Column One: Victorious `Butterfly' comes down from the trees

WAVERING BETWEEN laughter and tears, Julia "Butterfly" Hill fell into the arms of her father at the base of her 200ft tree and made the three-mile walk back to the nearest highway barefoot, using a cane to help revive the leg muscles that have gone unused for so long.

"I haven't seen one of those in two years," she said, as she was guided into a chair for an impromptu roadside reunion with supporters. "It feels weird sitting down." The environmentalist had spent two years perched in a redwood to protest at the aggressive logging of some of California's oldest forests. She came back down to earth at the weekend after being promised that her tree and surrounding ancient redwoods would remain unfelled.

During her tree-sit, the longest undertaken, Ms Hill, 25, attracted worldwide attention to the activities of the Pacific Lumber company, which has tripled clearance in the past few years, stripping the hills of Humboldt County, north California, of some of the oldest trees on the planet.

Ms Hill's tree, which she called Luna, overlooks Stafford village, wiped out by a landslide three years ago. Environmentalists say it was another result of the company's "clear-cutting" policies, along with threats to endangered species and silting of salmon rivers.

Ms Hill, a drifting preacher's daughter from Arkansas, began her tree- sit shortly after setting eyes on the redwood forests for the first time. With only a 6ft-by-8ft plywood platform for support, she subsisted on an uncooked vegan diet and used layers of clothing to survive the winter winds and cold. Her main link was her mobile phone, which she used for interviews, and a group of supporters who replenished supplies and took away her waste every few days.

"I wanted to do something for the forest,'' she said on Saturday. "There is no way to be in the presence of ancient beings without knowing something about ourselves.''

Her easy charm and remarkably intact sense of humour infuriated Pacific Lumber, which accused her of trespassing and threatened, in the early days, to use violence to remove her. She said they blared horns at her all night to deprive her of sleep and flew a helicopter perilously close to her perch in an effort to blow off her coverings.

But as her fame spread - she was visited by Bonnie Raitt, Joan Baez and Woody Harrelson, among others, and inspired several copy-cat tree-sits - the company had to agree to negotiate terms for her descent. Under the deal Ms Hill and an environmental trust, Sanctuary Forest, will pay $50,000 (pounds 31,250) for the right to preserve Luna and a 200ft ring of trees around it. They will also maintain visiting rights.

The money, raised from supporters and the advance on a book Ms Hill is writing, will not stay with Pacific Lumber but be donated to forestry research programmes at Humboldt State University. The only concession Ms Hill made was to agree never to undertake another tree-sit.