Not Saving the Oaks

At the final stand of the Battle of the Arcadia Woodlands, the casualties bleed green. The sun is literally setting in the sky. But it had already figuratively set for a grove of 250 oak and sycamore trees.

The trees were standing in the way of 500,000 cubic yards of silt that are to be dredged from nearby Santa Anita Reservoir as part of a seismic retrofitting of its dam.

It's not that the trees are more important than the dam. The dam is plenty important. It is a crucial component of the area's flood-control system, and it provides drinking water for the cities of Arcadia and Sierra Madre. But the county didn't have to kill the oaks to dredge it.

They could have trucked the sediment out to other county-owned lands with no trees on them. To places like, say, Inglewood, 10 miles away, where massive gravel pits are in need of filling. They could have worked out a truck route that didn't bypass schools and endanger children. Killing the oaks was the worst solution. So, of course, that's what happened.

A few days before the razing is to commence, in the grand tradition of nonviolent struggle, people take to the trees. They sneak past security guards in the wee hours of the night. They won't negotiate. They'll stay there forever.

The bulldozers come anyway. Workers hired by the county Department of Public Works mow down oak after 200-year-old oak into the San Gabriel Wash. The grim business nearly complete, save for the couple of trees with people in them, there is nothing to do but wait.

As dusk falls, supporters hold a candlelight vigil for the trees. A woman passes out acorns from a Ziploc bag. The spirits of the Tujunga Native American Indians who lived in these woods are surely looking down at us with acorns in our hands, going, "Woo hoo!" she says.

Another woman sobs that the tree-sitters are doing God's work. Who's doing Satan's work?

That would be County Supervisor Michael Antonovich, according to several Arcadia residents. Antonovich represents their community.

By refusing to consider other alternatives, he effectively sold their trees down the river, opines Camron Stone, the de facto leader of the arboreal resistance. Stone spent years fighting the tree-removal plan. He came up with other good options, he says, all of which were ignored.

Stone works in construction and has a background in engineering, so he knows of what he speaks. He and Glen Owens, Monrovia city planning commissioner, even hired their own soils engineer to grind out the logistics.

For a while, things seemed hopeful. The community seemed galvanized. Activist Susan Rudnicki recalls a heated exchange that took place at a Town Hall meeting last December. A flood of recrimination greeted a member of the homeowners association who said she didn't want trucks on her streets. Also, she said, "I can't even see those trees."

"We can't see the whales either — should we kill all those, too?" someone shot back. And: "How about the Amazon — I've never seen it. Should we let that die?"

Ultimately, though, Stone's proposals fell on deaf ears. "It's a pure and simple case of 'the government knows what's best for you,' " he says now. "Just sit down and shut up, little boy."

High up in the foliage, veteran tree-sitter John Quigley's cell phone runs out of power. In this environment, he is more of a star than the actual star who's come to show solidarity.

"Can you imagine what that's like, being up there while they're cutting down trees around you?" asks actress Daryl Hannah, a friend to Quigley. "Just the noise of it. The branches crashing down. It's horrible."

Why the hurry? Why cut them down now? Because of the birds. That's Stone's theory, anyway. Laws prevent the harming of migratory, non-game native birds, which nest in the Arcadia oak grove. Imagine their surprise when breeding season starts in February and they fly back to discover that their habitat has been wood-chipped.

In the end, two of the four tree-sitters climb down of their own accord. A crane removes the other two. By first light the entire bunch of them are languishing at the sheriff's station, arrested on charges of trespassing and suspicion of delaying a peace officer. The trees died anyway.

Woe to the people who realized, way too late, they couldn't see the forest for the sediment.

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