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Tecolote Tree Battle--Man vs. Bureaucracy

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Felix George, a tree lover of the most impassioned sort, made his last stand Thursday in ocean-cooled Tecolote Canyon Natural Park.

He took photographs. He confronted the men with chain saws. He got angry; words were exchanged. The cops were called. And, after the chain saws were done, he said the hell with it.

San Diego Park and Recreation Department officials said flora management sometimes sparks passions among local residents and environmentalists, but never to the degree that field crews have had to call the police.

The strange saga of Tecolote’s eucalyptus trees is a sub-chapter of a bigger story: The confrontation was the latest example of the long-running and often bitter debate among canyon area residents and the city about how the park should be managed. There are myriad issues, complicated and overlapping through the years, about environmental preservation, development and control of the canyon.

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The two eucalyptus trees involved--members of a non-native species and thus dispensable under the city’s vaguely defined plan of controlling exotic plant growth in municipal parks--had been reduced to stumps in 1988.

On Thursday, city Park and Recreation Department workers stripped away their 20-foot sucker branches and cut the stumps flat to the earth. A Tic-Tac-Toe pattern was cut into the stump and herbicide poured into the grooves. The workers drove away, leaving George, a big man sweating and red-faced with a camera full of pictures, standing between piles of sawdust.

But George, a former member of the citizen advisory board overseeing the Clairemont park--which, at 900 acres, is one of Southern California’s largest urban parks--sees the cutting of the eucalyptus stumps as a waste of tax revenue that should be spent on stopping sewage leaks and picking up litter on the canyon floor.

George, who has had a contentious relationship with the city and a neighbor who heads the citizens advisory board, also hinted that the stumps were cut down as part of a vendetta against him.

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“Why cut down only these two eucalyptus trees?” he asked. “If they want to get rid of them all, why not cut down” the large stand of eucalyptus in the canyon near the University of San Diego? “I’ll let you decide.”

The park department’s policy regarding control of non-native flora varies from park to park, said Nancy Acevedo, deputy director of the department’s open-space division.

Some exotic species are encouraged and others are removed depending on several factors, including each park’s present condition and its “history of preservation,” she said, adding that she could not be more specific.

Although citizen advisory boards also have some say about what they want in their parks, the park department has discretion to determine the floral landscape of the natural and man-made city parks. In some parks, a non-native tree is removed from one area and allowed to stay in another section.

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“It’s so stupid, so inconsistent,” George said. “If they remove these two eucalyptus, then are they going to cut down all the eucalyptus, the fruit trees, the pines, the palms--all non-native?”

Acevedo said park workers went to Tecolote primarily to remove a swing that local children had hung from an oak. A child was injured when he fell from the swing a few months ago, so the swing was taken down as a liability precaution, she said.

The department decided to cut back the eucalyptus in question because they were nearby, she said.

The story of the doomed eucalyptus trees started in 1981 when a neighbor of George’s planted the two trees in a field of wild grass on the canyon floor.

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“To improve the view,” George said.

The trees, native to Australia, are a hardy, fast-growing species, and, by 1988, they had grown to a height of 40 feet.

“A beautiful sight,” George said.

Not to the Tecolote Canyon Natural Park citizens advisory board, whose master plan called for the removal of all non-native flora, leaving only oak, willow and sycamore trees.

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Someone gave the order and the two eucalyptus were cut down. George, an architect who works in his home on the canyon rim, tried to stop it. He took photos, called politicians, raised a major stink.

The result was a meeting of a City Council subcommittee under the century-old eucalyptus stand in the canyon near the University of San Diego. It was decided to save the canyon’s eucalyptus trees.

“The cutting of those two trees spurred the saving of the others,” said a spokesman for Councilman Bruce Henderson, whose district encompasses the canyon.

George was ecstatic. He thought the battle was over. Until the two eucalyptus trees that started the whole thing began growing back. The sucker branches, not a trunk, grew swiftly, becoming giant bush-trees, 20 feet tall and 20 feet wide.

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Someone apparently didn’t like it. A parks crew, led by supervisor Jose Barrera, arrived Thursday morning near George’s house.

George confronted them and an argument ensued. Eventually, Barrera and the two workers with chain saws navigated the rocky roads down into the canyon. George followed with his camera, snapping the men and truck, writing down the license plate number and trying to stop the cutting.

Barrera, a 31-year parks employee, said George threatened him.

“He cussed me, used profanity, became very upset, just out of control,” Barrera said. “I don’t have to take that.”

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George denied it.

“That’s ridiculous. I never threatened him. I tried to talk to him,” he said.

After stripping the suckers of one tree, Barrera canceled the call for police and returned to the parks department to confirm his orders. The crew returned in the afternoon and cut both stumps flat and used the herbicide Round-up. Another argument ensued. George shadowed the crew, taking photos as the chain saws buzzed; he looked about to cry as they poured the chemical on the stumps.

“Agent Orange,” George said. “It’s the same poison.”

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“I’m just doing my job. I’m following orders,” Barrera said.

“Ever hear of Nuremberg, Jose?” George asked, sarcastically. “Just following orders, huh? Do you ever think about what you’re doing, or just follow orders?”

Barrera threw up his hands and walked away. He turned to an observer.

“You see? You can’t talk to him. He’s not rational,” he said.

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After the work crew departed, George looked forlorn.

“They won, didn’t they? I did what I could. What a stupid thing to do: cut down these eucalyptus and leave the other stand of the same trees. These were beautiful, they add shade. I thought the parks department was supposed to preserve trees, not cut them down.”

Later, George’s mood changed; something had struck him. He smiled.

“Those trees are strong. They might grow back,” he said. “And someone could go down there with a bucket of water and wash that poison out of those stumps.

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“Maybe someday these trees will be back. Wouldn’t it be great if you couldn’t kill them?”


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