Winnsboro, Tex. – Deep within the oak and pine forests that blanket this stretch of East Texas, the chug of machinery drones on late into the day, broken only by the sounds of a band of activists who have vowed to stop it.
Here, among the woods and farmland, what might be one of the last pitched battles over the Keystone XL oil pipeline has been unfolding for weeks now, since construction of the controversial project’s southern leg began in August.
As bulldozers and diggers churn up a 50-foot-wide path for the pipeline — this portion will run from Cushing, Okla., to the Gulf Coast — a small group of environmental activists have taken to the towering trees in its way.
And with the blessing of some landowners who live here, and whose property the pipeline will cross, the protesters have fashioned a web of tree houses, structures and pulleys in a last-ditch effort to keep the enormous project from rumbling forward.
“Initially, a lot of the environmental movement on a national scale had kind of written this fight off,” said Ron Seifert, a spokesman for the Tar Sands Blockade, a group of environmental activists who have gathered near Winnsboro and contend that the oil sands crude that the pipeline will carry is especially toxic.
“But we have awakened folks from that slumber,” he said. “I think now there is an understanding that people are not going to give this up.”
TransCanada, the company behind the project, said construction had not been impeded in most cases, proceeding safely around where some activists have remained perched in the oaks for nearly three weeks. The tree sitters, as they are known, have survived on canned food and water and spent much of their time reading.
But at times, the company acknowledged, the situation has become dangerous. “In one case, protesters jumped underneath a truck and tied themselves to the rear axle with plastic,” Shawn Howard, a TransCanada spokesman, said by e-mail. “They were fortunate that the driver saw them go under — if he had not, it could have had very serious consequences for everyone.”
Mr. Howard said the company was making sure that work sites were safe, “even for those who are breaking the law and trespassing on these locations.”
Still, as protesters have staked out positions in tree platforms 70 feet high and along a 100-foot-long wall lashed together with timber, tensions in East Texas have risen along the route of the pipeline — slated for completion next year.
Off-duty police officers, hired by a TransCanada contractor, patrol the perimeter of construction sites day and night. This month, one man chained himself to a concrete capsule buried in the dirt before police managed to disconnect and arrest him, Mr. Seifert said.
And on Oct. 4, the actress Daryl Hannah was arrested alongside a local landowner, Eleanor Fairchild, 78, after they blocked heavy equipment clearing a path through Ms. Fairchild’s property.
Both women were taken to the Wood County Jail on criminal trespassing charges and released, according to jail records. Ms. Hannah also faces resisting arrest charges.
Sheriff Bill Wansley of Wood County did not respond to a request for comment. Mr. Seifert said 21 protesters had been arrested since the end of August.
It is not by accident that environmental activists chose Winnsboro, about 100 miles east of Dallas, to make their stand. They have found an unlikely ally in the battle-weary Texas families here who have fought the project for years.
One landowner, Susan Scott, said she had no idea the pipeline would carry oil sands crude, and signed over a right of way to TransCanada only because she feared a lawsuit.
Ms. Scott, 62, has since taken the $22,000 she was compensated and buried it in a fruit jar on her 60-acre property.
“I don’t care if it rots. It’s tainted money,” she said, staring at a thick scar that now skirts her land. “I felt like I was guilty of destroying my farm.”
Mr. Howard said TransCanada understood that some landowners were not in favor of the pipeline and that the company was respectful of those people whose land it needed.
“We have always been up front about the materials that are going into the pipeline,” he said.
At some level, the standoff also belies a deeper sense of inevitability around Keystone XL.
This year, after saying TransCanada must reroute the project around environmentally delicate areas in Nebraska, President Obama encouraged the company to submit a fresh application to the State Department.
And he embraced the less controversial southern portion of Keystone XL, which received final permits from the Army Corps of Engineers this summer.
A particularly crushing blow for opponents came in August, when a Lamar County judge ruled that TransCanada could use eminent domain to condemn private land to build the pipeline.
In another setback, TransCanada recently sued a leading pipeline opponent, a Texas landowner, David Daniel, for refusing to recognize a 2010 easement agreement he reached with the company, his lawyer said.
Mr. Daniel, 45, a soft-spoken carpenter, has since settled the lawsuit and asked the protesters to leave his property.
“It’s actually out of respect for David Daniel that we stay,” Mr. Seifert said. “I stand by the fact that protecting his forest is the best thing for him, the best thing for the community, the best thing for the Planet Earth.”
On a recent day on Mr. Daniel’s land, off-duty police officers warmed themselves by a campfire, as a protester used a rope to shimmy from platform to platform through the oak canopy above them.
Mr. Daniel was there, too. He gazed up at a tree house he built — now being used by the protesters — turned around and walked quietly back toward his home.