Wendell Forest protesters in court for summertime arrests

  • Members of the protest group calling itself the Wendell State Forest Alliance appeared in Orange District Court Tuesday to answer to charges of trespassing and disorderly conduct over the summer. In the foreground is one of the defendants, Bill Stubblefield. STAFF PHOTO/MAX MARCUS

Staff Writer
Published: 2/4/2020 9:09:10 PM

ORANGE — For the 17 people facing charges after being arrested at the Wendell State Forest last summer, it was all worth it.

Now, they are hoping a judge agrees that their actions were “civil disobedience” and finds them “not responsible.”

There were 32 arrests of 17 defendants from the protest group the Wendell State Forest Alliance last August and September, after they physically tried to stop a state Department of Conservation and Recreation logging project on an 80-acre old oak stand in the Wendell State Forest.

The defendants spent a full day in Orange District Court Tuesday before Judge David S. Ross, explaining their actions. Having stood in front of loggers, vehicles and equipment, and even chaining themselves by trees in protest of the project, the defendants began the day facing charges of trespassing and disorderly conduct.

The charges had been dropped to civil charges — down from criminal — before the day’s proceedings, and the state decided to throw out the disorderly conduct charges at the end of the day, with Assistant District Attorney Ryan Scott, from the Northwestern District Attorney’s Office, conceding the protesters had “legitimate reasons” while they “showed advocacy.”

“The threat of mass extinction is occurring all around us,” said Wendell State Forest Alliance defendant Bill Stubblefield, 72, of Wendell. “There’s an overwhelming consensus that we face a genuine emergency.”

Stubblefield, who holds a doctorate in biology from Harvard University, outlined the group’s main reason for having opposed the project: climate change.

He argued that the burning of fossil fuels is the most significant contributor to global warming, with carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere. Trees are known to sequester carbon, and state forests should be left largely uncut if humans hope to reverse the “catastrophic” effects of climate change.

Judge Ross said he would take time to consider the matter, and the parties are expected to reconvene at 10 a.m. on Feb. 28 to hear his decision. Ross indicated fines would likely be part of any penalty if the defendants are found responsible for the trespassing charges.

Defense attorney Luke Ryan invoked the actions of Rosa Parks and early 20th century women suffragists during his opening statements, and said the protesters engaged in civil disobedience.

“(It is) an effective campaign to place your actions within the realm of conscience,” said Patricia Hynes, a retired environmental engineer and director of the Traprock Center for Peace & Justice in Greenfield.

Hynes noted it took women suffragists being arrested to create the atmosphere in which women claimed their right to vote.

Several times during Tuesday’s proceedings, the defendants characterized their actions as not only necessary, but effective and worth it. Even though the trees have been cut since September, they say that more people are now talking about the “climate emergency” and the important role of state forests in combating it.

“I have long been concerned for the Earth,” said Reba Lobe, 86, of Plainfield, becoming emotional during her testimony. “I believe the scientists, and I’m horrified. I have children. I have grandchildren. And I cry for them.”

Morgan Mead, of Wendell, also said he wanted to do his part to ensure his children do not suffer from the devastating effects of climate change.

“I have an 18-year-old son,” Mead said. “If we don’t get a handle on this, his future is going to stink.”

Gia Neswald, of Turners Falls, said she wasn’t just concerned about the future when she was arrested, but the present. She said “people are dying right now” due to natural disasters caused in part by climate change.

The state prosecutors remained largely silent during the proceedings, choosing not to make opening statements or cross-examine most of the defendants.

After court adjourned, members of the Wendell State Forest Alliance felt optimistic.

“I think we made a great case,” said Priscilla Lynch, of Conway.

“I am glad the judge is taking his time and reviewing the material,” said Delta Carney, of Ashfield. “He’s really paying attention to what was presented to him. He’s looking not only at the letter of the law, but the intention of the law.”

Court has become relatively frequent for members of the Wendell State Forest Alliance in recent months. In addition to facing the civil charges, they are suing the state in Franklin County Superior Court, alleging the state Department of Conservation and Recreation project violated state laws, including the Global Warming Solutions Act. Judge Mark Mason heard arguments on a state motion to dismiss that case last month, and said he would take 60 to 90 days to rule on the motion, calling the case “complex.”

Reach David McLellan at dmclellan@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 268.

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