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Hunger Striker Stands Firm on Trees

After 50 days, woman is still waiting for Davis to agree to save the state's old-growth forests.

November 26, 2002|Eric Bailey | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — For 50 days, she is said to have survived on water and a bit of broth, spending daylight hours in quiet protest under the boughs of a towering old redwood beside the state Capitol.

Susan Moloney has waged her hunger strike on the lawn of the Capitol to make a point about trees with the man who presides inside. When he first ran for office four years ago, Gov. Gray Davis vowed to save California's old-growth forests. He hasn't, as Moloney sees it, and she wants him to live up to that long-ago campaign promise.

"It is indeed sad we have to do these kinds of things to get attention," Moloney said Monday.

The governor refuses to be budged by this one-woman protest, saying through a spokesman that those remarks from the 1998 election stump have been misconstrued by Moloney and the media and that he has in fact saved plenty of the old trees.

"Public policy is not made by refusing to eat," said Steve Maviglio, Davis' spokesman. "This sort of thing is a publicity stunt, not an effort for meaningful change."

So they remained at loggerheads Monday on the cusp of a holiday known for feasting, not fasting: Moloney, the hunger striker, who thinks every tree older than the state's founding in 1850 should be spared the chain saw; and Davis, the governor, whose foes say only big contributions get big results.

Moloney was joined Monday by Julia Butterfly Hill, the tree sitter whose epic two-year vigil in the branches of a Humboldt County redwood ended in 1999 after loggers agreed to sell the tree to a nonprofit organization.

During a news conference Monday on the Capitol steps, Hill vowed to spend Thanksgiving week -- and perhaps longer -- fasting with Moloney to prod the governor toward adopting blanket protection for California's oldest trees.

"We're tired of the lies and tired of the spin," Hill said. "Now is the time for Gov. Davis to stop running from his promise."

Over the past 50 days, Moloney said, she has seen her weight drop more than 20 pounds. At 5-foot-5, she is now a gaunt 107 pounds. Bones in her hips and shoulders that never showed before now jut out. A native of New York, Moloney was a computer programmer until she moved to Humboldt County in the mid-90s and became an environmental activist. She's now executive director of the Campaign for Old Growth, a grass-roots group trying to put a measure on the state ballot to ban axing all trees more than 152 years old. The group tried to get an initiative on the November ballot, but failed to gather enough signatures.

The ballot measure is only the most recent cause in the war to save the North Coast redwoods, which has raged virtually unabated for more than a decade. With plenty of tree-sitting activists already in place on private timber tracts, Moloney began the hunger strike Oct. 7 as a new approach to get Davis' attention.

Each workday, she spends several hours in a canvas-backed camping chair. "It's not a Lazee Boy," she quipped, "but it's not bad." Overhead is the huge redwood tree dedicated to Gil Murray, a timber industry lobbyist who was the last victim of Unabomber Ted Kaczynski.

Early on, a few passersby gave Moloney a razzing. One even asked, "Want a hamburger?" Moloney, in fact, is a strict vegetarian. But mostly, Moloney said, she has heard only kind words of support and sympathy. Some people come up with tears in their eyes, she said, asking that she not hurt herself.

Though one Capitol worker claims to have seen Moloney sneaking a few Cheerios, the activist says she subsisted for the first 40 days only on water and herbal tea. After visiting a registered nurse, Moloney added vegetable broth and freshly juiced carrot and apple to her diet.

The worst effect, she said, has been a growing inability to withstand the foggy fall cold of Sacramento. She tries to outsmart it with layers of clothing. But she can last only about three hours outside now, forced to retreat to a friend's apartment for warmth. On weekends, she usually gets a ride home to Garberville to be with her family, where she said she continues to fast.

Some friends are worried she may be taking this cause too far.

"I've been begging her to quit," said Kent Stromsmoe, a Campaign for Old Growth activist. "I'm concerned the fast will affect her judgment. That she won't be reasonable about knowing when she should stop."

Moloney, who has started a Web site (www.fastforoldgrowth.org) to chart her effort, said she has no illusions about carrying on too long, no desire to compromise her long-term health. She said her mental acuity remains intact, and indeed during talks she seems sharp.

"I can feel it taking its toll in several ways," she said. "But I also feel very strong about carrying this through."

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