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Scouts Gather Acorns Amid Controversy Over Oak Grove


Braving the rain, five Boy Scouts spent Monday shaking thousands of acorns off oak trees that face dates with a chain saw in Thousand Oaks.

The Scouts were launching a reforestation effort applauded by many in the city. But the reason for it, the planned removal of 50 mature trees to make way for a dam, remains controversial.

The Ventura County Flood Control District has enlisted Montalvo Boy Scout Troop 119 in a project the agency hopes will defuse long-standing criticism over construction of the Lang Ranch Dam.

Rather than hiring a company to replace the trees with 2,000 saplings, the agency offered the job to 14-year-old Scout Michael Houlberg of Ventura. The project will earn him his Eagle rank.

"A lot of people who live in these apartments and houses over here don't want their trees taken away," Michael said, surveying the homes near the dam site. "I'm going to help. It will give people more trees and they won't be as mad."

But the critics aren't mollified. "I support the Boy Scouts 100%, and I think it's a great service project to grow saplings," said Thousand Oaks Councilwoman Linda Parks, who spearheaded a failed effort last year to move the dam to another location. "But it in no way mitigates the loss of this ancient grove."

"God bless those little Boy Scouts," said Gerry Langer, a Lang Ranch homeowner who characterizes the dam project as a boondoggle. "If this project goes forward, they'll be witnessing the desecration of a really vital resource."

The $5-million dam project will include a 66 1/2-foot wall, a detention basin the length of four football fields and a debris basin. Flood control officials say it is needed to catch storm water from land paved over with thousands of homes and apartments and to protect the neighborhood in the event of a devastating storm.

"We have to look out for health and safety," said Hugh Clabaugh, who heads the flood control district's design and construction division.

Critics fall into several categories, including Lang Ranch homeowners who have been taxed to build the dam, homeowners who don't want to lose their wooded views and environmentalists intent on saving oak trees. Beyond the 50 mature oaks that will be razed, they say, hundreds more could be threatened by standing water if a big storm comes.

Recent concerns have arisen about an age-old landslide in the area, after some nearby hillside homeowners complained of structural problems with their homes. Now there are last-minute studies underway on whether the detention basin will contribute to landslide problems.

Unless that investigation slows the construction schedule, the trees will be cut in January and ground for the dam will be broken in the spring.

For their part, the Scouts, in conjunction with the flood control district, will place the acorns in cold storage, sprout them and transplant the sprouts to pots where they can grow into saplings.

In 2003, after the dam is built, flood control workers will plant the saplings near the area from which the trees are to be razed.

Tim Von Rader, leader of Michael's troop, said he had mixed feelings about the boys becoming involved in a project with so much political tension. "I hope they're not just trying to pacify the residents in the area," he said of flood control officials. "I hope it's not a wasted effort."

But if the acorns sprout and are planted as promised, Von Rader said the boys will have done a good deed and learned a valuable civic lesson in the process: "It teaches them a lot about the community--and the way politics works."

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