A prized grove of more than 200 oaks and sycamores in Arcadia was reduced to stumps, broken limbs and slash piles by mid-afternoon Wednesday, despite a showdown with four tree-sitters attempting to stop bulldozers from clearing the land to make way for muck dredged from a nearby reservoir.
By nightfall, about 90% of the grove along a wash near Elkins Avenue, east of Highland Oaks Drive, had been cleared.
From the backyard of a home adjacent to the work site, observers watched as deputies surrounded the base of one of the few massive oaks that remained. Two protesters were perched on a platform about 30 feet above the ground, which was little more than bare dirt.
At one point, actress Daryl Hannah, who shouted words of support to the tree sitters, was escorted off the site by sheriff's deputies.
The county Department of Public Works, which owns the property, is preparing the site to take on 500,000 cubic yards of silt, rocks and vegetation to be scooped out of Santa Anita Reservoir, a key component of the flood-control system for the San Gabriel Mountain foothill communities. The reservoir just above the grove helps replenish groundwater for the cities of Sierra Madre and Arcadia.
County Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich, who represents the nearby communities, negotiated a 30-day moratorium in December to study alternatives that might spare the trees. The county concluded that its original plan was the most feasible option, and proceeded Wednesday morning.
Tree sitters, including John Quigley, a veteran of such protests, entered the site at 4 a.m. and remained in three trees until they were taken into custody shortly before 8 p.m.
Earlier, Public Works spokesman Bob Spencer said he expected the trees to be cleared within two days. "The wood will stay onsite," he said. "It will be chipped and used as ground cover. Some of the stumps will be left to rot as part of the natural decaying process."
Spencer said the chipped wood and rotted stumps will eventually be deposited elsewhere in the area to improve soil conditions.
David Czamanske, a member of the Sierra Club Angeles Chapter's Executive Committee, said of the recycling plan: "How am I supposed to be satisfied with such a trivial mitigation as that?"
The standoff began at daybreak, when Czamanske and four women stood shoulder to shoulder to block sheriff's vehicles from entering the gate at the 11-acre site. They eventually walked away without incident after deputies threatened to arrest them.
"It's our last stand," Czamanske said. "This is all about the rights of trees."
The faceoff between protesters and deputies attracted people from the adjacent neighborhood of handsome tract homes. Among them was Doris Stone, a resident since 1972 who said she had been walking her dog through the grove for decades. "I'm in tears; it's a little bit of heaven in there," she said, watching from behind yellow law-enforcement tape used to cordon off the entrance.
For conservationists, the grove was a remnant patch of serenity and shelter for wildlife. County flood-control authorities regard it as designated spreading grounds for storm debris that just happens to have trees on it.
"The county never engaged us in any meaningful discussions about alternatives to this destruction," said Camron Stone, Doris' son, who led the effort to preserve the trees. "Now, they are getting their just deserts. The eyes of the world are on them. They are under a microscope. I hope they like it."
Last dredged in 1993, the 83-year-old reservoir currently operates at reduced capacity because it could not otherwise meet state seismic standards, county authorities said. If the dam's valves became plugged, officials said, storm flows would cause the water level to rise over the spillway, placing thousands of residents below at risk of flooding.
Still, many protesters faulted Antonovich for not trying harder to spare the trees. One woman carried a poster that suggested a new name for the denuded site: "Michael D. Antonovich muck pile."
Antonovich was unavailable for comment. But his spokesman Tony Bell said, "It's been an exhaustive process. There was no serious alternative to address a public safety crisis."
Planning and environmental reviews for the sediment management project, which county officials have said is needed to make improvements to the dam's operating structure, had been underway for three years. The environmental impact report was certified by the Board of Supervisors in June 2009, and a contract was signed a year later.
Many of those gathered near the site Wednesday, including representatives of the Audubon Society and the Sierra Club, had attended a meeting of the Board of Supervisors the day before to plead, unsuccessfully, for another delay.
Their legal options exhausted and the grove destroyed, supporters organized a candlelight vigil at the gate Wednesday evening.
"It's over," Camron Stone said, shaking his head and fighting back tears. "The trees are gone. They're gone."