A man’s stubborn quest to protect a centuries-old oak tree from development in suburban Los Angeles appeared to be coming to a climax Thursday, after a squadron of police, bulldozers and security guards chased away his supporters, confiscated equipment and isolated him behind chain-link fences and concrete barriers.
The developer, John Laing Homes, which is being pressed by the county to widen a road into its new subdivision, also served a trespassing complaint notice to John Quigley, the 42-year-old Pacific Palisades resident who was enlisted in November by local environmentalists to squat in the tree outside Santa Clarita.
Quigley vowed to stay in his perch along Pico Canyon Road, saying the civil notice, which is related to a suit filed against the developer, was “served to the tree,” not him.
Quigley’s 70-day sojourn in the branches of the massive oak has attracted international media attention as a rare example of a deep-forest protest method arriving in mainstream suburbia. Since it began, schoolchildren have decorated a fence originally erected close around the tree with artwork, while crowds of well-wishers and media members have swelled.
The commotion began about 1:30 a.m. Thursday, as Quigley was drifting off to sleep. About 30 Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies, five California Highway Patrol officers, and several private security guards accompanied a convoy of trucks and Laing Homes representatives, witnesses said.
One security guard approached the tree, shouting up at Quigley, “We have an order here saying you’re trespassing,” and slipped it into a yellow ribbon tied to the tree’s base, about 100 feet below Quigley, said Barbara Wampole, an activist with Friends of the Santa Clara River.
As climbers representing the developer scaled the oak in hard hats to explain what was going on and negotiate with Quigley, workers began jack-hammering holes into the ground for fence poles. Within hours, they had placed a chain-link fence and concrete barriers, blocking off access along Pico Canyon Road, about 500 feet from the tree. They towed and impounded Quigley’s Volvo and removed a tent, sleeping platform, tables, pamphlets and even children’s artwork, according to witnesses.
The action came as activists were preparing to substitute another sitter for Quigley, who had planned to travel today to Washington, D.C., to visit his ailing father. Although suspicious for several days that some legal action was imminent, Quigley said he was disappointed at the methods. “It was like a military invasion,” he said.
“I was concerned they were going to drag me out and cut the tree down,” he said from a platform, with an American flag dangling nearby. As the convoy approached and his supporters on the ground shouted warnings, Quigley said he secured himself to the tree with a pipe and lock. He and his ground crew alerted sympathizers and reporters to the developer’s operation.
Quigley said he had enough food and water for a week, and appeared resolved to stay in the tree nicknamed “Old Glory.”
Activists blamed the crisis on Los Angeles County Supervisor Mike Antonovich, who has proposed moving the tree in the unincorporated area of Stevenson Ranch. Quigley said Laing President Bill Rattazzi, who spoke to him Thursday, appeared willing to reach a compromise.
“That’s why I’m so surprised by this,” Quigley said. “The county is the obstacle here.”
A spokesman for Antonovich said the supervisor’s offer to move the oak, rejected by activists as potentially fatal to the tree, remains.
“As far as we’re concerned, the ongoing demonstration was a serious nuisance and hazard to the Stevenson Ranch community, and the property owners’ efforts to remove the trespassers is one step toward restoring order to the neighborhood and allowing those residents to get back to their lives,” said Tony Bell, a spokesman for Antonovich.
Rattazzi also shifted blame to the county.
“We tried a number of ways to come up with a solution,” the developer said. “We looked at alternative alignments of the road. They weren’t capable of being approved by the county.”
In the end, Rattazzi said, safety concerns about the “circus-like atmosphere,” prompted the latest measures.
“We came to the conclusion we need to get this under control. We’d rather have the courts solve this,” he said. Rattazzi promised 24-hour protection by the firm Maxwell Security Services Inc.
The Stevenson Ranch Town Council had asked Antonovich to look into safety and sanitation at the protest site. The homeowners’ group supports widening the road and believes the tree should be moved to a nearby park.
The protest was bringing the neighborhood down, said Paul Ash, the council’s president. “I think the community ... supports the rights of everyone to express their opinions, but also our own rights to the health and safety of our community and that it not become a spectacle, that it be kept in a classy manner,” he said.
