On Saturday, Dec. 18, Julia Hill, aka Butterfly, descended from her aerie in a redwood near Stafford, Calif., touching ground for the first time in two years. In the deal that brought Madame Butterfly back to terra firma, Hill agrees to pay Pacific Lumber $50,000, culled from donations, T-shirt sales and book royalties. In exchange, Pacific Lumber pledges not to log the Stafford Giant (which Butterfly calls "Luna"), the 1,300-year old redwood that was her arboreal hermitage for two years. The company also says it won' t clearcut within 200 feet of the redwood, although it reserves the right to conduct salvage logging inside the so-called buffer zone.

The civil disobedience actions on Pacific Lumber lands near Stafford didn't start with Julia Hill, but with Earth First!ers and local residents who feared that logging on those unstable slopes put their community at risk of killer landslides. On New Year's Day 1997, part of the logged-over hillside above Stafford gave way. Mud and rocks and stumps collapsed on part of the town, damaging or destroying more than 30 homes. The landslide originated on Pacific Lumber lands. The company said the blow-out was an "act of God," offered the residents $1,000 each for their loss, and busily began planning the logging of the remaining forest on the slope, including the stand containing the Stafford Giant. On Oct. 7, 1997, Earth First!ers began a tree-sit-in in the 300-foot tall redwood. They were cheered by local residents of this logging community, a scene that was repeated earlier this year by residents of the timber town of Randle, Wash., where the wives and daughters of loggers baked dinner for tree-sitters on steep hillsides that Plum Creek Timber Company wanted to clearcut.

Julia Hill came along in October of 1997, on a self-described journey of spiritual discovery. In December, the young woman, a dedicated seeker with little background in the environmental movement, ascended the Stafford Giant. She expected to be up there a couple of weeks at most. The weeks turned into months, the months to years. Along the way, something happened. Julia Hill became Butterfly, and she christened the Stafford Giant Luna, investing it with a spiritual presence. "Luna and I have become one," Butterfly wrote 79 days into her tree sit. " Two years later, Butterfly has come down a full-blown mystic, the Gurdjieff of the redwoods with the fiery anti-corporate rhetoric replaced by banal spiritual homilies and indifferent poesy. It is impossible to demean the courage of Butterfly's vigil. Tree-sitting is a hazardous business. Doing it in the winter is downright dangerous, with high winds and driving rains. Pacific Lumber was not slow to resort to intimidation tactics, such as cutting down ropes tied to surrounding trees, logging nearby lands with helicopters, or setting security forces around Luna in attempt to starve Butterfly out.

Nonetheless, tree-sits, especially ones that last for more than a year, are scarcely ecologically benign forms of social protest. In fact, had Butterfly's roost been constructed on federal lands, it would have required a full-blown environmental impact statement. In the whirlwind of hagiography, an important fact has been overlooked: this is endangered species habitat. With all the action going on 180-feet up in Luna, it's difficult to imagine spotted owls or marbled murrelets nesting there. Still, that's OK, if the tree was to stand as an objective correlative for the ecosystem, where the ecological integrity of that particular stand could be sacrificed in the name of protecting the entire redwood ecosystem. But that's not what happened. Indeed, the equation was reversed. Luna was transubstantiated into a temple worthy of saving in itself because of its spiritual merger with Butterfly. The rest of the ecosystem be damned. The protection of Luna yields only Luna.

What is the message here? In the wake of her deal with Maxxam, Butterfly said that Maxxam had taken "an unprecedented, courageous first step towards ending the timber wars. Their initiative in this agreement and covenant symbolizes hope that a new era of peace and cooperation has begun between the timber industry and environmentalists -- between corporations and communities."

The deal reaffirms the hostage-taking mentality of corporate raiders like Hurwitz, forcing enviros to buy endangered species habitat from corporations to keep it from being destroyed. This is a doomed strategy that will pad the pockets of corporations but do almost nothing to aid the environment. At $50,000 per tree, it will take something like $3 trillion to buy back the rest of the threatened big trees in the Pacific Northwest. In other words, the combined wealth of Bill Gates, Paul Allen and the Sultan of Brunei couldn't save what's left of the ancient forests. And when the surrounding landscape is clearcut, "Luna," exposed to brutal winter winds and rain, will come tumbling, a $50,000 piece of blow-down, whose meaning will be as inscrutable as Shelley's Ozymandias, that fallen, enigmatic statue amid the desert sands.

Alexander Cockburn is a columnist for The Nation and author of a syndicated column, essays and books. The Times Literary Supplement called him “the most gifted polemicist now writing in English.” To find out more about Alexander Cockburn and read features by other columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at COPYRIGHT 2000 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.