Last tree standing
Protesters in Oroville turn their attention to an oak, city clears up confusion
The last of the stately sycamores and elms that lined the entrance to the Oroville Cemetery have been chopped and shipped away, despite the valiant efforts of a group of concerned citizens calling themselves Save Oroville Trees. After months of protest, they’ll now turn their attention to a giant oak, down Feather River Boulevard from the cemetery.
“My son refused to go to school today—he wanted to be here,” Andrea Torres said last Thursday (Feb. 5), the day Pacific Gas & Electric Co. revved up the chainsaws to fell the nine trees that remained at the cemetery. She was one of at least a dozen protesters who, in refusing to leave the trees, were removed by police in handcuffs. “They were here before PG&E put in their pipeline. None of us is ever going to see a tree get that old in our lifetime.”
The cemetery trees were among more than 200 in Oroville—including that oak—slated for removal as part of PG&E’s Pipeline Pathways project because they stood too close to underground gas lines, which PG&E has deemed a safety risk.
“They’ve cut every tree in Oroville. I have the final tree,” said Bert King, whose business, A.M. King Industries, is just south of the Oroville Cemetery. “That tree is almost 200 years old. I had an arborist who came and measured it.”
King contends that the oak is “right square on my property line.” PG&E, however, maintains it’s on city land, but the city is still looking into the matter. “We believe it is in our public right of way, but we’re in the process of validating that,” said Rick Walls, city engineer.
“They’re really kind of bullies,” King said of PG&E. When a representative came to alert him to the impending removal of the oak, an issue was brought up about the parking structure that sits partially underneath its branches. “They told me I’d have to take the building down because they were afraid they’d damage it. I said, ‘No way.’”
King’s been active, albeit mostly behind the scenes, with Save Oroville Trees. And he’s not going to let that oak go without a fight.
“I have this great machine in my yard—it’s a big crane. We have lots of people who are willing to sit up there,” he said.
There’s no denying the passion and determination of the Save Oroville Trees members. But some of the information about the Pipeline Pathways project and the city of Oroville’s involvement have been misconstrued, argues City Administrator Randy Murphy.
For one, SOT is calling for a recall of several City Council members, arguing they hastily approved the project and should have put up more of a fight as councils in other cities, particularly in the East Bay, have done.
“The council in October did not approve the project,” Murphy clarified. “They approved an agreement for PG&E to reimburse the city for the 240-odd trees that they were removing. It was an agreement that I helped negotiate.”
The permitting process was not one that required council approval, he said. And while SOT requested the council rescind that permit—which is within its power—it would not have benefited the city to do so. Language in the permit indemnifies the city for any legal costs linked to the tree removal, Murphy said, and with the city already in court over the matter—SOT sued to stop the cutting and PG&E sued to call off the protesters—it might have been costly to rescind the permit.
“Then we would have had PG&E suing the city over breach of contract,” he added.
Another thing many people don’t realize, Murphy said, is that when PG&E approached him late last summer with a list of trees to cut, about half of them were already slated for removal by the city. They were diseased or causing damage to sidewalks and gutters.
“Their proposal to remove those trees saved the city in the neighborhood of $100,000. And they also provided replacement trees,” Murphy said. He added that “the sycamores [at the cemetery] were not among those trees. They weren’t damaging anything, so they were fine in that respect.”
Which is exactly what got SOT members so worked up in the first place.
Their feelings could be summed up by 7-year-old Jaius Thomas, Torres’ son: “The trees are our family—we need to respect them.”