In the Sandisfield woods, a testament to Thoreau stares down those who cut and blast
Sandisfield — Even on a Saturday afternoon in this forested corner of Berkshire County, the sounds of pile drivers punctuate the early-summer midday stillness. Yellow-vested security officers are visible, along with orange traffic signs warning the few motorists who use Cold Spring Road that “pipeline construction” is an ongoing hazard.
Welcome to the Otis State Forest, where, among the construction contractor’s written warnings on the roadside, there are signs proudly proclaiming resistance to Kinder Morgan’s ongoing operations to clear almost 30 acres of publicly owned forest to make room for a controversial natural gas pipeline expansion that many of its detractors insist is unnecessary.
“I’m not opposed to a necessary project,” said Sue Baxter, whose property abuts the energy company’s easement. “But an unnecessary one is a different matter.”
It is here where the Sugar Shack Alliance, an environmental advocacy group, has taken its stand — and constructed a stand of sorts.
Sitting right next to the existing right-of-way being widened aggressively by Tennessee Gas Company, the Kinder Morgan subsidiary, is a “Thoreau Cabin” — so named for American transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau, the author who, 168 years ago, who wrote the famous essay on civil disobedience.
“It has brought our community together in terms of a tangible symbol of resistance,” said Sugar Shack member Will Elwell, a farmer and timber framer from Ashfield who designed and built the cabin.
Sugar Shack calls it the “Thoreau Cabin Pipeline Barricade,” in part because it sits at the edge of Baxter’s property right next to the easement to be used as a right-of-way for the $93 million pipeline project.
It’s in an isolated spot, but Sugar Shack members would like to think they’re not isolated in their point of view that the operation is illegal, not to mention that it’s a perfect target for the organization’s mission to “act in solidarity with a larger environmental and climate justice movement to disrupt and all expansion of the fossil fuel industry.”
Meanwhile, the group’s efforts continue amid the pile drivers, the tractors and the heavy equipment Kinder Morgan is using to cut the trees and haul them away. Some of them are then placed in rows on the ground (they’re known as “mats”) so as to provide a buffer between the heavy equipment and the mud, allowing the machines to operate more efficiently. Until recently, the work had been going on seven days a week.
“This poor woman and others on this street have been putting up with this since early March,” said Sugar Shack member Erik Burcroff, referring to Baxter, on whose property, which extends right up to the right-of-way, the cabin sits.
“We had been told they would take Sundays off,” added Baxter, a member of Sandisfield Taxpayers Opposing the Pipeline (STOP). “Now I come out here every day. It’s my property.”
Baxter said Monday the contractors finally took last Sunday off. But it could be the calm before the storm. She received written notice late on Thursday, June 8, hand-delivered by an employee of NLS Group, a Kinder Morgan subcontractor, that the companies had obtained the required permits to conduct blasting for ledge removal from June 12 to July 14, Monday through Saturday between the hours of 8 a.m. and 7 p.m.
As of Monday afternoon, the first day of the permit, Baxter said blasting had not yet commenced but that the top of Town Hill Road would be the likely starting point.
Baxter’s farmhouse is for sale. She says it has nothing to do with the pipeline project, but putting the house on the market was a decision by her family and she was “outvoted by her siblings.” The house is across the street from the easement, which can only be accessed by a dirt road and a tick-infested hiking path that winds past a ramshackle barn and Porta Potty.
During an Edge site visit last weekend, Burcroff, Baxter, Dennis Carr and Rema Loeb showed a reporter their beloved cabin and took him on a tour of the Baxter property abutting the easement. All were unhappy with the situation but vowed to adhere to Sugar Shack’s philosophy of peaceful protest and “the principles of nonviolence and civil disobedience.”
The Massachusetts State Police are the controlling legal authority, with private security handled by a firm contracted by the corporation. Elwell confirmed that a Boston security firm had recently been hired to provide additional details and muscle for the operation.
“If they have to hire paramilitary people to do their thing, what does that tell you about what they’re doing?” Elwell asked rhetorically. “That’s terrible.”
Still, security was of great concern to Massachusetts authorities after violence erupted last year at the Dakota Access Pipeline near the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe reservation in North Dakota.
Conversely, nerves are high in the area around the right-of-way, which has hosted a natural gas pipeline since 1952. A blasting accident during construction of a second pipeline in 1981 ruptured the old pipeline, causing gas to be released and prompting the evacuation of northern portions of Sandisfield.
But Burcroff had nothing but nice things to say about the state police, whom he described as very professional and courteous, adding that Sugar Shack, which has a designated police liaison, is in frequent contact with the troopers “to let them know our plans.” Burcroff says Sugar Shack has written a letter to the state police “describing who we are and describing our code of conduct.”
“At every step, they have been supportive of the First Amendment,” Burcroff said.
“They appreciate that we’re trained in nonviolence,” added Carr.
Sugar Shack members are no strangers to resisting pipelines. Indeed, that’s where the cabin got its start, albeit in a different place.
The cabin was originally built in Ashfield in March 2015, where it stood for six months in protest of the then-impending, and now-suspended, Northeast Energy Direct pipeline project, a 188-mile project planned to run from the Albany, New York, area east through Berkshire County to Dracut on the New Hampshire border.
Elwell says that, though his original intention was to block the NED pipeline, which was slated to run through his friend Larry’s backyard in Ashfield, the cabin became a focal point, an educational tool and “a symbol of Thoreau’s philosophy of conservation and peaceful resistance.”
