How an LA County oak tree rooted in controversy, survived

0803_news_OldGlory_03I visit the Santa Clarita Valley from time to time where I was once a reporter covering city hall. It is a fascinating area filled with stories. It’s both dense in its center yet desolate at its edges. It’s progressive yet conservative. It’s known as the largest planned suburb in the nation, but it’s also somewhat soulless.  In 2004, an oak tree became the symbol of the clash between saving the environment and development.  Activists wanted to save the tree, dubbed Old Glory. Developers wanted to cut it down. A man named John Quigley sat in its branches for 71 days. In the end, the giant oak was saved and relocated. Here’s a story about the 5th anniversary of Old Glory’s move. The photos below are from various sources including The Signal, since the Daily News photos were unavailable:  (Daily News April, 21, 2009)

STEVENSON RANCH – The towering oak wears a crown of deep green leaves, as if to say, “Yes, even an old tree can learn new tricks.”

The trick for this ancient tree, dubbed Old Glory when it seemed destined for a woodchipper, was to survive a move from one end of Pico Canyon Road to the other.

On the day before Earth Day, Old Glory not only appeared to have survived that move some years ago, it seemed to be bragging about it.

“It’s an amazing tree, with an amazing life force,” said a beaming John Quigley, the tree-sitter who camped within Old Glory’s limbs for 71 days in 2002-03.

Quigley, who visited Old Glory on Tuesday, looked over his century-old, 70-foot-tall friend’s thick branches and sun-nourished leaves with cautious optimism.

It’s been five years since the oak was replanted on an 18-acre parcel Los Angeles County designated as Pico Canyon Park. Its transport made national headlines, not only for its massive undertaking, but also for what the whole scene symbolized: the clash between development and environment.

Constructing a platform from an old bunkbed, Quigley took up residence in Old Glory, to save it from being chopped down by a housing developer’s plan to widen Pico Canyon Road.

He granted interviews from a crook in the tree, weathered two wind storms, and drew support from activists and local residents. Developers from John Laing Homes promised to relocate the tree to resolve the impasse, but Quigley and other activists questioned whether it would hurt Old Glory.

BRYAN KNEIDING  IN TREE JOHN QUIGLEY

Quigley eventually came down after a Los Angeles judge issued a court order, and the tree was moved one early morning, its hulking, 460-ton body mounted onto a 128-wheel trailer.

Then, like an upright Gulliver tugged by Lilliputians, Old Glory was hauled one early January morning in 2004, a quarter mile to its current home.

The tree has since come under regular supervision from the Los Angeles County’s Department of Parks and Recreation. Last month, Old Glory was deemed healthy by an arborist, having passed its 5-year bench mark for taking root successfully.

The West Ridge Town Council would soon like to see the fence around the oak removed, and the sturdy guide wires taken off. They hope the community will donate benches.

“The community is fortunate to have this tree and we want more people to see it and enjoy it,” said Dave Bossert, vice president of the West Ranch Town Council

“It would be so beautiful to walk to that area, read a book or a newspaper under its shade.”

But Bossert and others still question whether the whole move was necessary. John Laing Homes, which went on to finish the Southern Oaks development project in 2004, filed for bankruptcy in February. The company had spent $1 million to move the tree.

“The developers could have used the money to buy land that could have been placed in a conservancy,” Bossert said.

Still, Old Glory’s story did offer several lessons, Bossert and others say.

“This is more than just about a tree,” said Santa Clarita Mayor Frank Ferry. “Old Glory was that rallying cry of: we don’t always need to move forward and change so fast. We need to protect what we have.”

glory9

In 2007, Santa Clarita residents voted to pass the Open Space Preservation District, which charges property owners an annual assessment fee for the purchase of land to help create a “greenbelt” around the city.

Quigley said since the tree has been replanted, the public has grown increasingly aware of the importance of conservation and the environment.

He called the oak’s story a great teacher for the community and generations to come.

On Tuesday, as he looked up into the tree’s branches from just outside the fence that circles the oak, Quigley said he was hoping to climb into his old friend’s limbs just one more time.

But while Old Glory appears well, Quigley said time will tell if the tree has really taken root at its new home.

“I think it’s important that we don’t take away the lesson of this whole thing, which is the tree didn’t have to be moved,” Quigley said. “But I’m grateful that she is surviving.”

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