Century-old oaks may make way -- for silt


On a southern-facing slope of the San Gabriel Mountains, Glen Owens strode through the dappled sunlight of century-old oaks and sycamores that the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works wants to replace with muck dredged from a nearby reservoir.

Eyeing the trees marked for removal with strips of black and white ribbons nailed to their trunks, Owens shook his head in dismay.

“I’ve got the same feeling I get when I see cattle on their way to slaughter,” he said. “Don’t get me wrong — I’m not a doggone tree-hugger. It’s just that sometimes making the world a better place means saving the better things in it.”


Owens is a leader in an eleventh-hour campaign to prevent the county from cutting down 179 coast live oaks and an estimated 70 sycamores in an 11-acre canyon area overlooking Arcadia that is scheduled to become a spreading ground for 500,000 cubic yards of silt, rocks and vegetation scooped out of Santa Anita Reservoir.

Yielding to pressure, Los Angeles County Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich on Friday called for a 30-day delay in the Santa Anita Reservoir sediment removal project to study possible alternatives that could spare the trees that locals have come to call the Arcadia Woodlands.

If an agreement with conservationists cannot be reached, a contractor in January will begin clearing the grove at the bottom of a wash abutting the handsome foothill subdivisions.

“This is not something we take lightly,” said Bob Spencer, spokesman for the county Public Works Department. The county, he said, will sit down with residents and environmental groups to explore alternatives.

There is more at stake than the fate of the old oaks and the quiet seclusion they provide for woodpeckers and warblers, salamanders and deer.

Perched in a fire-stripped canyon, the 83-year-old reservoir is a critical component of the county’s aging flood-control system and is used to recharge underground aquifers that the cities of Sierra Madre and Arcadia rely on for drinking water. Last dredged in 1993, the reservoir currently operates at reduced capacity because it could not otherwise meet state seismic standards, county authorities said.


Owens, a Monrovia city planning commissioner who lives a half-mile from the grove, has been trying for several weeks to persuade department officials to dump the sediment on adjacent county lands that are devoid of trees.

“Unfolding before our eyes is a perfect mistake: County officials without the facts believing that they are doing the right thing,” Owens said.

Caroline Brown, spokeswoman for the California Oak Foundation, a nonprofit group dedicated to protecting the native trees, said she has e-mailed supporters throughout California and as far as France and Israel.

“Everyone understands that more debris needs to be removed from the reservoir,” she said. “But there are not many of these once-common coast live oaks left in Los Angeles County except for remnant woodlands like this one.”

In the meantime, county contract workers on Friday were already laying the groundwork for the massive sediment removal project: stringing up power lines; establishing a contractor’s office and changing the locks on all the gates leading into the property, which was purchased by the county in the 1950s.

They were also beefing up outreach programs dealing with county plans to mitigate the project, including replacing each felled tree with three new trees planted in nearby wilderness areas and in nearby Big Tujunga Canyon.


“That’s all so much nonsense,” Owens said. “How do you replace a 100-year-old oak tree with a sapling?”