“The idea came to me because I knew a lot about Thoreau and grew up near Walden Pond,” Elwell recalled. “I thought, ‘Why not put up a post-and-beam frame?'”
So Elwell and his friends built the 10-foot-by-15-foot structure and vowed to put it right in the path of the planned NED pipeline. They tacked up a copy of the essay on civil disobedience on one of the cabin’s posts.
“Our training comes right through that essay,” Burcroff said. “We’ve trained 300 people in nonviolence.”
Mission accomplished — sort of. Kinder Morgan did not altogether abandon the proposed NED pipeline that would convey fracked natural gas to ports along the eastern seaboard for export to Europe. Rather, Kinder Morgan “suspended” the project, leaving open the possibility it may revive the pipeline construction should circumstances change.
“We’ve been through that experience and we have survived it,” Elwell said. “But, I don’t know, the way things are in Washington right now with the people in charge there…there are rumors that Kinder Morgan is looking at this NED pipeline as a possibility once again.”
Eventually Elwell got the idea of taking the cabin apart and moving it to Sandisfield in an attempt to stop the deforestation there. So far the group has failed to accomplish that mission.
After the cabin had been placed, it had to be moved 11 feet to the east after a man identifying himself as a Sandisfield official told Sugar Shack the cabin was in violation of the town’s zoning bylaws.
From the Thoreau cabin, three machines could be seen busy at work snatching trees with their mechanical arms, twisting them loose and hauling them to a neighboring pile. The pain on the faces of the Sugar Shack members was evident.
“It’s heart-wrenching to watch them come through with those huge machines,” said Carr, a plumber by training and so no stranger to pipes himself.
Conveying a particularly plaintive image, one bystander told Carr he saw a squirrel jump out of a tree only minutes before it was felled.
But the keepers of the cabin say they are not just, to borrow a phrase from former Vice President Spiro Agnew, “nattering nabobs of negativism.” They fully support renewable energy projects, including solar and wind power projects. But they feel they must continue the protest in Sandisfield because they answer to a higher calling.
“The imperative is to act now,” Loeb insisted. “It’s not enough to say you believe in climate change.”
And act they have. Eighteen arrests of protesters were made May 2, with six more arrested Saturday afternoon (May 6). A group of them showed up for arraignment at Southern Berkshire District Court on May 11 only to have their trespassing charges converted by prosecutors from criminal to civil. Their fates won’t be known until a civil responsibility hearing on June 20.
The pipeline extension project of Kinder Morgan, parent company of Tennessee Pipeline, has been mired in legal entanglements. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission approved the project and gave the go-ahead for tree clearing and construction on April 12.
Dubbed the Connecticut Expansion Project, the operation would extend the company’s existing natural gas pipeline infrastructure across three states–New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts–and see four miles of new underground pipeline. Critics, on the other hand, insist there is no longer the demand for the natural gas market the pipeline extension was originally intended to serve and that, perhaps, is the only thing that could stop the project now.
Especially galling to Sugar Sack and other pipeline opponents is that public lands in the state are ostensibly protected by Article 97 of the Massachusetts Constitution, which says “the people shall have a right to clean air and water … and the natural scenic, historic, and esthetic qualities of their environment,” with the fulfillment of these rights to be carried out through state parkland acquisition and conservation.
After the company sued to continue, Berkshire Superior Court Judge John Agostini ruled in favor of Kinder Morgan subsidiary Tennessee Natural Gas, basing his opinion on the Supremacy Clause of the United States Constitution, which gives federal laws, such as the 1938 Natural Gas Act, precedence over state laws when conflicts occur.
Then, earlier this month, after FERC issued its Notice to Proceed, it was off the races. In response, U.S. Rep. Richard Neal and U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren demanded FERC revoke the notice, but to little if any effect.
Indeed, the primacy of federal law has been perhaps the most vexing issue for public officials. It was a source of frustration for State Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli and then-State Sen. Benjamin Downing.
Pignatelli wrote a letter last month to the Edge in response to an earlier article by Mary Douglas titled “State looks the other way as chainsaws make way for pipeline in protected forest.”
“Although we were unable to stop this project, we have managed to protect the state’s ability to fight to protect future land from being seized for pipeline construction and we have been able to negotiate and establish a precedent for the enforcement of Massachusetts’s ‘no-net-loss’ policy,” Pignatelli wrote.
If the Otis State Forest case had gone to a higher court and lost, Pignatelli said, it would have established a precedent and “essentially, it would make us completely powerless to prevent future infringements on our as-of-now still constitutionally protected land.”
Adam Hinds, who was elected last year to fill Downing’s seat, told the Edge in an interview that he found the situation “deeply concerning.”
“How can it not irk you and make you steamed?” Hinds asked rhetorically. “A lot of important work Smitty and Ben did was critical to preserve the ability of the state to protect land in the future, such as the no-net-loss policy, and yet at every turn the feds have showed hostility toward the environment.”
Hinds conceded that perhaps Massachusetts “could have done more with Connecticut … but it still doesn’t get past the problem of federal pre-emption, which is where we need to focus.”
Hinds added that, “FERC is outdated and needs reform” that takes into account climate change and technological developments in the energy field.
Still, the Sugar Shack Alliance will soldier on.
“We had more than 100 people at an Article 97 funeral in February,” Burcroff said, adding that hopes remain high that Article 97 will prevail, if not for the Connecticut Expansion, then for future energy or development projects on public lands.