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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

Man Plants Himself in Ojai Oak to Protest Trees' Removal

March 16, 2000|GAIL DAVIS and MARGARET TALEV | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

OJAI — A town known for its environmental activism lived up to its tree-hugging reputation Wednesday when a man climbed into a tree and vowed not to come down until the city rescinds an unpopular decision to cut down three aging oaks.

"These trees prefer to live," John Christianson, 51, shouted to supporters gathered 30 feet below at the base of the tree in Libbey Park. "They have a right to live."

Christianson stayed in the towering oak tree well into the night before promising to come down after talking with his wife and Sheriff's Capt. James Barrett.

About 50 supporters were still chanting and pounding drums as officials called a firetruck about 10 p.m. to rescue the environmental activist.

"The guy's in his 50s, and he's been up there all day and needs some help getting down," sheriff's spokesman Eric Nishimoto said. He was expected to be taken to a hospital and then Ventura County Jail, Nishimoto said.

Earlier in the evening, six sheriff's deputies stood guard among television crews and a crowd of 125 sign-waving protesters and periodically tried to coax Christianson down. If he didn't come down on his own, they said, they would have to remove him from his perch.

"I appreciate his passion, but in this case, we're talking about dead trees," Nishimoto said.

The fate of the oaks has been a matter of civic concern for weeks, since the City Council learned that the 150-year-old trees are dying. Because the three trees form a canopy over the playground, the council voted to remove them. But after a public outcry, the council reconsidered the issue at Tuesday's meeting.

It proved to be a raucous meeting. Public Works Director Stan Hakes said the trees could fall at any time, putting the city at risk of lawsuits. About 30 residents protested, saying the playground should be removed, not the trees.

Arborist Mark Schneider agreed, saying the trees are sick because playing children have damaged the trees' shallow roots. The trees might recover if the playground is moved, he said.

On a 3-2 vote, the council reaffirmed its earlier decision to remove all three trees. Two of the trees are scheduled to be cut down today. After Tuesday's meeting, shocked protesters walked one block from City Hall to the trees, where some performed ceremonies for the trees' souls.

*

One protester, Alexandra Wolfe of Ojai, was arrested Tuesday night for allegedly resisting arrest. She was still in County Jail in lieu of $5,000 bail Wednesday night. She is scheduled to be arraigned this morning.

In a city where residents love oak trees enough to build roads and houses around them, police expected someone to climb one of the trees in protest, and guards were set around them. But when police left to answer a call elsewhere about 7 a.m. Wednesday, Christianson said he hopped a chain-link fence erected around the trees and climbed up.

Police returned to find the lanky, gray-haired man secured harness-style, with mountain-climbing ropes and clips, in the middle tree.

The spectacle was a mostly laid-back, Ojai-style event. As the protest and the day wore on, deputies regularly hoisted water up to Christianson in a plastic bottle, and asked how he was doing.

Protesters painted signs, cheered Christianson on and waved at cars passing by. Drivers honked and waved back. As television cameras descended on the park, Ruth Henderson, 58, said she was afraid the protest wouldn't be taken seriously. "To them I think it's just a picturesque 60s-type activism," she said of the crews. "But we're not freaks. A lot of people move to Ojai for the trees."

Even those who disagreed with Christianson found themselves drawn to him. "Someone told me John was in the tree and I said you've got to be kidding, so I came over to see if he wanted me to bring him lunch," said Jeff Rains, who favored removing the trees.

Christianson is active with several environmental groups and was a founder of the newly formed Ojai Oak Alliance, a group heading efforts to save the three trees. He also has been a lifelong admirer of Henry David Thoreau, the 19th-century naturalist and writer who advocated civil disobedience when government failed to acknowledge the people's will.

He portrayed Thoreau in an environmental video, "To Speak a Word for Nature." Three decades ago, Christianson fasted for 23 days to protest U.S. involvement in Cambodia.

Still, he conceded, "I'm scared stiff of going to jail."

*

Wearing only a navy-blue fleece jacket, T-shirt, Dockers and tennis shoes, Christianson was hardly prepared for a long stay. He also said he hadn't been to the men's room in 10 hours.

For this and other reasons, deputies believed time was on their side.

Sgt. Bob Young asked Christianson once whether he would come down if police agreed not to arrest him. Christianson said no.

Deputies placed bright blue waist-high foam gymnastic pads around the base of the tree, in case Christianson fell.

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