Sutu Forté spent more than a week camping in a tree on trail-designated property before she was arrested.
On Tuesday, she was coaxed down from the tree by law enforcement officers who advised that she come down peacefully ahead of a Friday deadline.
This episode in our community’s history is interesting on so many levels.
You have likely heard about the long-term public project to construct a pedestrian/bike nature trail loop circling the city. The trail project Forté is protesting is a significant segment that will connect East Broadway and Stephens Lake Park with a trail into the Grindstone Nature Area.
Neighbors in the area chased the idea away when it was proposed years ago. After the project was brought up again, trail advocates went through the mandatory public process and legitimately obtained the necessary political support for approval and funding.
Those opposing the trail claim this isn’t democracy. The thing is this: It is exactly democracy, defined as majority rule. Those with the most votes win, and the minorities lose.
Opponents said they wanted a referendum instead, but we don’t operate as a direct democracy where every trail and intersection and sewer line goes to the ballot box. We vote for government representatives to decide these things, and we get to speak and influence them in public forums.
But this is an unusual blockade because the nature preservationists actually own this part of the woods as private property, although a decision about the trail was made before they purchased it.
In that way, there are similarities to a 2011 project called the Scott’s Branch Trail on the other side of town. In that case, the Columbia Audubon Society owned land for a nature preserve to be used for bird watching.
The city had this trail project in its long-term plan, but the Audubon folks raised concerns similar to today’s debate — that habitat (on their privately owned land for a legitimate private purpose) would be negatively impacted.
In the end, a compromise was negotiated, so the new trail skirted around the edge of the preserve behind existing homes and circumvented some mature trees to avoid their destruction.
To obtain an 80-foot easement through private property owned by Forté’s group, called It’s Our Wild Nature, the city ultimately used eminent domain.
The irony is both “sides” of this argument are green-minded in their own ways.
The trees Forté defended, including the one she lived in for a week, belong to It’s Our Wild Nature, and the group wanted to preserve the trees more than they wanted a trail.
The trail project, on the other hand, gives more people easy access to nature and exercise without the more acute disruption of a new shopping mall or a subdivision full of McMansions.
So both visions focus on the desirable end of protecting nature. But one side wants to preserve nature for human enjoyment; the other wants the area to be free of any human interference.
This debate rages in our national parks, as well. Paved highways must be built through virgin forest and animal habitat so more people can enjoy a wilderness experience.
Then, you have the question of civil disobedience. The city has a legitimate right to clear this path. Forté purposefully chained herself to an object that was in the way.
She was trespassing, and she knew it, but she believed in her cause. Yet, the law tells trespassers to leave or be purposefully removed.
I had a chance to talk to City Manager John Glascock about this last week. He told me that the City Council directed him to pursue this trail, but as long as Forté remained in this tree, he was committed to “work around her.”
Indeed, they apparently did try, but Forté’s friends claim the minute she left her tree, contractors rushed in to literally dismember it. RIP Purity Brother.
A touching feature in Sunday’s Columbia Missourian documents her personal history and her spiritual connection to these woods. Perhaps she was defending her “church.”
Neighbors said there was a circus around her, full of rubberneckers and opportunists. Impassioned folks on both “sides” of the issue were arguing in the street.
So, whether you think Sutu Forté is a hero, prophet, visionary, obstructionist, eccentric and/or crank, her stand in a tree has already become the stuff of legend.
Steve Spellman hosts “The Mid-Missouri Freedom Forum” at 5 p.m. every Tuesday on 89.5 FM/KOPN.