Otis State Forest pipeline protesters make a plea for the planet during court hearings

Anti-pipeline activists after the hearings and arraignments for trespassing charges in Otis State Forest to oppose Tennessee Gas Pipeline Co.'s Massachusetts segment of its 13-mile natural gas expansion project.

GREAT BARRINGTON — One after another the anti-pipeline activists stood before the judge in this small-town courtroom and said they trespassed in Otis State Forest, where the pipeline company is building a third line, to protect the entire planet from ruin.

"I was trying to stop the fossil fuel industry from controlling our land, our lives and our children's futures," said Ron Coler, an Ashfield Select Board member. "July was the hottest month on record. We sit in an air-conditioned room."

"I did it for the trees that can't speak, and it's my duty as a mother," said Esther Coler. "And I will continue to do this for all the children on Earth."

For 22 protesters who had civil responsibility hearings in Southern Berkshire District Court on Tuesday, many admitted to trespassing and said they did it because they felt they had to — that's called the necessity defense.

Others did not want to admit to it, some challenging the notion that one can actually trespass on state-owned and protected land.

In those cases, Judge Paul Vrabel wouldn't let the offenders testify, since the need to trespass isn't relevant if one isn't admitting to it or didn't do it, he told them.

In a courtroom packed with more than 30 activists and others, Vrabel listened to the Massachusetts state police troopers who had made the arrests, to the activists, and in the end took it all under advisement. And after 2 1/2 hours that included two more batches of other pipeline-related arraignments, the activists were out on the court steps for a press conference.

The trespassing charges stemmed from nonviolent protests on July 29, when activists from Sugar Shack Alliance began "picnicking" — blankets and all — on pipeline access roads or in the company's pipeline work area.

The areas have been off-limits since Tennessee Gas Pipeline Co. began work in May for its Connecticut Expansion Project, a 13-mile natural gas storage loop with about four miles in Sandisfield, and about two miles in Otis State Forest. The storage spur is nearing completion next to two existing pipelines, one built in 1951 and the other in 1981.

And not long after tree cutting began in early May, the protests and arrests began, and have not let up. Over 70 people have been arrested so far for protesting mostly on climate change grounds, but also for a host of other reasons, particularly because the state forest land is considered pristine, and is protected by Article 97 of the state Constitution.

Edward Stockman said it was a "betrayal" by state officials and lawmakers to allow the company to have an easement on land paid for by taxpayers.

"There was never a two-thirds vote of the Legislature to release the land," he said, of what is typical process, except in cases of interstate commerce where federal law applies. He said this is why he trespassed.

Steven Botkin, who has been arrested several times since May, said this "fight" is only with Kinder Morgan, the parent company of Tennessee Gas.

"Our fight is not with the court, the police, or the pipeline workers," he said.

A Kinder Morgan spokesman recently told The Eagle the company is trying to reduce greenhouse gas emissions throughout the chain from production to the supply system. Both industry and scientists are concerned about methane emissions, and some scientists say methane is far more powerful than carbon dioxide in harming the earth's atmosphere. Methane makes up about 98 percent of natural gas.

But many of the protesters said even one new small pipeline spells disaster for the planet. And they spoke to Vrabel in pleading tones.

"The vast majority of scientists and a clear majority of citizens" believe that to keep building fossil fuel infrastructure "is a gross violation of public safety," said Dennis Carr.

"Life on the planet earth is in the midst of extraordinary extinction," said John Cohen.

"We need to be dismantling the old fossil fuel infrastructure," said Carol Lewis. "The earth is me and I am the earth. I'm made out of it."

In the first set of pipeline-related charges to not be reduced to civil offenses, Micah Carpenter-Lott, Karla Colon-Aponte, MyKennah (Little Wind) Lott and William Connelly were arraigned on charges of trespassing, motor vehicle trespassing, disturbing the peace and conspiracy after driving a van into the pipeline work area last week to stage a demonstration.

And five activists were also arraigned for civil trespassing at company headquarters on a Sandisfield farm on Sept. 13, and knocking on the door to serve Kinder Morgan a mock arrest warrant.

Botkin, Michelle Vitti, Carpenter-Lott, Fergus Marshall and Ryan Smart were asked a few times to leave or face arrest, according to state police Sgt. Dean Clement, who testified for the arraignment.

And in what is perhaps the first sign that troopers are losing patience with activists, Marshall and Vitti said Clement told them, as he arrested them, "I'm sick and tired of these reindeer games."

Vitti and Marshall also said Clement did not remove tie cuffs fast enough, despite pain. But Clement said said there were two and three finger width's room between cuffs and wrists, while their hands were behind their backs. Clement also said the situation presented some complexity and tension for him since there were also protesters on the road when he was surprised by the group of five.

So far activists have had a civil — if not downright friendly — relationship with state police, and that was also evident in court. Yet the protesters continue to decry what they say are troopers doing the pipeline company's bidding. In May alone, Kinder Morgan paid state police about $115,000 for pipeline-related details, according to a state police invoice.

At one point, Smart asked Clement whom he serves.

"I serve the Lord our God but I am paid to enforce the laws of the commonwealth," he said.

On the courthouse steps, Rema Loeb, 84, who was arrested on the day of the "picnic," pulled The Eagle aside.

"There is a law more powerful, a natural law," she said, "and it is unforgiving."

Reach staff writer Heather Bellow at 413-329-6871.