It's not all that often that David gets the better of Goliath. But last summer, when the Alabama Power Company told Barbara Wilson of Jacksonville, Ala. (above, holding sign), that they were going to chop down three 75-year-old pecan trees in her front yard, she decided to fight back.
"I couldn't believe that in the United States of America someone could walk into my yard and tell me they're going to cut my trees to the ground when they aren't even touching the power line," Wilson says. "So I put up signs in my yard and started a petition for people to sign for Alabama Power not to cut down our historical trees."
Fellow Jacksonville resident and longtime Sierra Club activist Rufus Kinney (pictured at top, wearing cap, with neighbors Susan Hug and Derek Raulerson) was on his way home from work when he saw the signs in Wilson's yard, so he stopped and spoke with her.
Wilson told Kinney that her husband Jimmy (below), who suffers from Parkinson's disease, loves to sit on their front porch in the shade of the trees. "It's the only outlet he has to the people of Jacksonville," Wilson says. "People wave and he can wave back. But it would be impossible for us to sit out on the porch in the summer without the shade of these trees."
Turns out in 2003 Alabama Power had changed its longstanding practice of trimming trees underneath power lines to one of chopping them down. And so it was that in early July 2007 a man saying he was an arborist with Alabama Power came to Wilson's house and said he was going to cut down her trees that afternoon.
"No, you're not," Wilson told him. "Bring your boss here—I want to talk to the person in charge." The boss came and told her she could have ten days, but they'd be back on July 10 to chop down the trees. "I asked them to make an exception and continue trimming our trees as they had in the past," Wilson says, "but they wanted to make an example of me."
Wilson said she would take the company to court. "Go ahead," they replied. "Nobody's ever won a case against us." There's always a first time, Wilson said.
On July 10, 2007, when Alabama Power arrived to cut down the trees, they found Wilson (above) and Kinney sitting in folding chairs, chained by the waist to the trees, a crowd of people on hand, and Wilson's grandson Jake up in one of the trees (below), telling the power company representatives to "leave my Nana's trees alone!"
"It was Barbara's idea to chain ourselves to the trees," Kinney says. "She'd never done anything like this before. She's very conservative and not accustomed to fighting the establishment. But she was outraged that she could live in this house for 37 years and someone would have the audacity to come in and say that they were going to chop her trees down."
"I told Rufus I wasn't an activist," Wilson says. "He said, 'You are now!' I feel it would have been un-American to just allow something like this to happen." (Below, Kinney, neighbor Susan Hug, and her son Andy Hug wait for Alabama Power in Wilson's front yard. Note Jake Wilson's leg above Kinney, up in the tree where he sat all day.)
The power company set another date for the tree removal, and this time not only did the two again chain themselves to Wilson's trees, but the media and an even larger crowd was on hand. And later that week, when Kinney's trees were scheduled to get the ax, he was waiting for them chained to his trees. (Below, Kinney with one of his threatened cherry trees.)
Alabama Power proceeded to bring suit against Wilson and Kinney, who retained the pro bono services of Birmingham attorney Mark Martin (below at left, with Wilson and Kinney), who has successfully represented the Sierra Club in a variety of cases. "Nobody thought we had a chance to win," Kinney says. "Alabama Power is an extremely powerful corporation; politicians kowtow to them. They told us, 'Nobody's ever won in court against us.'"
But Martin's research revealed that the National Electrical Code, a federal standard for electrical wiring and equipment, does not recommend cutting trees to the ground, and that no other state engages in the practice. Even more crucially, he ascertained that similarly situated trees in wealthier locales in the state were being trimmed, not cut down.
In March 2008, Calhoun County Circuit Judge John Thomason ruled that Alabama Power's new policy was illegal and the company had failed to provide significant evidence that the policy would increase safety. The power company announced it would appeal the decision, but on June 18 it officially dropped its legal battle against Wilson and Kinney. (Below, Jake Wilson speaks at a press conference outside his grandmother's home.)
"We're so pleased," says Kinney. "This is a wonderful victory for the trees, for democracy, and for the earth. I hope this ripples out statewide."
Wilson, who credits her faith in God for seeing her through the ordeal, says she was humbled by the way others rallied to their cause. "Derek Raulerson, who I'd taught in bible school, saw my signs, asked me what was going on, and ended up doing our e-mail correspondence to thousands of people. We received so much support from total strangers who appreciated us standing up for something we believed in."
Wilson and Kinney, who hardly knew one another when the dispute began, have since become good friends. "What's so gratifying is that people put traditional politics aside and came together for a common cause," Kinney says. "Barbara and I don't see eye-to-eye politically. But the love of nature goes beyond politics."
Photos used with permission.