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Protester Goes Out on a Limb in Bid to Save Ancient Oak

Santa Clarita activists turn to a professional sylvan sitter to slow expansion in suburbia.

November 16, 2002|Geoffrey Mohan and Richard Fausset | Times Staff Writers

To construction workers hammering away at new houses, John Quigley is just a "crazy dude." But the quixotic tree sitter who has vowed to save an ancient oak from bulldozers has become a kind of Thoreau in suburbia.

Perched about 40 feet up a broad oak that's about twice the age of the nation, Quigley has become an environmental phenomenon after two weeks of sylvan-squatting on the outskirts of Santa Clarita.

The county is forcing the developer to tear out the 400-year-old tree to accommodate widening of a canyon road for new subdivisions that have spread across the area.

News of his sojourn has traveled fast enough to reach "Remedy," a 27-year-old EarthFirst! activist who has been sitting in a coastal redwood in Humboldt County for eight months.

"I think it's great," she said by cell phone. "Even if you're in suburbia, you're still on Earth."

"You still have a responsibility to the water and to the air. So many of these actions have been in the backwoods. The issue doesn't make it into the forefront of people's minds. To have it happen in suburbia is just awesome."

Quigley's protest, however, didn't just "happen." It was planned by an otherwise staid environmental group of professionals and homemakers who grew to believe that pedestrian protests over runaway growth were falling on deaf ears.

What Santa Clarita activists decided they needed was a tree sitter, a professional willing to rough it for them. They turned to the Internet and turned up Quigley, a 42-year-old Pacific Palisades resident who in 1995 squatted in a tree in British Columbia.

"Hopefully what it does is inspire people around here to get involved earlier in the process so this kind of thing doesn't happen again," Quigley said from his perch beside Pico Canyon Road. "This is something we should be valuing and it is not being valued by the county or the developers. It's just something in the way."

The tree-sitting saga has touched a chord, drawing scores of residents to Tree 419, so designated by county bureaucrats involved in widening Pico Canyon Road.

"The tree may be more of a symbol that we'd like to resolve this issue [of sprawl] in a different way, instead of letting things get to this point," said Laurene Weste, a member of the Santa Clarita City Council, which voted 3 to 2 last week to ask the county to find a way to save the tree.

Far from the stereotype of vegan tree cuddlers, Santa Clarita's nascent environmental movement preferred to sue rather than squat -- until they opted to reach into the playbook of radical groups such as EarthFirst! and Greenpeace.

"We've made a fuss about frogs and toads disappearing, but this oak tree does really seem to get people's attention," said Larry Kanner, 61, a member of both of the river valley's major environmental groups: Friends of the Santa Clara River and the Santa Clarita Organization for Planning and the Environment (SCOPE). "I think people are starting to feel closed in on from every direction around here."

Lynne Plambeck, president of SCOPE, sent out an urgent e-mail seeking an experienced tree sitter when she found out the group's attempts to save Tree 419 had failed.

Quigley got the e-mail from a friend in late October, and the environmental educator leapt at the chance. "I thought, 'They're never going to find someone who can put it together so fast out there,' " he said.

The protest was as obscure as EarthFirst! efforts to stop logging in the Pacific Northwest until the developer, John Laing Homes, entered the picture and moved the tree closer to a date with the bulldozer.

Mothers with babies, construction workers, hordes of media and curious suburbanites have since flocked to the site, where Quigley sat Friday atop a platform the size of a door, holding off sheriff's deputies, firefighters and a crisis negotiator. A troupe of Native Americans even arrived Friday night to claim the site might be an ancient burial ground. They perfomed a ceremony and songs for any spirits in the area.

Quigley's newfound friends bring him so many plates of hot food each night that he can't eat them all. Some backers risked arrest and hopped the fence, camping out below him and hoisting supplies up by rope -- and his waste back down in jars and bags. One man even climbed the tree to join him for a time.

"I think it's pretty cool and he should stay up there," said Matthew Zubal, a 10-year-old who peered through a chain-link fence authorities put around the tree. "Me and my friends used to climb this tree. I think it's cool that people want to move here, but 85% of the reason they want to move here is because of the views. There's not going to be a view if they tear it all down."

John Zirbel, 38, who has lived in Santa Clarita since 1969, called the issue a "no-brainer."

"This is a 400-year-old tree and it's been taken for granted," Zirbel said. "They're just so quick with the way they cut stuff down around here. There's got to be a better way of doing this."

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