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UC Berkeley begins felling trees

Four protesters stay perched in a redwood as the school makes room for an athletic facility.

September 06, 2008|Richard C. Paddock | Times Staff Writer

BERKELEY — The University of California moved quickly Friday to begin cutting trees in a grove on campus where tree-sitters have staged a protest for the last 21 months in a bid to block construction of an athletic facility.

Four tree-sitters perched in a 90-foot redwood found themselves increasingly isolated as workers began cutting the trees around them. University officials said they expect all of the grove's trees to be chopped down by Monday except the one the four men are occupying.

The university had been stymied for months by the tree-sitters and by a lawsuit filed by neighbors and the city. Over time, hundreds of protesters have climbed up into the trees to protest.

The university finally won approval to begin construction late Thursday when a state appeals court declined to issue a stay blocking the project. The campus wasted no time in getting to work; crews began cutting limbs at 8:30 a.m.

UC Berkeley spokesman Dan Mogulof said the university hopes the four will give up their protest and come down on their own.

"We will give them some time to appreciate the new reality," he said. "At a certain point in the coming days, the reason for their protest will no longer be here."

One tree-sitter, who goes by the name of Huck, vowed in a cellphone interview that the four will continue their protest and remain aloft indefinitely. As he watched the workers cut down the 85-year-old trees, Huck said he was devastated to see the university -- a public institution -- destroying the grove.

"It's appalling, it's criminal, it's beyond criminal," said Huck, 27, who joined the tree-sit six weeks ago. "It's beyond words how horrifying it is."

The university says that 43 of about 70 large trees on the site must come down to make way for an athletic center for its 400 student-athletes. The athletes now occupy cramped and dingy quarters in nearby Memorial Stadium, which itself needs to be upgraded because it sits on the dangerous Hayward earthquake fault.

The protesters maintain that the grove of coast live oaks and other trees should be preserved because it is one of the few natural areas remaining on the crowded campus.

Mogulof pointed out that the grove was planted when the stadium was built and characterized it as "a 1923 landscaping project."

He said the university will continue to supply the tree-sitters with food and water under an agreement worked out earlier. Meanwhile, workers can prepare the rest of the site for the $125-million athletic facility, he said. The project will take about 2 1/2 years to complete.

"They seemed a little stunned today, and we'll let that sink in," Mogulof said. "We've got a lot of work we can do that these guys won't interfere with as long as they stay isolated in a single tree."

One worker was injured when a tree-sitter threw a bottle that struck him in the forehead, cutting him, police said. The worker was treated at the scene and resumed work.

Though university officials hope the tree-sitters will come down voluntarily, they could face criminal charges for that assault and for earlier attacks on workers and police, including dumping human feces on them.

On the street next to the grove, where fellow demonstrators have camped out and provided logistical support to the tree-sitters, protests grew late in the day. At one point, about 50 demonstrators danced and chanted, and at least five people were arrested in skirmishes with police.

Some of the protesters groaned and others shouted when trees crashed to the ground, but there was no attempt to get into the grove, which had been fenced off earlier by the university.

"All we can do is bear witness," said a disconsolate Matt Gillam, 22, as he knelt in the dirt in the median strip and watched the trees come down Friday afternoon.

Scores of people gathered throughout the day to watch the cutting. Some were merely curious, and a few applauded the trees' removal.

Despite UC Berkeley's longtime reputation for activism, few students have joined the protest.

Robert Jensen, 31, who is not a student but lives nearby, questioned why the protesters had dedicated themselves to these trees when there are so many causes that are more important, such as protecting tropical rain forests.

"I admire their dedication," he said. "It's part of what gives Berkeley its character. But it just seems like there must be a better cause."

--

richard.paddock@latimes.com

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