Thousand Oaks Tree Officer Puts Bark Before Bite

While taking a drive through his territory, William Elmendorf, the first urban forester for the city of Thousand Oaks, declared, "I'm a conservationist, not a tree cop."

This would have been a strange remark if not for the fact that he was in one of the few cities where you might actually find a tree cop. Thousand Oaks isn't just named after trees, it takes them very seriously.

Elmendorf joined the city in 1987 as an oak code enforcement officer and still administers the 46-page ordinance. But, for the past two years, he has had the wider duty of managing the community's tree resources.

The only urban forester in Ventura County, Elmendorf explained his emerging profession's two essential tasks.

"We overcome the stresses that attack urban trees and restore vigor to the forest by planting the right tree in the right place and giving it proper care," he said. "We encourage community education and the participation of residents, local businesses, institutions and organizations."

Elmendorf works for the Planning Department and considers the 1989, five-volume city of Thousand Oaks Forestry Master Plan his Bible.

"There's a progressive attitude about trees in Thousand Oaks," he said. "It all starts with the City Council, which supports me, as do the city manager and the Public Works Department. Our mission is to maximize the tangible and intangible things our trees offer.

"Trees are emotional as well as political in the urban environment. People fall in love with trees, and the goodwill created by trees is hard to measure."

He figures that a city tree's value is 25 times that of one destined to frame houses.

It contributes to the town's aesthetics, character, identity, civic pride, property values, animal habitats, oxygen production, reduction of air pollution and erosion prevention.

Elmendorf, 33, said his passion for trees was triggered by the environmental awareness sweeping the country in the 1970s. He first spent seven years in what he terms classical forestry: timber-cutting, recreation, hydrology, range management.

Elmendorf drove a 10-mile stretch of the Ventura Freeway that cuts through the entire city (and its 220,000-tree forest). There are about two trees for every resident, he said, though the first street-by-street census of trees will be taken this year.

In the urban forest, which people zip through at 55 m.p.h., off-ramps lead to 5,000 native oaks--valley, coast live and scrub. Other original species are California sycamores, willows, bay laurel, big leaf maples and black walnuts.

The community forest is an appreciating asset with proper management, Elmendorf said. The trees' economic value is calculated by species, location and condition. The city's 28,000 street trees are worth more than $47 million; a prize oak, $50,000; most large oaks, $20,000 to $70,000 each; a eucalyptus, $2,000 to $8,000 and an ordinary tree, $2,700.

Some of the city's biggest oaks, 80 feet high with 68-inch diameters and 200-foot spreads, are on private property.

As a free city service, Elmendorf makes house calls to diagnose homeowners' tree problems.

"Eighty percent of the time they are watering too much," he said. "When I tell them how much money they could save on water bills, they're happy, and so are their trees."

In the city's North Ranch area, Elmendorf made three stops. At a residential construction site he showed how the city and the developer had worked together to preserve 67 of the 68 oaks, the youngest of which were seedlings during the American Revolution. Some were twice that age.

At a park Elmendorf explained that oaks are surrounded by 15 feet of wood chips instead of grass, to protect them from irrigation. "Water is death on oaks," he said.

"That tree is 200 years old and never been irrigated."

In the midst of a residential area was an oak savannah, with grasses, sagebrush, a habitat for coyotes, birds and other small animals.

The land is part of the Conejo Open Space Conservation Agency's 6,000 acres of permanently protected public open space.

"The City Council has been preserving pieces of savannah for 20 years," he said. "It will never be developed, will always be the way it is today."

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