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Oak's Survival After Move Debated

Company says ancient tree in Santa Clarita Valley can be saved with proper care, but conservationists argue against a transplant.

November 20, 2002|Richard Fausset | Times Staff Writer

While activist John Quigley remained nestled in his perch in a towering oak, the debate continued at ground level Tuesday over whether the 400-year-old Santa Clarita Valley tree he is trying to save could survive a move.

Experts said it is possible to relocate the ancient oak, but acknowledged that its ultimate survival will depend on how well the tree is maintained once it is transplanted.

"I honestly believe the tree can be moved, it can be saved, and with the proper maintenance it will live," said Stuart Sperber, chief executive of Valley Crest Tree Co. in Calabasas, which has been tapped for the job. "But how long is the tree going to live? That's a very good question. There are no guarantees, unfortunately."

Several arborists said the uncertainty makes moving the tree a bad plan. They said they are concerned that such a large and old tree would not survive the move.

"Trees are not meant to move," said Rosi Dagit of the Resource Conservation District of the Santa Monica Mountains. "They don't do that as part of their natural life cycle."

Quigley, who has maintained a three-week vigil as part of a campaign to preserve the oak, also has doubts about moving it. He is asking arborists from across the state to weigh in on the issue.

"What it's really become," he said, "is a battle of the experts."

Quigley's supporters may unveil a new plan to save the tree at a rally today at noon at the downtown office of Los Angeles County Supervisor Mike Antonovich.

It was Antonovich who proposed relocating the tree, which developer John Laing Homes is required to move to make way for a road-widening project necessary for future development in the fast-growing region.

Antonovich said he was assured by Valley Crest officials that it could successfully move the oak from the site. The developer would pick up the estimated $250,000 cost.

Sperber said his company has moved thousands of trees during the last 50 years, but none as large as the Santa Clarita Valley oak. He said giving trees the proper care after they are transplanted is crucial.

"We're not an advocate of just going in there and moving trees," he said. "We've had very good success because the developers have made a point of maintaining them afterward."

Starting in 1988, Valley Crest moved more than 1,500 trees to make way for a Ventura County luxury home development, Sperber said. About 90% of those trees have survived, he said.

In a statement issued Tuesday, John Laing Homes said, "The best solution for saving the tree is to move it."

Despite Valley Crest's success, Dagit found a different outcome in Calabasas, where she has spent the last decade studying 87 oaks that were transplanted in 1992. By April of this year, 17 of those trees had died, 44 were in declining health and five were deemed self-sufficient, she said.

Moving the trees cost nearly $1 million; maintenance and monitoring ran $60,000 per year.

"Think of how many new oaks could have been planted for that sum," Dagit wrote in a recent journal article.

In Orange County, a UC Riverside professor found that 57% of 593 oaks moved from a development project died three years later, with another 14% in declining condition.

And the city of San Bernardino had a high-profile problem with a tree relocation in 1989, when residents raised money to move a 65-foot magnolia from a construction site to Seccombe Lake Park, where it was featured on a new tourist-oriented "history walk."

The move went well, but two years later the tree died, said Jim Gondos, project coordinator for the city's Parks Department.

Todd Head, who ran the landscape company that moved the tree, said the city refused to take the extra care to water the tree's damaged roots.

"It was just dry as a bone," he said. "Within two years, the bark was completely peeling off of it and they had to tear it down."

Meanwhile, Quigley received a public endorsement and a visit Tuesday from actress Rene Russo, who praised him for his activism.

"Why have we not figured out a way to integrate the land with people?" she asked. "Why has it come to this?"

*

Times staff writer Carol Chambers contributed to this report.

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