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Judge dismisses charges against Roanoke County women who sat in trees to block pipeline

Judge dismisses charges against Roanoke County women who sat in trees to block pipeline

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A judge dismissed charges Thursday against a mother and daughter who for more than a month lived in the trees, trying to save them from a pipeline cutting its way through their Bent Mountain homeplace.

Theresa “Red” Terry, 62, and Theresa Minor Terry, 31, had a “good faith” belief that they could protest the Mountain Valley Pipeline by occupying two tree stands in its path, Roanoke County General District Court Judge Scott Geddes ruled.

“Stepping into the shoes of the defendants … the court has serious doubts that the Terrys intended to commit a criminal offense by their actions,” Geddes said before dismissing charges of trespassing, obstruction of justice and interfering with the property rights of the pipeline company.

Both women had faced potential jail time in a case that came to symbolize the fight against the largest natural gas pipeline ever to be built in Southwest Virginia.

Supporters rallied around a fiery, red-headed mother of three who gave up the comforts of home for a wooden tree stand, which served as a platform for her sharply worded missives against Mountain Valley.

The tree-sit drew national publicity and inspired “Stand with Red” posters and T-shirts.

Although the trees they defended were eventually cut down and construction of the pipeline continues, the Terrys claimed a moral victory as they left the Roanoke County courthouse Thursday afternoon.

“This is a very big win,” said Minor Terry, generally the more mild-mannered of the two.

“I was hoping it would go this way,” Red Terry said, “but I’ve been hoping a lot of things that didn’t go my way.”

This spring, the Terrys decided to take a stand after years of worrying about Mountain Valley’s plan to build a pipeline on pristine mountain land that has been in their family for seven generations.

They constructed two wooden platforms in trees that stood in a construction easement Mountain Valley had obtained through the controversial use of eminent domain, which allows the taking of private land for a public use.

Not only did the project violate the property rights of those in its path, the Terrys maintained, it also posed an environmental danger along its entire 303-mile route from northern West Virginia through the New River and Roanoke valleys.

As timbering crews moved closer, the Terrys stocked the tree stands with sleeping bags, camping supplies and enough food and water to last for weeks.

But the aerial blockades were to be used only as a last resort, according to earlier court testimony, because the Terrys were under the impression that tree-cutting for the pipeline would have to stop by March 31 to meet federal wildlife protections, as Mountain Valley had indicated in court proceedings.

That was the basis of their “good faith” defense presented by attorney Tom Bondurant.

If the Terrys had a sincere — although perhaps mistaken — belief that they had a right to be on their land to prevent improper actions by Mountain Valley, that would be enough to negate any criminal intent, Bondurant had argued.

“The truth won out today,” he said after the hearing.

After learning that the company was moving ahead with tree-cutting, Red Terry climbed into her tree stand on April 2. Minor Terry took her position in a tree on a different part of their land the next day.

Both women came down on May 5, after a federal judge ruled they would be held in contempt of court and fined $1,000 a day each if they continued their stands.

The Terrys were part of a resistance that included nearly a dozen tree-sits and other aerial blockades of the pipeline. More than 20 people have been charged with what Mountain Valley says are illegal efforts to stop a project that has received all of its required state and federal permits.

So far, the results in court have been mixed.

One day before the Terrys appeared in court Thursday, a federal judge imposed a two-day jail sentence for a man who spent weeks in a tree stand on Peters Mountain in West Virginia, next to where the pipeline will cross under the Appalachian Trail in the Jefferson National Forest.

Michael J. Sloan of Woodbridge pleaded guilty to a charge of violating a closure order for the national forest, according to court records.

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Laurence Hammack covers environmental issues, including the Mountain Valley Pipeline, and business and enterprise stories. He has been a reporter for The Roanoke Times for more than three decades.

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