ELLISTON — Tree sitters protesting the Mountain Valley Pipeline weren’t especially concerned that Santa Claus didn’t show up with presents Wednesday.
The group of about 12 protesters — only two of which are stationed high above the ground in a white pine and a chestnut oak — mingled around the makeshift campsite off Yellow Finch Road in Elliston, treating the day as if it was any other.
Some protesters and supporters – most declining to be named or giving pseudonyms — said they’ve been there on and off since early September 2018, making it the longest active blockade of a natural gas pipeline on the East Coast, according to Appalachians Against Pipelines.
Others were there for the day to bring food and provide moral support.
Jammie Hale of Giles — one of the only onsite to not cover his face — said he’s opposed the pipeline since its inception because of the negative impacts it could have on the land surrounding his property. The 47-year-old said he wanted to come and support his friends on a day that is about spending time with family.
“Today’s Christmas and I figured I’d come be with some family. … I’ve known most of them for around three years and this is my family now,” he said Wednesday afternoon.
Lucy Branhem — who declined to give her age or where she’s from — was smoking a hand-rolled cigarette near the campsite as she explained that Christmas is another act of colonialism being “shoved” upon society, much like the pipeline
She — like others who spoke — talked about the sense of camaraderie and community that has formed at the camp.
“I appreciate the whole family and community aspect of it, but we have that here every day,” she said. "This is about preventing the further destruction of the environment, which is what’s really important."
That is how the most others who spoke Wednesday felt about the day as well.
Dustie Pinesap, as she goes by at the camp, said “what’s Christmas?” when asked if she was doing anything special to celebrate.
“It’s just Wednesday to me,” she said from one of the two occupied trees.
By keeping Mountain Valley from cutting some of the last remaining trees along the pipeline’s 303-mile route through West Virginia and Southwest Virginia, the tree sitters hope to send a message about a project they oppose on multiple fronts.
Digging ditches for the 42-inch diameter pipe has already caused widespread environmental damage, protesters say, often on private land that was taken by Mountain Valley through eminent domain laws.
And once the pipeline begins to transport 2 billion cubic feet of natural gas per day, opponents say it will contribute to greenhouse gases that are warming the planet.
Lawyers for the company have requested a preliminary injunction that would allow law enforcement officers to remove the protesters.
The case has moved slowly since it was filed in August, partly because of uncertainty about who is up the trees at any given time.
Mountain Valley referred to the protesters at “Tree sitter 1” and “Tree sitter 2” in a motion filed in Montgomery County Circuit Court.
The company is also seeking an injunction and monetary damages against four named defendants: Phillip Flagg, who has identified himself as a tree-sitter in the past, Evin Tyler Ugur, who has been charged in pipeline protests on the ground, Emma Howell and Jordan Romeo.
Howell and Romeo were identified as being in the trees Aug. 6 by Mountain Valley security officers who testified at a September hearing. But Romeo maintains she was at work in Durango, Colorado, that day, and has cellphone records and the testimony of co-workers to back her up, her attorneys wrote in October in a motion to dismiss her from the case.
More recently, Mountain Valley asked that default judgments be entered against Flagg and Ugur, who it said gave no response to court papers that were mailed on their respective addresses, in Austin, Texas, and Worchester, Massachusetts.
The two occupied trees are on an easement controlled by Mountain Valley. But supporters camped on the ground are on private land owned by Cletus and Beverly Bohon.
Cletus Bohon has said he knew nothing of the tree-sitters’ plans before they entered his land. He did not grant them permission, Bohon said. The Bohons are not named as defendants in the case filed by Mountain Valley.
About 238 miles of pipe have already been laid and the only trees that have not been felled are on a 500-foot stretch of the construction zone where the tree-sitters continue to sit.
The Federal Energy Regulation Commission ruled in October that Mountain Valley had to halt all future construction on the pipeline until further notice.
Still, protesters say they are determined to win the showdown with Mountain Valley.
“We will be here until we are removed or the project is abandoned,” Pinsesap said.
Roanoke Times reporter Laurence Hammack contributed to this report.