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Eucalyptus Trees Make a Last Stand

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A public outcry temporarily toppled a plan Tuesday to fell 48 century-old eucalyptus trees that run alongside the Ventura Freeway.

Oxnard city officials said they have hired an independent arborist to evaluate each of the trees, which soar as high as 100 feet, and decide which should be removed and which can remain.

State and city tree experts announced last week that construction of an interchange at Rose Avenue had undermined the eucalyptus trees and made them a safety hazard. Crews, which had felled 47 of the trees in October, had planned Tuesday to begin cutting the remainder of the landmark stand of trees that line the east side of the freeway.

But the city delayed the action, pending the arborist’s report, which should be submitted later this week, said Oxnard planner Cynthia Daniels.

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“There won’t be any action this week on the trees,” she said, adding she is optimistic that many of the trees will not be reduced to firewood. “We’re committed to saving as many trees as possible.”

Residents of a nearby mobile home park who had fought to preserve the stand that buffers them from freeway traffic were heartened by the city’s move.

“That’s good news,” said Frances Moore, who can see the trees from outside her home at the Royal Duke Mobile Home Park. “When anything that’s alive is taken away, anything that’s alive is dealt an injustice. We as human beings need to stand up. Those trees are our frontyard.”

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But Neil Moyer, president of the Environmental Coalition of Ventura County, remained angry that an environmental report prepared before the construction got underway made no mention of cutting the remaining 48 trees.

“This is what you get when you play fast and loose with environmental requirements,” he said. “They wanted that overpass rebuilt in the worst possible way and that’s how they’re getting it.”

He bemoaned what he called the massive deforestation of “truly cathedral” mature trees that provide valuable habitat for such creatures as migrating monarch butterflies and are remnants of Oxnard’s agricultural heritage.

State Department of Transportation officials ordered the 48 trees removed as part of the $18.5-million reconstruction of the Rose Avenue interchange. The city was to pay 77% of the $143,550 cost of cutting them down.

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The addition of two traffic lanes on the east side of the freeway and the construction of a drainage ditch undercut the trees’ roots and made them a safety hazard, officials said.

Caltrans has said it will plant 167 cypress, sycamore and eucalyptus trees as replacements for the first 47 trees and will double that number if the 48 remaining trees also are felled.

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The city initially resisted cutting the existing trees--part of an old agricultural windbreak--but relented when its arborist concurred with Caltrans experts who said the trees posed a danger, Daniels said.

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“We don’t want anybody killed by those trees,” Daniels said. “They’re huge. They could fall all the way across the freeway, they’re so big.”

But although the loss of the first 47 trees was mentioned in the environmental report, the subsequent removal of the last 48 apparently was not, Daniels said.

“It wasn’t until [the environmental group] called me that it occurred to me there may be environmental problems with the process,” she said, adding she is looking into the issue with state officials.

A Caltrans spokeswoman Tuesday referred calls to the city, saying it is “their project.”

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Moyer said he was infuriated by Caltrans’ apparent lack of accountability, maintaining that the agency is willing to let the city take the flak while “dictating the terms of engagement.”

He also faulted the city, contending that its hiring of an arborist is just a “smoke screen.” He called for officials to come up with a viable alternative to save the trees.

“Caltrans doesn’t want to be responsible for freeway maintenance, and this is a good way to get rid of these trees,” Moyer said. “This drainage ditch is just a subterfuge, because Caltrans has wanted those trees out, period, and this is just the means toward that end.

“If this had gone through an environmental report, we would have had a chance to examine this issue,” he added. “Caltrans is doing this on the cheap.”

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