was, like, this makes no sense. Why are they doing this?" she says.
Cagle says she's spent 17 days, on and off, up in Daniel's trees. She's had some difficult moments. Her worst involved a huge machine with a giant claw for ripping out trees.
"They drove this machine straight up to the base of the tree that I was in. And I was, like, oh my god, they're going to kill me?" she remembers.
She jumped out onto a rope between two trees and hung there from her harness, about 80 feet above the ground. The platforms are high to make it hard to pluck out the protesters, but the height also makes things more precarious.
"And I watched them there cut down the forest around me, and I sat there totally just like vulnerable, like dangling in the air," she says. "And it was like the hardest thing I've ever done."
The protest saved the patch of forest closest to Daniel's house, but it didn't stop the pipeline. The company just moved it over by 100 feet.
A Futile Effort?
Loud construction noises fill Daniel's forest as we walk through it earlier this month. Daniel leads me to a pond that had been so clean when I visited during the summer that he drank from it in front of me.
"Not going to happen today," he says. "It's cloudy, murky, milky, nasty. Wouldn't drink out of it. Wouldn't let my dog drink out of it."
We get to a clearing in his forest the size of a four-lane highway. Earth movers are digging trenches. A green pipe three feet in diameter stretches as far as we can see. Daniel points out two big stacks of enormous tree trunks — what's left of this swath of his forest.
Daniel winces. "I don't think anybody would like to see the destruction of their home. That's what it is," he says.
But Jaffe, the UC Davis energy expert, says the efforts were not as futile as they may seem. Because of high profile protests against tar sands, companies in Canada are working on technologies to reduce their greenhouse gas footprint.
"The young woman who went up in the trees should feel happy," Jaffe says. "She might not have been able to stop the pipeline, but she certainly sent the message to Alberta producers."
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