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Root Causes

Biter gets all NIMBY about tree cutting

By Loren Stein

JUST LAST WEEK, Biter ran out of the house wearing a flimsy nightgown and breathlessly cornered the tree guy as he pulled menacing, giant clippers out of his big regulation-orange truck. He and his partner had come on orders from the fair city of Palo Alto to ruthlessly trim back the trees, and this was serious business--this was war.

"Please, I'm begging you," Biter implored the tree trimmer, who refused to make eye contact. "Go easy on these trees. We love these trees; everybody in the neighborhood loves these trees." Hmm, he said, noncommittally.

The workers were at that moment cutting back the limbs of a magnificent towering pine tree--one of the grandest old trees in the entire neighborhood--that borders Biter's property. Seems they needed to snip branches that could possibly interfere with the picturesque power lines or stately telephone poles--something they have to do, Biter knows, but really, does it make any sense, given that those very same lines and poles are slated to come down within months as part of a city-improvement project?

We're no Julia "Butterfly" