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Freeway Expansion Uproots Giant Oak : Construction: The 300-year-old tree will be moved about 100 feet and replanted. The movers say they have a high success rate, but many arborists predict failure.

June 03, 1993|CHIP JOHNSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In an action criticized by some environmentalists, workers Friday will move a mighty oak tree estimated to be nearly 300 years old to a new home about 100 feet away to make way for a Ventura Freeway expansion.

Valley Crest Tree Co., tree moving experts with more than 30 years experience, point to their success rate and defend the process of boxing trees in gigantic planters and replanting them with essential roots intact.

But opinion is divided among environmentalists and arborists on whether adult oaks--those with trunks at least eight inches in diameter--can thrive after transplanting. Some say it is better to use resources to plant seedlings than to move old trees. Others argue that most trees can be moved successfully--if one is willing to spend the money to maintain them.

In a 1987 project that would give poet Joyce ("Only God Can Make a Tree") Kilmer hives, Valley Crest moved a grove of nearly 1,500 oak, sycamore and other trees at the Lake Sherwood Country Club in Thousand Oaks. The trees were later replanted at a golf course in the development.

The company claims, despite the contentions of environmentalists, that 99% of the trees moved in that project have survived.

"If a tree dies as a result of root pruning, it's usually within the first 30 days," said John Mote, who heads the $100,000 project for Valley Crest.

The 300-year-old oak is one of six trees to be moved for the freeway project, which will include an off-ramp and retaining wall at the site, said Patrick Ross, Caltrans project director.

Moving 240 tons of earth and tree in a wooden box seven feet deep and 24 feet across is a tricky undertaking that requires patience, know-how and a balance between construction and botany, said Mote, who has worked with Valley Crest for eight years.

First, construction workers carefully dig around the tree with pickaxes and shovels to avoid damaging its root system. Next, wooden sidewalls are placed around the tree to contain the root ball, its nutritional source, and key root systems, Mote said.

Finally, workers tunnel under the tree and place a bottom board to support and contain the tree. The tree is moved on steel beams and wheeled by a dolly system to another site. The process takes about four months, Mote said.

The six trees have all been boxed, but the largest tree will be the first to be moved.

For all the company's efforts, which even some critics applaud, arborists across the state shudder at the idea of severing an ancient tree from some of its roots and moving it in what amounts to an oversized flower box.

More important, few if any believe that an adult tree can survive such a process.

"Most arborists, most people working with oak, sincerely doubt the potential for success of these kinds of moves," said Sharon Johnson, a member of the Oak Foundation and the author of a book on the native California trees. "Whenever you fool around with the roots of an adult oak tree, you're asking for trouble."

And the majestic 50-foot oak that sits behind the Sagebrush Cantina in Calabasas is a particularly sensitive subject, Johnson said, because of its history and its unique structure.

The big oak, which is really two trees intertwined, once supposedly marked the dividing line between the El Escorpion and Mission San Fernando Ranchos. In addition, it is a heritage oak, a large tree protected by state and federal environmental laws.

Rosie Dagit, a certified arborist and field biologist retained by Calabasas, agrees with Johnson.

Dagit, who is conducting a study on the subject of moving trees, said there is little research and no long-term data to support the success rates claimed by Valley Crest.

"This is the world's most expensive firewood," Dagit said.

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