BERKELEY — Crews began cutting down trees next to UC Berkeley's Memorial Stadium late Friday, 21 months after activists climbed into the trees to protest the university's plan to raze them and build a $140 million sports training center.
Work crews with chain saws and bulldozers arrived at the university grove Friday, and by sunset, at least six trees had been chopped down as dozens of tree activists, students and tourists craned their heads, tilted their cameras toward the sky and either shook their heads in sadness or pumped their fists in the air with delight.
"We're ecstatic the project is under way,'' UC Berkeley Athletic Director Sandy Barbour said.
Clad in black ski masks, the four remaining tree protesters, who were driven into a single redwood in June, remained in the tree Friday. At times, they sparred with the UC-hired arborists, tossing a bottle at one (he was hit between the eyes, but went to work) and shaking branches at others.
Arborists trimmed most of the branches from the occupied redwood, leaving a few tarps and wooden platforms and the tree sitters alone before moving on to other trees on the south side of the grove. Chopping down all the trees is expected to take two to three days, a university official said. About 40 redwoods, oaks and other trees are in the grove.
And the university has a plan for the four holdouts.
"With the four remaining protesters isolated in a single tree, we have a great deal of work we can get done that they will in no way hinder,'' university spokesman Dan Mogulof said. "We hope and expect that in the next few days that the legal reality will sink and they will realize their presence no longer serves any purpose whatsoever."
Asked if they thought it would be likely that the four men would come down on their own after the grove is cleared, their supporters said it isn't likely.
"They're warriors,'' said Michael Diehl, sitting in a chair in the shaded median outside the grove Friday.
"They're very dedicated," said a woman who goes by the name Dumpster Muffin and lived in a tree for about eight months. "We're not going to be silenced no matter what."
Cutting down the trees comes one day after the state Court of Appeals denied a request for a new injunction by two community groups making a last-ditch effort to stop construction of the training center.
The project has been held up by legal battles since December 2006, when the city of Berkeley, the Panoramic Hill Association and the California Oak Foundation sued to stop the project because of concerns about safety, noise and traffic.
After a trial last fall, Alameda County Superior Court Judge Barbara Miller ruled in favor of the university and against three groups who sued. The city of Berkeley was the only entity that decided not to appeal.
Miller put an injunction in place when the lawsuits were filed in December 2006, and the state Court of Appeals on Thursday ruled against a request to continue that injunction.
Unless the California Oak Foundation and the Panoramic Hill Association obtain a stay from the state Supreme Court, there is nothing stopping construction of the sports training center for 400 student athletes.
As trained arborists used heavy machinery on the trees inside the grove Friday, the scene outside the grove was far different than it has been in the past 21 months. Hordes of wide-eyed students wearing khaki shorts, clean backpacks and designer sunglasses stood on the sidewalk across the street, snapping photos of the action on their digital cameras.
"This is a great way to start our weekend," said David Heilbrunn, a sophomore who said he stopped to see the action because he happened to be walking by. "I was just curious. I was just rolling by and saw this was going on."
The grove is surrounded by two chain-link fences and a metal barrier around the sidewalk. Few people can get close to the trees at this point.
Students have not, for the most part, been a large part of the protest to save the trees.
Most of the activists are older, unemployed, hippie types who have promoted the "save the oaks" campaign for the last 21 months while also using the grove as a gathering place to promote other social justice and environmental causes. But there were also plenty of steadfast tree supporters, such as Ayr aka Erik Eisenberg, who was arrested and led away in handcuffs late Friday, and Dumpster Muffin, who said Friday was a "sad day."
"I'm very troubled and upset," she said. "We've been asking the university since day one to peacefully sit down with the community and address our concerns and desires — and instead, they come here with these contracted mercenaries to endanger the tree sitters' lives."
Mogulof's take about the end of the long legal battle was far different.
"I would say the reaction on campus was more relief than exhilaration," he said.