Tie an ecoprotest round the old oak tree

A developer-activist clash highlights California's heated battle over growth.

FROM his sun-dappled perch atop one of the oldest oak trees in California, self-proclaimed "environmental educator" John Quigley says his protest shows democracy in action.

Three weeks ago, Mr. Quigley got an e-mail from activist friends: Developers were about to buzz-saw a 400-year-old tree for an access road to Newhall Ranch, one of the largest housing developments in the history of the American West.

So Quigley, a freelance special-events producer, took some shelving from his girlfriend's kitchen and some struts from an old bunk bed and built a platform two feet by six, where he's slept ever since - becoming a hero to thousands and a human thorn to developers and local officials. It's a standoff that highlights California's struggle with burgeoning growth, pitting developers against environmentalists, and expansion against strict preservation.

"This is about whether ... local citizens have a say in what happens," says Quigley. But frustrated developers and politicians want to know where Quigley and his environmental cronies have been in the three years since they agreed to delay completing the road until someone came up with a better plan.

"None of [the ecologists] came forward and now they suddenly hire some guy to sit in a tree and complain about 'big bad developers,' " says Bill Rattazi, president of John Laing Homes, which has built 279 houses near the oak and is required by law to provide a four-lane access road.

This particular corridor will lead to Newhall Ranch's projected 21,600 homes - though development is stalled over water issues.

'Devouring of landscape'

"The key challenge facing this state for the next century will be growth," says California historian Kevin Starr. In the last decade, the state has averaged over 600,000 new residents annually - and 18 million more are expected before 2025. "The remorseless devouring of landscape is pushing increasing multitudes toward a meltdown of rebellion over quality of life," says Mr. Starr.

That can be seen in an afternoon spent in the shadow of this ancient oak, where a steady parade of cars, with drivers beeping and hollering their encouragement, shows a groundswell of support. Drivers bring donations of food, money, clothing - and volunteers ready to fill in for Quigley, or surround the trunk at a moment's notice if tree cutters come to call.

A week ago, the authorities did come, but in minutes the tree was thronged by schoolchildren. Scores of chanters on knolls nearby called out, "Save Our Tree!" Sheriff's deputies left in a huff, promising to return.

But they've since backed off, coming back only to surround the tree with a chain-link fence. The fence is intended to define a trespass zone but serves instead as poster space for local families and schools. It's covered with fliers like the one from Ms. Orthuber's class at Camellia Elementary: "Don't cut the tree! Thank You!"

The standoff has also brought Hollywood celebrities such as Rene Russo out of the woodwork - and elicited disdain from authorities. "We're waiting for him to bring out Tony Orlando and Dawn to sing, "Tie a Yellow Ribbon 'Round the Old Oak Tree," says Tony Bell, spokesman for Mike Antonovich, the powerful Los Angeles County supervisor whose district surrounds the oak.

A compromise offer, with no takers

But the standoff has also brought a compromise offer from county officials and developers. Why not move the tree to a parklike space nearby where everyone can enjoy it? Mr. Antonovich raised the idea, and developers quickly seconded it, offering to pick up the $300,000-plus tab.

"This is an equitable solution," says Mr. Bell. "The community is looking for traffic mitigation and a safe road, and we all want to save the oak tree."

But Quigley and others are digging in, promising the tree will not be moved. Quoting studies that show the survival rates for moving coastal oaks are less than 5 percent, they insist the plan is only a delayed death sentence for the tree. "This tree has become a living icon, a symbol of the state," says Janet Cobb, president of the California Oak Foundation. "The removal of this healthy, productive healthy heritage oak tree would be a crime."

For their part, developers say they are caught in the middle. They're required by law to build the four-lane access road and have no other viable route. So they're bringing out experts to explain how and why the tree can be safely transplanted.

"If we are going to have development," says Mr. Ratazzi of John Laing Homes, "we have to have adequate roads."

His company has hired an established firm with a long track record of moving large trees. "Clearly there has been a groundswell of support to save the tree, and we are going to do that," he says.

But Quigley and other activists say they will have none of it. With a trailer on site where they strategize by the day, they have enough volunteers to sustain Quigley's post for the foreseeable future.

"The idea of digging up the tree and moving it in a giant box looks pretty but it won't work," says Tom Barron, another volunteer. "This community will never let that happen."

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