Clear-cut for takeoff

Citing wildlife and terrorists, the airport wants to destroy more native oaks

Kevin McRae calls a plan by the Sacramento International Airport to cut down more native oaks gratuitous.

Kevin McRae calls a plan by the Sacramento International Airport to cut down more native oaks gratuitous.

Photo By Larry Dalton

Sacramento County plans to burn down Karl Yuki’s home. The Yuki family home is on a 90-acre pear orchard near the Sacramento River north of Sacramento International Airport. “Our family had lived there for quite a while, over 50 years. We were leasing it from the airport,” Yuki explained. The family gave up farming and moved to Lodi about a year ago. Although the house is unoccupied, the orchard remains a home for crows, various small birds and squirrels. Occasionally, coyotes and deer are seen. The airport has plans to transform the orchard into an environment specifically designed to be inhospitable to birds and other wildlife. The primary goal of the transformation is to make wildlife scarce in order to avoid collisions between wildlife and planes at the airport.

The county plans to torch the farm buildings as a training exercise for firefighters. Pear trees will be uprooted and put through a wood chipper. Trees near the farm buildings and growing along the edges of the property will be cut down. A small grove of about 40 oaks adjacent to the orchard will be removed also. The land will be leveled and planted with a “monoculture” of low-growing grass that will be cut and disked periodically. A total of 69 native oaks will disappear. Three environmental groups—the Sierra Club, Friends of the Swainson’s Hawk and the Environmental Council of Sacramento—want to save the oaks. They propose an alternative plan, to remove the pear orchard, retain the oak trees and keep an eye on the result.

The oaks are 1,200 feet from the airport’s west runway and are considered a “wildlife attractant” by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Trees, bushes, ponds and farm crops are examples of wildlife attractants; they provide food, water and cover for wildlife. Oaks provide nest sites, perches and rooting places for birds. Greg Rowe, senior environmental analyst for the airport, said, “Birds and aircraft don’t mix.” Sacramento International Airport has the highest number of bird strikes in California. Records show that there are five bird strikes per 10,000 flights at Sacramento, but the FAA believes most bird strikes go unreported.

No one has ever been killed by bird strikes at Sacramento, but in 2002 a passenger plane hit a heron during takeoff. The pilot shut down an engine and returned to the airport. The airport appears to be surrounded by wildlife attractants. Rice fields, the Sacramento River and the Yolo bypass create a paradise for waterfowl and wading birds, like herons. And above it all is the Pacific Flyway, a major migratory route for birds. A study at the Sacramento airport found that large flocking birds, like ducks and geese, present the greatest danger because flocks can potentially disable more than one aircraft engine.

In October, FAA officials inspected the airport and issued a “letter of correction” stating that the airport was not in compliance with FAA regulations. Several wildlife attractants were cited, including trees. Rowe said the letter prompted him to include oak trees in the Yuki-orchard removal project.

James Pachl, the attorney representing the environmental groups, contends that “most of their problems are with waterfowl. If you knock down some oak trees, you’re still going to get waterfowl. You should not be knocking down trees just for the sake of knocking down trees or as a way to make a report look good to the FAA.”

Toni Barry, principal environmental analyst at the county’s Department of Environmental Review, is working on a draft environmental-impact report (EIR) for the Yuki orchard project. The report will take everything into consideration: public safety, wildlife habitat and even terrorist attacks. “You don’t want somebody with a rocket launcher climbing up in a tree,” she said. Barry added that homeland-security issues also will be included in another EIR she’s currently working on, the airport’s master plan. The master plan includes the construction of a new runway, to be built around 2020, directly in the path of the oaks.

Barry says the construction of a new runway is dependent on future population growth and demand for more flights. Pachl noted, “It is an interesting coincidence that the airport may put in a third runway.”

Kevin McRae, with the Sacramento Riverfront Property Owners’ Association, said he believes the airport wants to cut the oaks down to make way for a runway that won’t be built for years, if at all.

“It’s not necessary to cut down the oaks,” McRae insisted. “Oaks are a precious resource to be conserved, and I think that to remove any more oaks of more than one or two years of age gratuitously without good reason is uncalled for. They should be preserved, not destroyed.”

Jude Lamare of Friends of the Swainson’s Hawk agreed. “These trees have been there for decades, and FAA regulations have been there for decades, and no one has ever said, ‘We have to take these trees out.’ Until now.”

The draft EIR will be completed in April. It will go to the county’s Project Planning Commission for comment, and then a final EIR will be created for consideration by the county’s board of supervisors. The environmentalists hope public support will persuade the board to save the oaks.