Cohasset’s ‘clear-cut’ conflict

Residents protest removal of trees around elementary school playground

SPEAKING FOR THE TREES Phil Harrold, who lived in Cohasset for 14 years before moving to Chico, said his children would be “heartbroken” if they were to see their old Cohasset Elementary School playground without all of its trees.

SPEAKING FOR THE TREES Phil Harrold, who lived in Cohasset for 14 years before moving to Chico, said his children would be “heartbroken” if they were to see their old Cohasset Elementary School playground without all of its trees.

Photo By Tom Angel

No place to play? At Cohasset Elementary School, red lines on certain trees mark the area beyond which students weren’t allowed to play out of fear that they’d be hurt or couldn’t be properly supervised.

The tiny, close-knit community of Cohasset was the scene of an impromptu community meeting and shouting match this week, as residents confronted loggers and Chico Unified School District employees over dozens of trees being cut down on the elementary school’s playground.

For nearly two hours on July 31, the schoolyard was a verbal battleground. Kicking empty stumps and snapping fallen limbs in frustration, concerned citizens asked why they weren’t involved in the decision to clear out most of the trees on the six acres of school property.

The cut—which includes cedar, Ponderosa pine and Douglas fir—was approved under the infamous “three-acre loophole” that allows for removal of trees for fire protection or other safety concerns.

One Cohasset resident called the California Department of Forestry, successfully stopping the logging work for the day on a technicality as the agency investigated whether the logger, Dale Ulsh, acting on behalf of the CUSD, secured two permits and then posted only one for public review.

The upset residents say that, unlike when trees were cleared for a playfield, and unlike when just six trees were sacrificed to make way for parking lot expansion at Cohasset Elementary, no one in the community was consulted about this project.

Mary Leary, the CUSD’s director of maintenance and operations who authorized the cut, said in a telephone interview that the trees have long been a hazard, and when Ulsh offered to take out the problem trees, giving much of the proceeds from their sale to the Cohasset school, the district jumped at it. The district could never have afforded to have the trees removed, she said.

Children were in danger, Leary said, and “we’re just not going to take a chance.”

She said a forester from Vasquez Forest Management identified an infestation of beetles and conk, along with diseases like black oak root fungus. “The trees were badly diseased and dying rapidly,” Leary said. Plus, the trees were too close together to foster growth of smaller trees beneath them. In all, about 80 percent of the stand had to fall, the forester found, and the CUSD agreed and administratively gave Ulsh the go-ahead.

Phil Harrold’s children attended kindergarten through sixth grade at the school, between 1982 and 1996, shortly before the Harrolds moved to Chico. Harrold still owns property in Cohasset and was shocked to see the trees falling.

“I didn’t believe what I saw,” he said. “It looks like a bomb went off there. … It is appalling. It is not a selective thinning at all.”

Rupert McDowell walked around the fallen trees and branches scattered among the jungle gyms and monkey bars, videotaping the heated exchanges for future reference. The falling trees clipped a couple of picnic tables, which will be replaced, but avoided the student-built school garden. McDowell has lived in Cohasset since 1976 and heard about the project while delivering mail on his downtown Postal Service route. At first, he said, he and his wife were told that just eight or 10 trees would go. “We weren’t that concerned.”

Then, he drove by and saw 60 to 70 trees gone—"to me, what I would define as a clear-cut.” It was he who contacted CDF to put the project on hold.

Terry Ashe, president of the Cohasset Community Association, has been fielding questions from citizens and met with another CUSD supervisor to get answers. “I still have some questions,” he said, mentioning wanting to take a look at the paperwork and permits.

McDowell said the issue has divided the diverse community, which runs the gamut from property-rights-touting conservatives to land-conscious longhairs.

Ulsh bristled at the term “clear-cut,” which the project technically is not. On Tuesday, he took on the task of explaining to those gathered at the school why the project is necessary.

“The dynamics of the stand create a problem that doesn’t leave a lot of choice,” Ulsh said in an interview. “It was a forest. It wasn’t a playground.” And the two aren’t compatible.

Ulsh said that it was he who raised the issue of the dangerous, diseased trees with the district. His children attend Forest Ranch Elementary School, and last year Joanne Parsley was principal at both Forest Ranch and Cohasset. Ulsh said he told Parsley she should be aware of the unsafe condition of the trees, and that if the CUSD trusted him to take care of it, he would. “I had no idea that they would be interested.”

It was Ulsh who contacted the forester to determine the health of the trees, which some of the residents later questioned as a potential conflict of interest.

After walking through the debris talking with Ulsh, some residents’ fears were eased. Ulsh pointed at trees shedding limbs 20 or more feet off the ground. “This tree’s unmanageable for a school district,” he said. “They left it this way for many, many years and now it’s uncontrollable.” Ulsh showed how one could drill a hole in a trunk soft with rot.

“He’s very convincing,” said Jim Brobeck of Cohasset. “He’s obviously very concerned about children’s safety.”

Brobeck said he and his wife didn’t come over to cause trouble, and their frustration is more directed toward the school board. “We just wish we could have been notified,” he said. “People would have had a chance to support the project. [This happened] with such speed and such haste and so little public participation that it raises red flags to people who are used to being involved in such things.”

A few minutes later, Brobeck and Ulsh were arguing again, this time over who would be getting what from the sale of the timber. Some hope the trees can help pay for a new playground, which would cost $30,000.

Harrold questioned the logger’s and the school district’s motives. “This is purely a for-profit affair,” he charged. “This wasn’t totally in the interest of our kids.” Harrold said he and his fellow property owners in Cohasset routinely get letters from logging firms offering to cut their trees and share the take.

Ulsh wouldn’t say exactly what his monetary arrangement is with the district.

Alan Otto, one of several CUSD maintenance and operations supervisors, accused the non-Cohasset residents particularly of “marching in” and sticking their noses into things they didn’t understand.

“It’s not a clear-cut,” he shouted, asking one couple if they had children going to school there. “Then why the concern about the trees?”

Otto, enumerating his units of study in life science at the University of California at Berkeley, said that more than 100 trees have fallen or had to be removed during his 18 years with the CUSD—between six and 20 trees a year on average. “The whole forest up here is terribly overgrown,” he told the News & Review, calming considerably. “They’re struggling for light. Instead of developing a good root system, they grow tall and spindly.” Then come the insects and diseases, Otto said, pointed to the rotting base of a cedar tree that leaned over a playfield.

“There was a certain amount of risk during the whole time,” Otto said. “Somebody has to take the responsibility and make the decision.”

Harrold countered that the cut left the weakest, skinniest trees, leaving them vulnerable and hazardous.

Around noon, several people sat down on a log and began talking more quietly about why the trees were cut, and how it could have been handled better from a communication standpoint.

Ulsh said that once the stay is lifted and his crew can get back to logging, it would only take another week or two before the project is complete.

“The school district’s made a good call," he said.