A Tree-Sitter Branches Out

Times Staff Writer

What does an environmentalist who gained worldwide notoriety by perching in a threatened tree for 71 days to protect it against suburban sprawl do when he hits the ground?

He heads to the county that helped define suburban sprawl.

John Quigley, the man who made headlines when he took up residence atop an oak slated for the chainsaw in the Santa Clarita Valley, was in Orange County on Saturday lending his support and newfound celebrity to a local environmental cause.

About 100 people gathered at O'Neill Regional Park in Trabuco Canyon for a rally protesting a housing project that would destroy 500 oaks and sycamores in some of Orange County's most rugged and pristine land.

Quigley, who was evicted this month from the oak dubbed Old Glory, was among several speakers addressing the crowd, which included people with signs that read "Keep the Canyons Rural" and "Save the Oak Trees" and "Think about the animals! What if someone was building on your home?"

The Orange County Board of Supervisors will vote Tuesday on the Saddle Creek and Saddle Crest projects by Rutter Development Inc. that would put 162 homes on the hills near the park. County planners approved the project last month.

"What is interesting about this area is that it is unique," said canyon resident Jim Iacano, 46, who arrived at the rally riding his mare, Cerise.

He said he moved to the area with his family nearly seven years ago from Mission Viejo to escape cookie-cutter homes and strip malls.

"Why would they want to destroy uniqueness to add sameness?"

Organizers of the rally, a coalition of local environmentalists, hoped to create momentum going into Tuesday's board meeting, where they will appeal to supervisors.

"We are not using him as a draw," Gloria Sefton, one of the rally organizers said of Quigley. "But it could help."

Sefton, a 14-year resident of Trabuco Canyon and cofounder of the Saddleback Canyons Conservancy, and other environmentalists say the project violates zoning plans for the area. They also said it is important to stop a board vote on the project because their 3rd District is not represented.

The seat, vacated when Todd Spitzer was elected to the state Assembly, faces an uncertain future. A special election is scheduled for Tuesday, but it has been thrown into disarray by a series of court rulings.

Those at the rally said their paradise also faces an uncertain future.

"People come to these canyons," local resident and musician Guillermo Martinez told the crowd, "because they are tired of living on top of each other, like in Irvine."

Quigley, who stopped to tour the development area on his way to the rally, arrived with little fanfare. The lanky figure in Dockers pants and a blue sweater blended in with the crowd.

He is not quite sure what to make of his fame, he said: "It is not like I am promoting a book or something."

The Pacific Palisades resident and lifelong environmental activist, who makes a living putting together environmental presentations to schoolchildren, found himself in the glare of television lights when he tried to save an ancient oak tree last November.

Old Glory stood in the way of a road-widening project that would ease access to Santa Clarita Valley's expanding suburban neighborhoods.

Quigley said his goal was to buy time so others could try to legally block the tree's destruction.

Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies eventually plucked Quigley from the tree.

Old Glory will be relocated, but Quigley and others fear that the move will be fatal and continue to fight its transfer.

The experience has made Quigley a personality.

He's been on radio talk shows and is scheduled to be in Sacramento on Tuesday promoting a law that would save California's old growth trees.

But Bertha Duncan, who moved to Trabuco Canyon from Westminster 16 years ago, wasn't impressed by celebrity.

"That is not why we are here," she said.

When Quigley climbed on the stage at the tiny outdoor theater, Duncan applauded calmly while others greeted him with a standing ovation and whistles.

"All right," he bellowed. "That makes me feel good."

He entertained the crowd with anecdotes. He had endured taunts while atop Old Glory, he said. "You are a joke. Get off the oak," some said. But others brought him food and encouragement.

Ultimately, if the cause is noble, he told the crowd, the fight is worth it. Also, "the thing that moved me was that this decision is being made when you don't even have representation on the board," he said. "To me that is un-American. I mean, isn't that what the Boston Tea Party was all about? No taxation without representation. Well ... no heritage destruction without at least a conversation."

Quigley signed photographs of oak trees that rally organizers hoped to sell to raise funds.

"I am impressed," said Duncan after Quigley's speech. "It was great ... inspirational. I really didn't expect him to be so well-spoken."

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