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Catherine “Fern” MacDougal will spend two days in jail for trespassing and blocking a Forest Service road during her 11-day protest against the Mountain Valley Pipeline atop a platform.

A woman who spent 11 days in an aerial blockade of the Mountain Valley Pipeline must now spend two days in jail.

Catherine “Fern” MacDougal was led from a Roanoke courtroom in handcuffs Thursday after pleading guilty to trespassing and blocking a U.S. Forest Service road.

The case of MacDougal — a 31-year-old University of Michigan graduate student with a history of environmental activism — marked the first adjudication of nearly a half-dozen people who sat in trees or on suspended platforms to block construction of the controversial natural gas pipeline.

On May 21, MacDougal took up residence in what’s called a skypod, a wooden platform about 30 feet high that was suspended by ropes strung from trees in the Jefferson National Forest. The structure blocked Pocahontas Road, which Mountain Valley is using to reach a construction area near the Appalachian Trail.

After Forest Service law enforcement officers repeatedly told MacDougal to come down, they used a mechanized lift on June 1 to reach and take her into custody, according to Joshua Lewellyn, a third-year law school student working for the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

As part of an agreement reached in U.S. District Court, Magistrate Judge Robert Ballou dismissed two other charges: That MacDougal maintained an illegal structure in the national forest and that she resisted law enforcement officers.

MacDougal has been convicted of trespassing and obstruction at least four other times since 2012, Lewellyn told the judge.

All of the charges stemmed from protests of what she saw as environmental injustices, her lawyer said. “She is someone who is motivated by service to what she believes,” assistant federal public defender Randy Cargill said.

In 2013, MacDougal was charged with trespassing after she hung an anti-coal mining banner in the rafters of a building in Gillette, Wyoming, where a meeting of Peabody Energy shareholders was taking place.

At the time of her most recent charges, Pocahontas Road in Giles County was closed to the public for pipeline construction — which served as the basis for trespassing charges against three other protesters who appeared in federal court Thursday.

On April 22, three men entered the closed area in an effort to provide food and water to a woman who spent 57 days in another aerial blockade, a platform suspended from pole blocking the Forest Service road. Known as Nutty at the time — and later identified in court records as Danika Padilla — the woman came down from her post in May and is scheduled to appear in court next month.

Doug Chancey, 66, John Nicholson, 32, and Galen Shireman-Grabowski, 22, pleaded guilty to violating the closure order and were each fined $100.

“I am not a criminal, although I have been treated as one, having been placed in leg shackles for over five hours during my arrest,” Chancey, a substance abuse counselor from Blacksburg, said after his court appearance.

Following his arrest, Chancey filed a lawsuit against the Forest Service that challenged the closure of Pocahontas Road, claiming it violated the First Amendment rights of those who were trying to reach the tree sitters to provide food, water and moral support. With all of the aerial blockades now gone, the lawsuit was dismissed as moot.

“This charge was due to the illegal road closure,” Chancey said. “I was following a higher law than the road closure when I went under the police tape and tried to get Nutty some food and water, her right according to international human rights law.”

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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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