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For tree-sitter, no hiding from heartbreak of deal to greenlight Mountain Valley Pipeline

BENT MOUNTAIN, Va. — Theresa “Red” Terry never wanted shades on the windows of her white clapboard farmhouse perched on the side of 2,600-foot Bent Mountain. Such coverings, she insisted, would only mar the 360-degree view of nature’s bounty she so relished.

“Every window I looked out, all I could see was beauty,” she said about the place in Roanoke County she has called home since marrying Coles Terry III in 1984.

Three years ago, however, she relented.

By then, crews with chainsaws, bulldozers and other heavy equipment had already spent two years devouring broad strips of hardwood forests as a passageway to truck in and bury the hotly contested Mountain Valley Pipeline. In all, pipeline investors claimed 14 acres of Terry property via eminent domain. 

If completed, the mainline of the 42-inch pipe would move 2 billion cubic feet of hydraulically fractured gas daily from the shale formations in West Virginia to the Virginia-North Carolina border 303 miles away. From there, it’s likely destined for export by way of a 72-mile extension into North Carolina.

A piece of the pipeline is positioned in a cleared section of a valley between Bent Mountain and Poor Mountain. Credit: Elizabeth McGowan

Of course, the blinds Terry’s three grown children had installed in a room adjacent to the back porch couldn’t halt the carnage. But, drawn, they at least offered her a temporary shield.

It was in that sheltered space where a distraught Terry, 66, huddled at a table with her neighbor Mary Beth Coffey on a rainy afternoon just a week after President Joe Biden signed into law the debt ceiling relief pact on June 3.

The mood was funereal as the two friends lamented a deal that included a provision — long sought by fossil fuel booster Sen. Joe Manchin, D-West Virginia — to greenlight the completion of the Mountain Valley Pipeline by deep-sixing any and all remaining permit barriers. 

“I feel like we’re in grief,” said Coffey, 65, who retired early from her school speech pathology job to devote more time to confronting the pipeline, known as MVP. “We’re dealing with the death of many things on many different levels.”

“There was hope,” Terry chimed in. “But now I’m feeling hopeless.”

The Manchin measure, the friends agreed, has squelched the voices of protesters long convinced their poorer part of the state is a sacrifice zone.

Red Terry and Mary Beth Coffey.
Roanoke County neighbors Red Terry and Mary Beth Coffey have spent years trying to defeat the Mountain Valley Pipeline.  Credit: Elizabeth McGowan

“We’ve been resisting this pipeline a long time,” Coffey said. “With this deal, our rights have been taken away. Who do we report MVP’s missteps to now? It’s a human injustice.”

Terry, who tagged both Manchin and Biden with some colorful “potty mouth” epithets, said constant fretting about pipeline explosions and aquifer pollution means she is regrettably smoking more and sleeping less.

“People wonder why I’m a wreck. Well, it’s all enough to make anyone sick,” said Terry, who retired in 2021 as a forklift driver at a distribution center in nearby Salem. “MVP has taken enough. They took away my happiness, my security … and my trees.” 

She was especially heartbroken when the pipeline excavators uprooted a backyard orchard of roughly a dozen old apple trees and a nearby scarlet oak that she had staked out as a sapling and nurtured for 22 years.

The loss of that prized oak — followed by dismissive words from an MVP spokesperson — fired up Terry, nicknamed Red as a teenager. Though her fiery hair has lightened to blond over the last several years, her passion has not.

In the spring of 2018, that fierceness guided her to yet another scarlet oak on a nearby but separate piece of Terry property adjacent to Bottom Creek. The down-to-earth, then 61-year-old Roanoke native became a local celebrity — and a global sensation — when she ate, slept and lived in a family-built, plywood tree stand for 34 straight days to draw attention to the environmental havoc MVP was wreaking in Southwest Virginia.

She was one of several handfuls of activists who took to the trees along the Blue Ridge Mountains to try to protect its delicate karst topography, formed by limestone and other soluble rocks. 

“I didn’t think I could stop the pipeline single-handedly,” Terry said, adding that she only wanted MVP to stop continuing to cut trees beyond a pre-arranged deadline. “I don’t like the idea of trees being cut for someone to run a [pipeline] through to make a profit off of us.”

‘They were so loyal’

Terry’s trial tree-sit for a few days in late March 2018 went swimmingly because of a mild spell of weather. On April 2, she again ascended to her cramped perch 30-plus feet off the ground between the oak and a maple tree — this time for the long haul. Within days, she nearly froze when rain and temperatures in the teens soaked her yoga mat, sleeping bag and blankets.

Her limited supplies included extra clothes, canned food, water jugs, a one-burner stove, a flip phone and a plastic poop bucket.

Red Terry stands in front of her 2018 tree-sitting site at Bottom Creek on Terry property in Roanoke County. The scarlet oak and maple that held her aloft are long gone. 
Red Terry stands in front of her 2018 tree-sitting site at Bottom Creek on Terry property in Roanoke County. The scarlet oak and maple that held her aloft are long gone.  Credit: Elizabeth McGowan

Relatives, friends and neighbors — all aware that seven generations of the Terry family had lived on the 3,000 acres they owned on and around Bent and Poor mountains — rallied around Red.

