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Treesit Ends In Arrests
Woman being arrested by police

Chapter 1: Final Hours of the Mendota Tree Sit

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From wire services and Public Web Works Staff

Minneapolis, Dec. 11 -- Opponents of a controversial road project shouted their defiance over the buzz of chain saws and logging equipment as workers cut a swath through the trees and brush east of Hiawatha Avenue in South Minneapolis.

About three dozen protesters were arrested in an early morning raid on the site, where authorities found highway opponents gathered around a campfire and camped in trees. It was the second such raid in less than a year.

The Highway 55 reroute project will cut a four-lane bypass through an old urban park just a few hundred yards from deeply wooded bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River.

The protest was far less eventful than a confrontation months earlier in which one protester was taken to the hospital. The conflict escalated that day when authorities and tree removal specialist began sawing limbs off trees which were occupied by protesters.

But on Dec. 11, the protesters were removed by a State Patrol search-and-rescue squad in coveralls and full-body harnesses - but still sporting their trademark maroon neckties. Troopers used a cherry picker, and even a Minneapolis Fire Department ladder truck, to reach the protesters and pull them from the trees.

Public Safety Department spokeswoman Cathy Clark said the troopers had been training for just such an eventuality. Authorities, in fact, seemed to have gone out of their way to prepare for the protesters: They met with them and warned them of the raid earlier in the week. State Patrol Capt. Kevin Kittridge even joined in an Indian pipe ceremony at the site last month.

All told, the protest and arrests went mostly without incident, or even the rancor of the earlier confrontation.

Opponents were pained but unswayed as trees toppled. "I feel the countrythat destroys its own soil destroys itself," said Courtney O'Connell from Minneapolis, who sobbed each time a tree was felled. "I hope people get out to vote. This is what happens when people don't."

At issue is a half-mile stretch of woods on public parkland just east of the U.S. Bureau of Mines campus and south of East 54th Street. The Minnesota 55 reroute is slated to go right through the trees, several blocks east of the present roadway.

Environmentalists oppose the project because it has leveled acres of woods along the Mississippi River bluff. Opponents also say they fear the road construction will destroy a natural spring which feeds the historic Minnehaha Falls near the intersection of the Crosstown Highway and Hiawatha Avenue.

Some native Americans opposed to the project contend that the site - especially a stand of four bur oak trees - has been used for rituals since before Fort Snelling was established in 1819.

"These trees are sacred," said Darlene Jackson, a member of the Leech Lake band of Ojibwe, who joined in the singing at a final ceremony at the site Saturday.

A study in April, however, found that the disputed land was probably too low and damp to have served as a burial ground, and that the oak trees likely date from the Civil War era. The Minnesota Department of Transportation - the agency in charge of the project - also says that the new road will avoid the so-called Coldwater Camp spring, which likely has some historical significance.

Despite those assurances, members of the Mendota community gathered among the trees and started singing and pounding a large drum well before 6 a.m. All told, about 50 protesters gathered at the site, and about half of them stayed until troopers and Hennepin County sheriff's deputies carried them away.

Half a dozen or so others had climbed nearby trees, where they had tied pallets, nets, ropes, hammocks, pails and tarps among the branches. They vowed to camp there to keep the trees from being cut down.

Some supporters of the project were scattered quietly among the scores of people watching as the trees were cut, pushed and mowed down for most of the day.

"I'm just glad the project is moving ahead," said Rick Jesperson, who lives a few blocks away. He grew up in the neighborhood and says he's been concerned about rising traffic levels along Hiawatha and pollution that congestion may bring.

"This has been a long time coming," he said.

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