Arcadia Highlands' Oak Protesters Face Trial
Update: The four tree-sitters reject a plea deal, and their defense attorney vows to "litigate this case to the hilt."
If those outraged by Los Angeles County’s green light to bulldoze hundreds of graceful century-old oaks and sycamores in the Arcadia Highlands have any solace, it’s perhaps that the annihilation of the old-growth woodland to create a sediment dump has stirred a wider public to action — or at least anger.
That awareness may be raised further this week as four eco-activists face arraignment on misdemeanor charges over their failed efforts to protect 249 majestic trees in the Santa Anita Wash north of Arcadia.
John Quigley, Andrea Bowers, Julia Jaye Posin and Travis Jochimsen were arrested by Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Deputies after taking up positions in the tree canopy to slow the bulldozers and draw attention to the stunning destruction.
“I am willing to go to trial,” Quigley says. “I want to see what a jury of my peers says when they see what the county did and how they did it.”
The bulldozers on Jan. 12 smashed through 11 acres of pristine wildland owned since the 1950s by the County Department of Public Works. But for much longer than that, the area had been home to a vibrant community of creatures that included deer, fox and occasional bears and big cats.
The DPW’s flood-control agency intends to use the now clear-cut former grove as one of two locations to dump half a million cubic yards of natural debris and sediment it is removing from the Santa Anita Reservoir — enough to fill the Rose Bowl.
“The preeminent threat here is the large population pressures on the edge of development,” Quigley says. “Whether it is to dump, or build roads and housing, government agencies have traditionally undervalued these natural resources, and they routinely draft plans to bulldoze right through them.”
The foursome’s stand lasted just a day, as they sat in the great, gnarly oak trees, defied the bulldozers and 50 Sheriff’s deputies, and made the nightly news.
But the reverberations continue to ripple, calling into question the actions of the county’s Department of Public Works, the alleged complicity of County Supervisor Michael Antonovich in the destruction of the woodland, L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca’s deputies’ successful attempt to block close-up media coverage and Cooley’s seemingly heavy-handed prosecution of the four activists.
Defense attorney Colleen Flynn, who represents all four protesters, says she is hopeful Cooley’s office would see the folly in playing hardball with the eco-activists.
“If convicted at trial, these four activists, who are being heralded as heroes by the local community, potentially face jail time in the county’s already overcrowded, unsafe and unsanitary jail facilities,” Flynn tells the Weekly via email. “We have not yet received firm offers from the DA’s office, but we hope that Mr. Cooley will respond to the community’s outrage over these prosecutions by dropping all charges.”
Deputy District Attorney Patricia Wilkinson says she’s not inclined to discuss the disposition of the case with reporters.
Antonovich has been the subject of abject ridicule following the bulldozing, with some activists declaring him Public Enemy No. 1 to old-growth trees in L.A. County, but the supervisor’s office has come back swinging hard.
“Nonsense! Nonsense!” spokesman Tony Bell says. “In 30 years, Mike Antonovich has saved more trees than most of them have probably ever seen.”
Bell ticks off a series of Antonovich’s wildland initiatives and accomplishments and says the supervisor is doubling down by undertaking a closer working relationship with some of his environmental critics. “His vision is to preserve wildlife as a precious natural habitat for future generations,” Bell says.
While the case against Quigley and his cohorts remains fluid, the decision by Baca’s deputies to declare the oak grove a “crime scene” due to the protest — thus keeping reporters at a distance out of the grove and down a public street, prevented from seeing the tree-sitters — has raised some legal eyebrows.
“It’s clear that they didn’t want the public to know what was happening,” defense attorney Flynn says. “The deputies were colluding with county officials to keep the public in the dark so they could destroy the Arcadia woods without further interruption.”
Terry Francke, general counsel of the public access advocacy group Californians Aware, scoffs at the notion that the Sheriff’s Department was legitimately securing or preserving a crime scene.
“The ‘crime scene’ (if any) consists of the trees being occupied by the protesters. There is no forensic evidence of the alleged crime that would be obliterated by closer access” to the grove by reporters and the public, Francke says in an email to the Weekly.
While Francke says the Sheriff’s Department was engaged in “patently unconstitutional” dirty work to prevent journalists from covering the decimation of the woodlands, he also says the ease with which Baca’s deputies got the media to turn tail during the tree clearance will continue unless the local Fourth Estate shows more spine.
“The journalists on the scene decline[d] to put their First Amendment instincts to the test of civil disobedience,” Francke says. “Their employers have no more stomach now for backing them in such a confrontation than they ever have.”
Roger Jon Diamond, a top First Amendment attorney nationally, bluntly says the Sheriff’s Department “lied when they said it was a ‘crime scene.’ … This was a classic confrontation between civil protesters and government. The media’s First Amendment rights were clearly infringed. This is something right out of Gadhafi’s playbook.”
But sheriff’s spokesman Steve Whitmore says that’s untrue and unfair. “We may have restricted the media from getting as close as they would have liked, but it was a safety issue and we take that seriously,” Whitmore says. He explains that heavy equipment crews demolishing the trees told deputies it would be unsafe for reporters to be in the area.
Whitmore says Sheriff’s Department brass at the Temple City station told him the deputies did not declare the area a crime scene. Click here for video of a deputy clearly informing reporters that the crime scene extended to the grove and deep into an adjoining public street.
The media covered the story “extensively,” Whitmore says, “whether or not they got the access they wanted. And quite frankly, we encourage the debate.”
For Cameron Stone, a local on the steering committee of the UrbanWild Network, the destruction of the Arcadia woodlands was like watching the death of an old and trusted friend.
“I have been walking in those woods since I was a kid,” he says. “They were dear to me, and to so many others.”
Stone says that as public concern for the preservation of wildland has grown over the past 30-plus years, the county’s DPW has shifted to more clandestine tactics to achieve what he describes as the sterile handiwork of engineering apparatchiks.
“They basically stopped routine maintenance of their grounds,” Stone says, “instead waiting for an advantageous emergency to arise where they could cry ‘public safety!’ And they also discovered that, once they declared public emergencies, the treasury doors also opened.”
Not so, says DPW spokesman Bob Spencer, who offers a heated retort to the suggestion that the agency mishandled the elimination of the oak grove or engaged in bureaucratic subterfuge. “Absolutely not! This was the result of a multiyear process. Three years in the making that exhausted all of the alternatives, it was an exhaustive environmental process.”
Spencer notes that for the 11 acres of woodland demolished, the department is returning 30 acres to wildland status, including eight revegetated acres at the removed grove. “And we’re not talking just planting a few saplings when we’re done, either,” Spencer says.
But, in fact, it will be many decades before the DPW’s replanting will produce a canopy of mature trees.
Whatever the fate of the “Arcadia Four,” the battle to save what little remains of open, old-growth wildland across Greater Los Angeles is not over.
“The outcome of this case will have far-reaching consequences for community leaders working to save other endangered wildlands in the county, such as Whittier Narrows and Montebello Hills,” Flynn says. “These community members have the dual task of protecting our endangered wildlands and also exposing government corruption and mismanagement of publicly owned lands.”
Reach the writer at Mrcromer@aol.com.
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