Even though MVP-affiliated officials and law enforcement officers stymied their efforts to supplement her food and cigarette rations, her loyal cadre offered moral and spiritual support by spending time near the base of her camp day and night.

Coffey, who has known Terry since their children attended elementary school together, said that solidarity was a reflection of the pleas for social and environmental justice that echoed along the entire pipeline route.

“It was hard to engage with Red because of law enforcement,” Coffey said about her daily hikes to Terry’s scarlet oak. “But we wanted to be present with her and for her to let her know she had our support.

“We all recognized that she fully understood the vulnerability of all the living things in the woods and that she wanted to protect them.”

That outpouring of love and dedication bolstered Terry’s willpower and sense of community in her corner of Appalachia. 

“Having all of those people show up made me feel safe,” she said. “They were so loyal. It was the whole neighborhood and some people I didn’t even know.”

After officers relented on their earlier scheme to “starve” her out of her arboreal hideaway, she persevered by choking down some of what she described as the “tasteless turkey bologna sandwiches and cheap cookies” her supporters sent up to her regularly.

It wasn’t the second-rate meals that prompted her to exit the tree stand in early May. Alas, a federal district judge had set that deadline, with the caveat that the $1,000 per-day fine for violating the edict would go directly to the companies constructing the pipeline.

“I didn’t want that money going to MVP,” Terry said. “That’s what brought me down. The overhanging threat was that a U.S. marshal would take me out of the tree.”

Signmaking at the MVP protest at the White House on June 8.
Signmaking at the MVP protest at the White House on June 8. Credit: Elizabeth McGowan

Disappointment with two Joes in D.C.

Even though climate-induced Canadian wildfires choked Washington, D.C.’s air with smoke, Terry and Coffey were determined to join demonstrators near the White House on June 8 for an anti-MVP rally organized by People vs. Fossil Fuels.

The two women, toting hand-lettered signs, boarded a 50-passenger bus at 7 a.m. for the 4.5-hour ride. Early that hazy afternoon, they joined a vocal — but somewhat subdued — swarm of roughly 300 protesters commiserating, holding signs aloft and applauding speeches.

The overall sentiment was that Biden had betrayed them to assuage Manchin.

A masked protester holds a sign, which reads, "Stop you friggin' frackin' fossil fuel expansion with your pollutin' friend Joe Manchin." A second protester, facing away from the camera, wears a bright orange shirt, the back of which reads, "Protect what you love."
MVP protesters gather at the White House on June 8. Credit: Elizabeth McGowan

Many greeted one another as the friends they had become since the pipeline was a mere line on a map in 2014. While mainstream organizations opposed the pipeline, it was primarily grassroots groups that heeded the advice of the late Rep. John Lewis, D-Georgia, to “make good trouble.” 

Over the last nine years, they have been optimistic that simple economics, multiple court rulings in their favor, and momentum they had generated would mothball MVP, just as its cousin, the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, was jettisoned in 2020. 

Consider this: the price tag of the joint venture by power company Next Era Energy and large Appalachian gas companies, led by eventual operator Equitrans Midstream, has ballooned from $3.7 billion to $6.6 billion. Plus, the owners have paid several million dollars in penalties for hundreds of water quality violations along a winding, two-state path that crosses close to 1,000 rivers, streams and wetlands. 

Coffey always figured the 107-mile stretch in Virginia characterized by slopes as steep as 80 degrees, as well as underground sinkholes, caves, aquifers and streams, would put the kibosh on the pipeline.

“All along, we thought the water would be the difference that would save us,” she said. “But it turns out the water didn’t matter.”

Even though Coffey’s Roanoke County home is surrounded by wetlands, the pipeline is being buried barely 300 feet from her front door.

“For so long we were going to meetings, fighting this,” Terry said. “And we were blocking MVP, beating this and stalling the pipeline. Now they got what they wanted and are running roughshod over us. We’re exhausted.”

Red Terry measures the water that has seeped into holes bored on the MVP path on family property near her house.
Red Terry measures the water that has seeped into holes bored on the MVP path on family property near her house. The rock will be blasted away so the pipeline can be buried below. Credit: Elizabeth McGowan

She doesn’t regret hurling herself into the MVP maelstrom, although she admits that the political awakening it engendered means she is less cheerful and happy-go-lucky.

Terry is proud — but not boastful — that people as far away as Australia learned about the plight of Appalachia when articles, films and photos about her tree-sitting ricocheted around the world.

“People need to realize what they’re doing to us with this pipeline,” she said. “If water is going to be a scarce commodity, then why is our government giving companies permission to ruin it?”

Terry acknowledges that the blinds on her house can’t block out the grinding clang of construction equipment or the dynamite blasts blowing up rock along the pipeline right-of-way.

But if she closes her eyes, she can retreat to those childhood days when she would find refuge in the limbs of the mimosa and apple trees in her Roanoke backyard.

“That was my safe place,” she said, smiling at the memory. “I guess I’ve been a tree-hugger all my life.”

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