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California and the West | PETER H. KING

A Case of Wanton Weeding

January 11, 1998|PETER H. KING

SAN LUIS OBISPO — The first time I saw Roy van de Hoek, he was standing alone in the rain on a muddy road, at a prearranged rendezvous site way out in the middle of nowhere. He wore a pair of women's sandals and a yellow poncho that was comically undersized for his gangling frame. He also appeared a bit rattled.

The clothes, this fortysomething man mumbled as he climbed into my car, were borrowed from a woman friend. There had been a problem the night before, an arrest. His boots and his car, packed with his belongings, had been confiscated. He had spent the night in jail.

"What did you do?" I asked.

"Oh," he said, "I was sort of pruning a eucalyptus tree."

This was a little more than a year ago. I had been invited for a tour of the Carrizo Plain, an exotic piece of California landscape halfway between here and Bakersfield. Van de Hoek, a former government biologist who once toiled on the little-known preserve, was to act as a guide. He and a handful of other naturalist types were hoping to rally support for their complaints about the U.S. Bureau of Land Management's stewardship of the plain.

As we drove down the valley--a sweep of land perhaps best described as a prehistoric, undisturbed San Fernando Valley--Van de Hoek would point out flocks of rare songbirds and stands of exotic plants. He also would take note, sourly, of each wire fence and tree, especially the eucalyptus trees. Fences and these trees, Van de Hoek explained, are not a natural part of the Carrizo landscape. They do not belong. At the time, I did not grasp the depth of his passion on this particular point.

*

Last Thursday, I encountered Van de Hoek again, this time at an appellate court hearing in San Luis Obispo. He wore a tie, dress shirt, slacks--and the contrite demeanor of a defendant. That little bit of pruning 13 months earlier, it turned out, had been the trigger point in a criminal prosecution that, in a more light-spirited age, might be seen as farcical. Essentially, they threw the book at Van de Hoek for illicit weeding.

Now the first thing to understand about Van de Hoek is his absolute love for the Carrizo Plain. An interpreter of nature by profession, he spends--or at least, once spent--all his free time there. He likens the place to the Yosemite Valley--a stretch, perhaps, for nonbelievers, but matters of beauty always are subjective. Even the license plate of his car reads "Carriso," the ultimate California tribute.

As a Bureau of Land Management biologist, he worked to restore the plain from a series of cattle ranches into a preserve grandly envisioned as "the Serengeti of California." Then, five years ago, he got fired. He lost his job after complaining publicly about the agency's management. He was critical of fences that impede pronghorn antelope. He was critical of imported shade trees, which destroy natural flora and attract raptors that overwhelm native birds.

Van de Hoek, of course, was not alone in his disdain for nonnative plants. There are organizations devoted to eradicating them from California; even the state government lists the eucalyptus as a noxious weed. The trees were imported from Australia more than a century ago for use as timber. When the wood proved too brittle, they were planted instead as windbreak and landscaping and have spread like crab grass ever since.

*

Dismissed by the BLM, Van de Hoek pursued a more hands-on approach to what he saw as the Carrizo tree problem. He started to do a little judicious pruning. Often by night, but sometimes in the daylight, he would bring his shears and saws into the preserve. Some trees he girdled, slicing into their trunks to kill them. Others he chopped down or trimmed back to bushes.

"I considered it research," he said.

For good measure, he also clipped an electric fence and gate padlock. Eventually--the day before we were to meet--the long arm of the law nabbed him. "Drop that saw," he recalls being told. Eventually the BLM would build an inch-thick case against him. County prosecutors branded him an "arrogant" meddler and tried him for assorted crimes. He was convicted on three counts of vandalism.

The conviction has been appealed--on grounds that whacking "weeds" on public lands is not criminal behavior, but good citizenship. For six months, Van de Hoek was barred from even visiting the plain. Now he is free again to lead bird-watching tours there, but only if he leaves all gardening tools behind.

Should his appeal fail, he will serve four days community service. Arrangements have been made with an environmental group in San Luis Obispo. His punishment will be to remove nonnative plants from a city creek bed. Van de Hoek smiled ever so faintly as he described his pending sentence, and the smile said: Justice.

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