SAN FERNANDO — On Monday Manuel Montanez stood up for a tree, actually 18 trees.
Driving to work, he noticed a tall ficus being chopped down by San Fernando city-contracted workers.
When he learned that, as part of a city beautification project, 18 mature ficus trees lining San Fernando Road were being cut down to be replaced with 66 tulipifera saplings, he immediately took action.
Montanez blocked workers by standing in front of a second tree and called for family and friends to join him by tying themselves to other trees to save them as well.
'If you're going to cut this tree, you're going to have to chop me with it," Montanez said, leaning against the 20-foot ficus.
By noon about 14 people were tied to the 34-year-old trees and large signs reading "Save Our Trees" were posted along the street.
City Administrator John Ornelas said the city was removing the ficus trees because roots were ruining the sidewalks. As part of the recently approved city beautification project, 66 tulipifera trees, a less damaging species, are scheduled to be planted along the thoroughfare.
Ficus trees are known to have extremely vigorous roots that expand and can cause concrete to lift, say several arborists contacted by The Times.
"I've seen it in trees that are 25 years old and I've seen it in trees that are 50 years old," said Woodland Hills-based arborist Nickolas Mook. "It's been a definite liability issue for cities. They shouldn't be planted anymore on streets."
One city councilman questioned Montanez's motives, accusing him of seeking publicity for his daughter, Cindy Montanez, a candidate in the March 2 City Council election.
"It's a political play to get media attention for a candidate who is on a sinking ship," said Councilman Silverio Robledo, who is not up for reelection this year. "They know they can address issues in City Hall. This is an opportunistic attempt by a candidate who is in trouble."
But Montanez maintained: "These are beautiful trees. There's nothing wrong with them."
Ornelas put the tree removal on hold Monday afternoon because of the protests and said city officials plan to meet with Montanez and his group in an effort to reach a compromise.
This wasn't the first time Montanez fought to save trees. About two years ago he unsuccessfully protested the removal of several trees on nearby Brand Boulevard and Hollister Street.
"This has nothing to do with my daughter," Montanez said Monday. "I protect what I believe in and I believe in trees."
The Montanez family is no stranger to public protests. In 1993 Cindy and her younger sister, Norma, participated in a 14-day hunger strike to bolster the Chicano studies program at UCLA.
At the time Cindy was a 19-year-old UCLA freshman and Norma a 16-year-old San Fernando High junior. Both joined their father, mother and other siblings in Monday's tree protest.
"The whole family is out here," said Margarita, their mother.
Even her 19-month-old granddaughter, Astrid Garay, hugged a tree for a while.