PHOTO GALLERY | Sugar Shack Alliance Protest

SANDISFIELD — A demonstration at the entrance to Otis State Forest early Tuesday led to the arrest of 18 protesters who had blocked two access roads in opposition to a Tennessee Gas Pipeline Co. project.

The protesters were among a group of more than 50 who arrived on the site to oppose an easement that allows the company to widen its right of way through the forest. 

"We are doing what our state has not done to protect Article 97," said Ron Coler, a member of the Sugar Shack Alliance, referring to the article of the state constitution designed to protect state lands. 

And after one state trooper told a group they would be arrested for trespassing on state property, one activist asked, "Even if it's our state property?"

Protesters began arriving at 6:30 a.m., congregating at Lower Spectacle Pond across the street from the main access road. The group crossed into land now closed to the public, singing "We Shall Not Be Moved." Another group split off and occupied a second access road.

One group of nine protesters stood side by side behind a chain they strung across the road and attached to trees.

State police details arrived shortly afterward, as well as workers contracted by Kinder Morgan, parent company of Tennessee Gas, ready to start their shift. 

In a prepared statement released early Tuesday, state police said they "will seek to ensure that the rights of all parties are protected, including the rights of the contractors to complete this legally authorized project, the rights of nearby residents to safety and privacy, and the constitutionally-protected rights of demonstrators to have a safe environment to lawfully assemble, speak and protest."

Shortly before 10 a.m., police began arresting demonstrators for trespassing at two separate locations. In all, two groups of nine protesters, with each group blocking a different access, were arrested, according to a statement by state police. The blocked locations were approximately one-half mile apart.

The protesters, whom police said were "peaceful and respectful," were transported to the Berkshire County Jail & House of Correction for processing; they eventually will be arraigned in Southern Berkshire District Court in Great Barrington.

Kinder Morgan spokesman Richard Wheatley said the company "respects the rights of individuals to engage in peaceful and lawful protests." He said Tennessee Gas is "working closely with local, state and federal law authorities" to make sure protesters have a safe and secure opportunity to exercise their First Amendment rights, including providing a secure area for them to do so, while, at the same time, providing for the safety and security for the much-needed critical infrastructure project."

Contractors for the company began cutting trees on Sunday after receiving authorization last month from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for this part of the $93 million project, which is scheduled for completion in November.

Roughly 6 acres of Article 97 easement is currently being cleared to expand the company's existing pipeline corridor for its natural gas storage loop, which will span 4 miles in Sandisfield and more than 13 miles across three states. About 2 of those miles are in Otis State Forest. And after almost a year spent fighting the company in court, federal eminent domain law trumped the state constitution and its protections. 

Three U.S. lawmakers recently wrote to FERC requesting that the notice to proceed with tree cutting be halted until several issues were resolved, but the agency has yet to respond. 

On various other grounds, some groups have tried to stop the project at the 11th hour after fighting the pipeline for the last several years.

William Spademan, of Ashfield, stood in the rain and mud, saying he is willing to risk being arrested. He said he is opposed to expanding the fossil fuel industry, among other aspects of the pipeline build. 

"It is evil to do these things because some people want to make a lot of money," he said. 

Sugar Shack has a jail support team, said organizer Susan Theberge. She also said members are trained in nonviolent protesting techniques.

Group spokesman Bob Barba said the major issue for the alliance is the effect of fossil fuels on climate change, and that all the various concerns about this project are tied together.

"Running fracked gas through state-protected forest is an arrogant gesture," he said.

While Wheatley declined to comment specifically on the relationship between fossil fuels and climate change, the company's website says it "recognizes that addressing climate change is a global priority," and is "working collaboratively within our industry and with governments, environmental groups, indigenous peoples ... to build our understanding of the issues ... and seek potential solutions."

The company also says it is expanding its natural gas transmission business "to make access to lower carbon and renewable energy more feasible," and is "reducing emissions of methane and other greenhouse gases from our operations ... making energy efficiency improvements."

And on hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," the company says those "improved drilling techniques" have increased production that has reduced costs for Americans. 

Barba and other activists like Kathryn Eiseman, director of Massachusetts PipeLine Awareness Network don't buy it, and they say this extra gas is not needed in Connecticut because of changes in demand projections.

"The suspicion is that the gas will go to the export market," Barba said, adding that people are more comfortable with pipeline companies taking land by eminent domain if the gas will be used in the U.S.

Eiseman said it was a "tragedy that no state actors have been willing to stand firmly" to counter the Connecticut demand issue.

But Wheatley said this project will not only serve Connecticut, but also will "provide additional gas capacity for the region, including Massachusetts." 

This capacity issue was raised with FERC last month by Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Edward Markey, as well as Rep. Richard Neal D-Springfield, who said the agency had "found substantial merit" to hold a rehearing requested by Sandisfield citizens. "Lack of necessity of the project to meet regional energy needs" was just one of several reasons for the request, the lawmakers said.

What is considered a pristine area with abundant wetlands has been another worry for activists, residents and local boards. More than 100 conditions have been placed on the project, and one of those is erosion control. Wheatley said the company had finished installing that protection and is "diligently seeking to adhere to permit and other conditions."

Wheatley further said the company's "extensive" work to protect the "environment, the natural habitat ... and host of related matters have undergone extensive state and federal reviews. Even after the project is completed, our stewardship obligations as a conscientious operator and to the reviewing agencies involved do not end."

And it appears Sugar Shack's actions won't end anytime soon, either. The group is planning to entrench for the long haul here on Cold Spring Road at a staging ground on private land next to the state forest — an easy walk to all construction access points, areas manned by the company's private security guards and state police. 

In a statement, spokeswoman Donna Elwell said the group plans to keep tents and information tables up, and food for activists flowing "in preparation for a long anti-pipeline campaign." 

"Activists have pledged to continue their resistance to the pipeline until the project is stopped," Elwell added.

"We are committed to using all the nonviolent tactics at our disposal in our ongoing opposition to the [project]," said group member Irvine Sobleman of Northampton. 

Reach staff writer Heather Bellow at 413-329-6871