Ettinger: The Clock Has Run Out On Yellow Finch Lane

By Eve Ettinger

March 31, 2021

The time’s up for protesters on Yellow Finch Lane, as the Mountain Valley Pipeline moves on.

For 932 days, a stalwart group of protesters occupied the trees at the end of Yellow Finch Lane in Montgomery County. Perched at the top of a steep slope on Poor Mountain, the treesits were a beacon of hope for the community nearby. Meanwhile, the slow and relentless force of commercial interests pushed through court ruling after court ruling to continue work on the Mountain Valley Pipeline. 

On March 24, the water protectors at Yellow Finch Lane were extracted from their trees with a crane and both were arrested. They are just the latest two in a long line of protectors who have been occupying this spot for the two and a half years. Now both are being held in Montgomery County without bond. They’re being charged with obstruction of justice and interfering with property rights, and it looks like there may be an attempt to hold them personally responsible for the cost of extraction and the subsequent destruction of the trees in that stretch of the mountainside. 

‘It Feels Discouraging’

I’ve been watching the protest from afar, and never made it down there until Saturday. By that point, the slope was strewn with fallen trees and debris from the tree sitters’ perches. It feels discouraging to think about the MVP protesters and the work they’ve done here and in West Virginia since the MVP first began construction in 2018. The water protectors and protesters were doing the same good work as those who went to oppose the DAPL at Standing Rock, but without the level of national attention to generate sufficient support to launch a full-scale, sustained protest.

Instead, we had these solitary watchers high up in the air above the hollar, small groups of devoted local protesters who would show up at court hearings or to provide support to the tree sitters, and even local news coverage of their work was scant. 

A Blank Stare

Mentioning the Yellow Finch treesit to someone outside of Virginia gets a blank stare, and mentioning it to someone local often gets the same response. The “No Pipeline” bumper stickers handed out by the Sierra Club are everywhere, and the homemade signs along backroads anywhere near the projected path of the MVP are a chorus testifying to local sentiment. However, the larger community seems to have either not been aware or not particularly cared about the Yellow Finch protesters and their concerns. 

If you look at a map of the MVP’s projected route, it cuts through the area between Blacksburg and Roanoke, angling south toward Danville. It crosses through the watersheds of the New River, the upper James River, and the Roanoke River, which means that given the high odds of fracked natural gas pipeline leaks and spills, each of these waterways will likely be contaminated at some point or another in the future if the MVP is completed as planned. 

A Stark Contrast on Yellow Finch Lane

I brought my brother along with me when we went out there–he’s an amateur botanist and a water safety expert working in the Piedmont up and down from VA to SC. As we drove up Yellow Finch Lane, he excitedly pointed out the bloodroot flowers growing in clusters along the creek that runs parallel to the gravel road up to Poor Mountain. These early spring flowers are common in areas like this, preferring damp, well-draining soil along clean water sources.

They’re fragile and showy, and have a long history of use by Indigenous peoples for medicinal properties and for dye. As we got closer up to the MVP passage area, they grew fewer and fewer. By the time we reached the ruins of the tree sit, the ground was awash with red mud from the runoff of the barren hillsides, and the road’s condition had deteriorated from the runoff too. Little was growing there, the roots of the trees were no longer holding the earth in place to protect the more delicate understory plants. 

Tied to the remaining shrubbery along the roadside were little blue ribbons, prayer flags left by the water protectors as they’d come and gone. At the base of the hill was the creek and the remains of a woodpile and some camp essentials: a folding chair, some barrels. Further up the hill was the lone remaining structure, a small shed built to hold pantry supplies. All that remained on the shelves was some loose rope.

Walking Through The Wreckage

The porch awning above the shed door was made out of a rusted car hood. It was the last bit of jaunty defiance left remaining at the camp. As we walked along up the slope, we passed downed and destroyed signage flattened under the trees. The only one legible: GO AWAY, with the G torn off. 

A neighbor and his dogs came down the road and joined us in walking through the wreckage. There wasn’t much left–a solar panel, some buckets, a catwalk between two trees. Across the road: the smooth expanse of an empty hillside, the future of this side of the mountain staring us down. As we turned to leave, my brother spotted a post at the edge of the property line, reading MVP LOD.

“Do you know what that means?” he asked me.

I didn’t.

“Line of disturbance,” he said.

Ironic, I thought. This is the epicenter, but the aftershocks will affect all of Virginia eventually. The line of disturbance has yet to be established–we won’t know the ramifications, the human and ecological cost of the MVP on southwestern Virginia for years to come.

932 Days Is a Long Time

932 days is a long time. It’s longer than the time I spent living abroad with Peace Corps. It’s longer than I was married. It’s longer than the time it took to get my masters degree. And yet it wasn’t long enough. There’s only so much a handful of protesters on a mountainside can do against Big Gas. 

My friends who work in political organizing like to talk about the individual apathy and fatalist attitudes among our peers–every big issue feels overwhelming, feels too daunting to take on. It would cost so much to throw ourselves at it as individuals–it did cost these protesters weeks and months of their lives. 

But when a groundswell of attention gets turned on one of these big issues, it is possible to affect real change. This is what is frustrating to think about when I consider the MVP. I didn’t get down there until it was too late. I wasn’t showing up to support the tree sitters, to the court hearings. And if I had, would it have made a difference? I don’t know. But because so many other people in the area made the same choices as I did and didn’t participate, the clock has run out on Yellow Finch, and the MVP marches on down the hillside. 

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