Horticulturist Mounts Opposition : Street Widening to Fell Rare Tree

Times Staff Writer

A University of California horticulturist is trying to save a rare 70-foot-high rubber tree that the state plans to chop down as part of a project to widen Whittier Boulevard.

The towering tree in front of the Fred C. Nelles School is a "magnificent" example of a Ficus elastica , a native of India that grows only in a tropical climate, said Don Hodel, an environmental horticulturist with the University of California's Cooperative Extension.

Hodel said this particular tree is the largest of its kind in Los Angeles County, is at least 80 years old and is mentioned in "Ficus: The Exotic Species," a book by the late Ira Condit, who Hodel said was a world authority on ficus trees.

But within a week, a contractor for the state Department of Transportation is to fell the rubber tree and at least a dozen other trees in a grove on the south side of Whittier Boulevard as part of a $720,000 widening of the street.

'An Asset to Society'

"This is an asset to society that shouldn't be destroyed," said Hodel, who claimed state officials misidentified the rare rubber tree as a more common type of tree in a 1978 environmental impact statement.

A spokesman for Caltrans conceded officials may have made a mistake in the impact statement by identifying the tree as a Moreton Bay fig tree. But the spokesman said even if the tree is what Hodel says it is, the tree is not "significant" enough to be saved.

"This is not a native plant," said Caltrans spokesman Margie Tiritilli. "It is not a plant listed or a candidate for a rare endangerment species list issued by the United States Fish and Wildlife (Department), so based on that it was not considered significant," she said.

Tiritilli added that Caltrans officials "will not reconsider this project," which calls for widening Whittier Boulevard by 30 feet from Mar Vista Street to west of Hadley Street.

She said that Hodel could save the tree by buying it from Sully-Miller Contracting Co. of Long Beach, the contractor for the highway widening project. However, moving the tree would probably be difficult and costly because of the tree's immense size and because some roots are wrapped around an underground water main, she said.

The president of Sully-Miller, Kim MacGregor, agreed that moving such a large tree would be difficult and costly.

Cost Estimated

Hodel said there was "no way" he could pay for moving the tree, which he estimated would cost at least $50,000.

Hodel also asked Whittier officials to save the tree, but they declined.

"This project has been in the planning stages for seven years, and we're not going to react to somebody who just came along Whittier Boulevard and said hey, you've got a great looking tree here," said Whittier City Manager Tom Mauk.

At the Nelles School, a state school for youthful male offenders, the rubber tree--and the others--will be missed, school officials said.

"I like standing under them on a hot day," said acting Supt. Robert Browne, who added that the road in front of the school needs to be widened.

The 94-year-old school, which has red brick buildings with Spanish tile roofs, is located on a 90-acre campus and is a state historical landmark. The Indian rubber tree has four main trunks and is a sanctuary for wild parrots that nest in its glossy leaves, said Farrell Dickman, the school's supervisor and groundskeeper.

After the Indian rubber tree and a dozen other trees near the road are cut down, state officials will plant a ginkgo tree some eight to ten feet tall.

"Its leaves are a bright yellow fall color," said Caltrans spokesman Tiritilli. "It's a very nice tree."

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