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Activist Refuses to Bough to Pressure

Environmentalist vows to save 400-year-old oak near Santa Clarita slated to be chopped down for road-widening project. Protest began Nov. 1.

November 15, 2002|Richard Fausset and Carol Chambers | Times Staff Writers

Undeterred by the sight of tree-cutting equipment and mounting pressure from Los Angeles County officials, activist John Quigley remained high in the boughs of an ancient oak near Santa Clarita Thursday night, determined to save it.

"They're going to have to come up here and literally drag us out if they want to remove us," said Quigley, who was joined by another activist in his 50-foot-high perch, while supporters rallied at the base of the tree.

A rotating group of citizens, led by Quigley, has maintained a 24-hour vigil atop the 400-year-old oak, nicknamed Old Glory, since Nov. 1, shortly after they learned it might be cut down.

On Thursday morning, officials from John Laing Homes, the developer of a neighboring subdivision, said the county was forcing them to remove the tree in order to widen two-lane Pico Canyon Road.

The road, located on the west side of the Santa Clarita Valley, will one day extend north through the proposed Newhall Ranch subdivision.

Though the developer recently met with county officials in an attempt to save the tree, negotiations were unsuccessful.

Public works spokesman Ken Pullman said the road must be widened to accommodate traffic generated by new development. And Laing officials said there is no way to save a tree that is yards from the street.

"They need a four-lane highway here," said Laing president William Rattazzi. "My company is required to build the road."

On Thursday afternoon, the developer erected a chain-link fence around the tree and posted "no trespassing" signs. But sheriff's officials said they could only arrest the protesters at the request of Laing officials, who have so far declined to do so.

Quigley said he had no intention of coming down until he is certain the tree can be saved. "It's criminal to cut down a piece of our heritage," said Quigley, a Pacific Palisades resident who said he makes his living doing contract work as an environmental educator.

His campaign has won the support of numerous residents here who don't typically get involved in this fast-growing region's debates over sprawl and the environment.

Word spread quickly when tree-removal trucks were spotted in the neighborhood Thursday morning, and about 20 residents rushed to the tree to help protect it.

Among them was Kelly Sorensen, a 15-year-old high school student who ditched class when she heard the towering oak was threatened.

"I'm doing whatever it takes to keep it," Sorensen said, standing underneath the tree's wide canopy. "They say another [tree] won't matter. Well, it does."

Before noon, Rattazzi joined sheriff's deputies in asking Sorensen and a handful of other activists to leave or face possible arrest.

A tense showdown followed. As TV news crews jostled for space, local environmentalist Lynne Plambeck -- flanked by several children and their mothers -- invoked the spirits of Gandhi and Thoreau, then attempted in vain to contact County Supervisor Michael Antonovich by cell phone.

Later in the day, Tony Bell, an Antonovich spokesman, issued a statement supporting the tree's removal.

"It is the supervisor's position, that to ensure public safety and mitigate future traffic congestion, this action -- the removal of the tree -- must be taken," Bell said.

But Santa Clarita Councilwoman Laurene Weste, who was among those who gathered around the tree Thursday afternoon, said the issue should have been dealt with sooner. She said she wished she could do more, but that the tree is not within her city's jurisdiction. "This is kind of like our Alamo," she said. "Remember the Pico oak."

As the sun went down, dozens of youths from a neighboring subdivision turned up to show their support by chanting, "Save our oak," and, "May the trees be with you."

But not everyone in the neighborhood shared their enthusiasm.

"It's stupid," said resident Byron Wainie as he walked his dogs. "God knows there's people that'll fight for anything."

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