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Native Oaks Fall in the Name of 'Progress'


Paul Wild knew something was wrong when he heard a symphony of chain saws one morning last May.

By the time he and other curious residents reached the dirt track at the edge of their West Covina neighborhood, workmen were already loading the logs onto trucks.

Gone, like fingers chopped from a hand, were 30 healthy native oaks, which for decades had graced the undeveloped slopes just north of the San Bernardino Freeway. Some of the trees were 100 years old or older.

Wild and others phoned City Hall to complain--"but it was a day late and a dime short," Wild said bitterly. A developer had big plans for the site, he learned.

The same droning sound filled the elegant Rancho Santa Anita neighborhood in Arcadia this past November, as a resident decided to raze six native oaks to make room in his spacious back yard for a tennis court. Two of the trees were rare mesa oaks, native to the San Gabriel Valley.

"It was just devastation," said Judi Draper, president of the local property owners association, one of several groups desperately trying to preserve area oak trees. "They were beautiful, well-taken-care-of trees, between 50 and 150 years old."

For more than a century, native oak trees, part of the California scenery since long before the first European settlers arrived in the 17th Century, have seemed to be succumbing, one by one, to "progress."

First, they made way for railroads, roads and pastures. Then they were flattened for ranches, citrus groves and freeways. Now it's tract development and "mansionization," with chain saw-wielding workers felling centuries-old trees with a few deft cuts.

And where it isn't saws and axes, it's often well-meaning property owners, soaking their drought-resistant oaks with so much water that they become vulnerable to disease, horticulturists say.

More than 1 million acres of oak woodlands have been lost in the state since 1945, those people dedicated to saving the trees say. By now, many of the remaining oaks are at the mercy of private property owners.

"Everybody's talking about the tropical rain forest," said Melanie Baer-Keeley, president of the San Gabriel Valley Chapter of the California Native Plant Society. "But we're deforesting California."

In the San Gabriel Valley, a once-vibrant swath of unique mesa oaks, which covered large parts of Arcadia, Pasadena and Altadena, has been reduced to between 400 and 500 trees hanging on tenuously in private yards.

But activists and conservation-minded cities are fighting back. Volunteers are seeding areas with acorns and oak seedlings. Horticulturists are trying to raise homeowners' consciousness about the value of the native flora.

And several cities have now passed ordinances protecting native oaks, placing restrictions on cutting them down or even trimming them.

The Western native oak is part of the heritage of California, where 19 species still thrive. The Thomas Guide for Los Angeles County lists 280 streets whose names begin with "oak," from Oak Avenue in Covina to Oakwood Ridge in Lomita, to say nothing of streets with names like Glen Oaks and Encina (Spanish for oak).

The history of the state is full of references to individual trees, whose thick, twisted branches have served as landmarks and gallows, and to tangled oak forests, which Robert Louis Stevenson once described as "woods for murderers to crawl among."

But the oaks ultimately got in the way.

"The increasing desire people had back in the 1960s to live in hilly areas rather than in the flatlands led to the greatest loss of oaks," said Martin F. Stoner, a Cal Poly Pomona biology professor.

The mesa oak--also known as the Engelmann or Pasadena oak--is a broad-canopied tree with distinctive purplish leaves and long, fat acorns. It's found mostly on gently sloping terrain, like the Santa Rosa plateaus in San Diego County or the alluvial fans at the base of the San Gabriel Mountains.

Rebecca Fisher, director of the local California Native Plant Society chapter, said mesa oaks appear in "the most highly buildable areas."

Her husband, Rick, a horticulturist, landscape architect and also a member of the native plant society, pointed out an affluent neighborhood of broad lawns and meandering streets in northern Arcadia that he said is the heart of mesa oak country.

Rick Fisher indicated a century-old oak with a bed of impatiens at its base. "The fastest way to kill a tree is to grow grass or flowers right up to the tree trunk," he said. "The constant wetness (required to maintain flowers) makes the tree vulnerable to a fungus."

He is a pessimist on the subject of the local mesa oaks. "All of these trees are sentenced to death," he said, driving slowly past some rugged-looking specimens surrounded by manicured lawns. "It may take 10 or 50 years, but they're going to die." Native oaks often live to 300 years in the wilderness.

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