Inyo County town fights to keep trees

Times Staff Writer

John Smith knows sidewalks. He is, after all, the former Inyo County director of public works.

So it’s with a growing sense of frustration that Smith is trying to prevent Caltrans from ripping out trees on and near his property to build what he calls “sidewalks to nowhere.” His lifelong domain has been a wood-frame house in a grove of elms and sycamores at the north end of this isolated burg on the eastern flank of the Sierra Nevada.

Caltrans engineers say 100 trees are standing in the way of plans to widen a stretch of Highway 395, the town’s main thoroughfare, from two to four lanes and line it with about 400 feet of sidewalks. The project, they say, would improve safety and the flow of vehicles on the rural fringe of the community 200 miles north of Los Angeles, where a third of the traffic on any given day consists of Southern Californian vacationers.


Though sidewalks appear intermittently in Independence, none run the length of the town, and the extra 400 feet proposed by Caltrans wouldn’t change that. West of Highway 395, the sidewalks would front vacant land, not houses.

Standing beside one of his massive sycamore trees a stone’s throw from wide-open high desert country, Smith shook his head. “I’ve lived here all my life,” he said, “and through it all, these trees have provided shade to my home, my family and my gardens, so I’d hate to see them go.

“I want Caltrans to come up with something more rational than sidewalks in the desert,” he added. “But when I ask for one good reason why they want to cut down our trees, they say, ‘It fits our regulations.’ I say regulations should be adjusted if they don’t make sense.”

Independence is protective of its trees, which have been steadily declining in number since the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power began pumping groundwater in the Owens Valley nearly 40 years ago. If the arboreal dispute sounds familiar, it’s because similar spats have popped up recently elsewhere in California.

In Berkeley, 11 activists have been camping out in 26 coast live oaks to protect them from being axed to make way for a proposed athletic center. Earlier this month, protesters battled police at UC Santa Cruz over a plan to remove evergreens and redwoods at the proposed site of a biomedical sciences facility. In Southern California, Commerce residents are fighting that city’s plan to cut down nearly 1,000 ficus trees to reduce the cost of repairing sidewalks cracked by their roots.

In Independence, the issue has its roots in Caltrans’ decade-old proposal to widen Highway 395 to four lanes between Ridgecrest and Mammoth Mountain. The mile-long stretch, edged with dirt shoulders, is among the last to be expanded, said local Caltrans director Tom Hollendeck.

“As an engineer, I have to weigh improvements against impacts,” Hollendeck said. “But it’s not easy juggling highway safety with trees.”

Complicating matters, Hollendeck suggested that Caltrans has received mixed messages from the roughly 500 residents of Independence. In public meetings eight years ago, he said, most people backed the proposal.

But many locals said that was before they learned that the project included eliminating the huge trees that lend a rural character to the tiny town. Why, they ask, can’t Caltrans widen the highway but not build sidewalks?

“We’re having difficulty coming to agreement,” Hollendeck said. “We’re looking into whether the community has changed its mind.”

That kind of talk rankles resident Arlene Grider, a supporter of the Caltrans proposal.

“No one likes to take trees down, but progress comes with four lanes and sidewalks,” Grider said. “This little town is in sad shape right now. It needs the kind of invigoration four lanes and sidewalks can bring.”

For many in town, the issue has increased their appreciation of the trees.

Independence librarian Nancy Masters believes the trees “put us in touch with nature in an urban environment. Without them, it’ll be just another wide spot in the road.”

Earlier this month, six residents whose trees were being targeted drove 400 miles in a caravan to Sacramento and vented their concerns before the California Transportation Commission, which recommended that they and Caltrans engineers try harder to reach a compromise.

Smith stayed home that day to tend to a few sick cows. But his neighbor, retired schoolteacher Jerry Sedoo, said he went to “raise a ruckus because for some crazy reason they want to cut down our trees and build sidewalks where there’s no schools, no businesses, no nothing.”

“They say it will make it easier for handicapped people to get around town,” he said. “But heavens to Betsy, what handicapped people in wheelchairs are they talking about?”

Retired Caltrans worker Lloyd Hopper, who stands to lose six to eight trees, agreed. “Our hope is to persuade Caltrans to narrow their take of property so that we can preserve as many trees as possible.”

Smith worries most about one sycamore in particular. “It’s a beautiful tree, maybe 100 feet tall,” he said, leaning against its massive trunk and staring out at a sea of desert sage. “When I moved here in 1948, it was half that tall.”