Down, but Not Out

Times Staff Writer

The voicemail for John Quigley's cell phone played the same absurdist message it has offered up for weeks -- the one that said he was living in a tree, and would get back to callers soon.

But the man who spent the better part of 71 days enduring the winds atop Southern California's most famous oak was actually speeding around Los Angeles in his girlfriend's hybrid-engine Toyota on Saturday morning, looking for a hot meal after being evicted by Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies Friday night.

The 42-year-old activist was achy in some places, numb in others, and nicked up from the wire cutters deputies used to break the chains with which he had bound himself to the ancient oak tree in Santa Clarita known as Old Glory.

While his supporters were worried Saturday morning that the tree was now as good as dead, Quigley seemed upbeat -- proud that he stuck to his guns, pleased that he set an example to the kids in the neighborhood, and ready to kick off what he called "the ground campaign" to save the tree from suburban development.

While his attorney attempts to get a restraining order to prevent developer John Laing Homes from moving the tree, Quigley said he will remain in the public eye, keeping attention focused on the centuries-old oak.

"People think that since they've got me out of the tree, it's over with," he said. "It's not over yet."

Friday's dramatic eviction, which was ordered by a Los Angeles Superior Court judge, brought an end to a vigil that has prevented the developer from moving the tree out of the way of a county-mandated road-widening project. For many, Quigley's protest also came to symbolize the broader struggle against an onrush of suburban development.

Deputies and county firefighters took nearly two hours to remove Quigley. He offered no resistance. In fact, he said, he and the extraction team got along fine, because they were all experienced climbers.

"Everyone was cool," Quigley said. "I just said, 'Look you're going to have to cut me out. And if you do, I've said all along I'm a practitioner of Gandhian, nonviolent principles.' "

Quigley, a Pacific Palisades resident who holds a number of part-time environmental jobs, said Saturday that he hoped the nonviolent protest would inspire others to act on their beliefs.

"In a [conservative] community like Santa Clarita, people might have been afraid of doing something like this for fear of being labeled an extremist," he said. "I hope they see that if they're going to make anything happen, they're going to have to get involved."

Still, Quigley's own actions have only resulted in a partial victory. Laing Homes had originally planned to cut down Old Glory, but decided to move it after Quigley climbed into its branches Nov. 1, attracting worldwide news coverage and support from Republican moms, wistful hippies, schoolkids and movie stars.

Old Glory's supporters are convinced that the sprawling oak will not survive a move. Nonetheless, Laing Regional President Bill Rattazzi was at his office Saturday trying to find a company that would haul the oak to a preserve an eighth of a mile away. County officials say the company must widen the road that runs by the tree to accommodate a nearby housing development.

Rattazzi was confident the job could be started within the week. Indeed, he said, the tree must be moved soon, while its roots remain dormant for the winter. Work on the three-month project could start as early as today, he said.

"Like any move you or I would make, it can be tumultuous," Rattazzi said. But "there's a very good chance of survival for this tree."

Quigley's supporters held a small rally near the tree Saturday afternoon, putting an upbeat spin on his eviction. But in private, weeks of long hours in front of the klieg lights and TV cameras that surrounded Old Glory seemed to have drained them of energy and hope.

Lynne Plambeck, president of the environmental group Santa Clarita Organization for Planning the Environment, broke down in tears when she noted that Jennifer Kilpatrick, the attorney who filed the group's pending lawsuit against Laing, was in the hospital, recovering from Monday's commuter train wreck in Burbank.

The suit, filed in November, alleges Laing Homes broke its 1999 promise to save the tree, and accuses the company of fraud, breach of contract and unfair business practices.

It was Plambeck who put out an Internet message in October looking for an experienced tree-sitter when she heard the oak would be cut down. She called Quigley's effort "awesome," but said she was pessimistic about the tree's future now that he is back on the ground.

"It was a pretty big defeat for the tree," said Plambeck, who faults Los Angeles County Supervisor Michael Antonovich for not intervening in the matter. "Now it's going to die, and it's just going to be a monument to [Antonovich] until they cut it down." Antonovich, who represents the area, supported moving the tree.

Quigley's exit also brought an end to much of the circus atmosphere that had clogged narrow Pico Canyon, once a dusty rural picnic spot west of the city of Santa Clarita that is now being lined with new tract homes.

Quigley joined his supporters Saturday afternoon outside the fences the developer had erected around the tree. The scene was nothing like previous weeks, when Native American groups, folk singers and families out for weekend drives flocked to the canyon.

Plambeck called the furor "family-oriented civil disobedience," and hoped it would inspire more locals to join her fight against development in the area -- especially against the 21,600-home Newhall Ranch subdivision, which would be located just up the road from the tree if approved by county supervisors.

"This is our first civil disobedience action we've taken, and it was taken in desperation. But we've encouraged people to get involved," she said. "Now we're trying to get people to understand the California Environmental Quality Act and land use issues ... and how to influence government officials."

Supporters also said they would try to introduce a statewide ballot initiative that would offer protection for California's oaks.

The immediate future for John Quigley seemed a little less clear. After more than 60 days in a tree, he said he was longing to get back to the basketball court for some aerobic exercise.

He also wants to get back to his work putting on environmental assemblies for children -- including those he stages with his girlfriend, Susan Cox, who dresses up in a cape and tights to become "Green Power Girl," a Department of Water and Power-sponsored superhero who stumps for renewable energy programs.

While friends have suggested that Quigley run against Antonovich, he said the focus now would be on the tree -- and the "over-development" that threatens it.

At his appearances Saturday -- first at an anti-war rally in downtown and then at the tree -- Quigley was showered and shaved for a change, but he struck a familiar theme.

"We've got a lot of fight in us and we're gonna keep going," he said.

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Times staff writer Wendy Thermos contributed to this report.

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