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Tempest in the Treetops

Some prize the blue gum eucalyptus for its beauty and scent, while others see a messy fire hazard. Battles are being waged across California.


SANTA CRUZ — To Robert Sward, the blue gum eucalyptus trees standing by his back fence resemble a leafy gang of thugs, menacing and ready to strike.

Sward and his wife, Gloria Alford, hate them. They worry that one of the big, bark-shedding trees might snap and flatten their home, or that a spark from a neighbor's barbecue could turn the naturally oily foliage into an inferno.

After a decade of unsuccessfully fighting City Hall for permission to ax his grove, Sward--a poet, retired college professor and avowed environmentalist--resorted to a botanical form of civil disobedience. He hired a tree cutter to take them out.

Scarcely had the buzz of the chain saw kicked up when city parks inspectors--"tree police," as some locals call them--stepped in, halted the cutting and hit Sward with fines initially totaling $5,000.

Welcome to California's eucalyptus wars.

From the dense groves that step up from San Francisco Bay to San Diego's leafy canyons, the fate of Eucalyptus globulus is increasingly at the center of impassioned debate.

In its native Australia, the tree is routinely branded a fire hazard and has been dubbed "the widow maker" for its propensity to drop lethal limbs unannounced.

But in the Golden State, it has earned a resolute constituency. Eucalyptus aficionados prize the trees' leggy beauty, their soothing medicinal scent, the homey roost they provide monarch butterflies. They've fought hard to protect the grand forests that have added a dash of greenery to California's bleached coastal scrublands in the 150 years since the species arrived on U.S. shores.

In Carlsbad, a civic referendum once halted plans to cut 53 acres of eucalyptuses. Civic protest also stopped a move to fell trees on San Francisco's Nob Hill. When the ax came out in a Dana Point subdivision because of liability fears, outraged residents protested in the streets and won a court reprieve for surviving trees. Removal of a thicket in the funky Bay Area enclave of Bolinas was abandoned after foes compared it to genocide and labeled logging advocates "plant Nazis." Eucalyptus aficionados howled recently when a big, rancho-era tree was felled in favor of a parking lot at the new Westside office of famed architect Frank O. Gehry.

"A tree is a living being, and every one is valuable," summed up Celia Scott, an environmental lawyer and former Santa Cruz councilwoman whose home is nestled happily among eucalyptuses. "I don't see any reason to discriminate or live in fear of them."

But the rangy tree stirring such deep-rooted support has an equally vocal band of critics. Though the eucalyptus family has about 600 species, the blue gum is the shaggy bad boy of the bunch.


'Gasoline Tree'

Some firefighters call it the "gasoline tree" for the way the blue gum ignites like a bomb upon the approach of flames. The trees, which under ideal conditions can reach 200 feet tall, are cited as one of the culprits in the devastating 1991 Oakland Hills blaze.

Botanists say the blue gum's speedy growth and profuse bark and leaf litter can smother native species such as coast live oak, wax myrtle and bunch grass. In the cool, muffled beauty of a eucalyptus grove, some ornithologists contend, coastal songbirds can meet their deaths, their airways plugged by the tree's gummy resin.

A recent Audubon magazine article ridiculed the blue gum, the dominant species in parts of California, as the nation's largest weed.

"They should all go," groused Sward, an otherwise egalitarian man. "They're like a contagion."

A native of Chicago, a Guggenheim fellow and the author of several books of plain-spoken poetry, Sward moved to Santa Cruz for its laid-back ways, hip politics and natural beauty. Eucalyptuses are a big part of that scenic charm, commanding huge swaths of the canyons that carve the seaside town.

Sward landed right in a thicket of the trees, chubby 100-footers that hug two edges of the wood-sided house designed by his wife, artist Gloria Alford.

But what the eucalyptus offers in beauty from afar, it takes back up close, Sward discovered. Few other plants would grow beneath the trees' fragrant umbrellas, and the shedding bark and leaves were a constant maintenance headache.

Over the years, he pleaded with the city for permission to have them removed. Always, his efforts were blocked by Santa Cruz's tough Heritage Tree Ordinance, which prohibits toppling any big tree unless there's a really good reason--like unfettered disease, a threat of imminent property damage or injury.

Sward contends he is under imminent threat, and cites as evidence his wife's near death-by-eucalyptus episode.

During a fierce storm in March 1996, one of several eucalyptuses on a neighboring parcel nearly took out a Pacific Gas & Electric substation. Alford went outside to inspect. As she gazed into the churning sea of wind-whipped foliage, a nearby PG&E worker called out a warning.

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