The early morning arrival of heavy equipment annoyed nearby residents accustomed to the daytime din of construction.
“It was all night,” said Patty Fontal, who lives across from the tree and supports Quigley’s protest. “We had cotton in our ears, but the lights were in our eyes. We got no sleep.”
Thursday’s siege revived the circus, as activists, media and gawkers in equal numbers descended on Pico Canyon Road. Choruses of “America the Beautiful” mixed with shouts and chants of encouragement. Rodolfo Aguilar, 43, of Inglewood brought along a 3-foot-long iguana. He held it up as an activist shouted to Quigley, “John, we have a huge iguana here to bring you love!”
Stacey Hallman, 33, was one of several protesters who lamented the rapid growth around Santa Clarita. She left Valencia just before Quigley went up the tree Nov. 1 and now lives in Pasadena.
“I’m ashamed to say I didn’t do much about all this sprawl while I lived here. If anything, I contributed to the problem” by moving into a new development, Hallman said. “If I knew the scope of the growth here, I would have never moved here.”
Times staff writers Geoffrey Mohan and Massie Ritsch contributed to this report.
A Chronology of Tree Sitter’s Protest
Nov. 1, 2002: Environmental activist John Quigley begins sitting in a centuries-old oak tree to save it from being cut down by a developer who wants to widen a roadway for a new subdivision just outside the city of Santa Clarita.
Nov. 5: Quigley leaves the tree long enough to vote in the general election while another activist takes his place, but he is back on his perch, 60 feet off the ground, by 4 p.m.
Nov. 14: The development company, John Laing Homes, erects a chain-link fence around the tree and posts “no trespassing” signs. When tree-removal trucks are seen in the neighborhood, 20 residents rush to protect the oak. Supervisor Mike Antonovich, who represents the unincorporated area of Stevenson Ranch, where the tree is located, issues a statement supporting the tree’s removal.
Nov. 18: Antonovich orders that the oak tree be moved. Quigley, nearly three weeks into his encampment, refuses to budge, saying an arborist has concluded that moving the tree would kill it. The protest generates international media attention and he receives fan mail addressed to Tree No. 419, the Los Angeles County Department of Public Work’s designation for the Pico Canyon oak.
Nov. 19: As experts argue whether the tree can be safely moved, actress Rene Russo visits Quigley, praising him for his activism.
Nov. 20: Dozens of tree supporters, including Russo, rally downtown at the Los Angeles County Hall of Administration, calling for a full environmental study of the road-widening project that threatens the oak. The activists prefer saving the tree and building a park around it. Antonovich does not meet with the demonstrators.
Nov. 21: The developer announces a plan to transplant the oak to an 18-acre park that will include 170 newly planted oaks. Quigley still won’t come down, saying: “I’m staying till the end.” The actual move wouldn’t start for at least three months and would cost much more than $250,000, according to the developer.
Dec. 4: In a lawsuit filed in November, the Santa Clarita Organization for Planning the Environment alleges that the developer reneged on a deal it made in 1999 to use good-faith efforts to preserve oak trees in the canyon. The environmental group seeks damages, an injunction and a temporary portable toilet to be hauled over the fence that surrounds the tree.
Dec. 9: A dentist climbs the tree and gives Quigley a temporary filling after he breaks a molar.
Dec. 14: Actor and environmental activist Ed Begley Jr. scales the oak tree to show support for Quigley’s protest, discussing issues and strategy.
Dec. 18: A Valencia structural engineer proposes splitting Pico Canyon Road in two, leaving a narrow pocket in the middle to preserve the old oak.
Dec. 20: Two dozen protesters deliver a petition to Antonovich’s downtown office signed by 4,000 people who favor keeping the tree at its current location. The supervisor continues to support moving the tree.
Jan. 9, 2003: Police, bulldozers and security guards for John Laing Homes surround the tree at 1:30 a.m. and serve a trespassing complaint on Quigley who is perched 100 feet up in the oak. He secures himself to the tree with a pipe and lock. Antonovich considers the protest a serious nuisance and hazard to the local community, but his offer to move the oak still stands, according to his spokesman, Tony Bell.
Source: Times archives; compiled by Times researcher Tracy Thomas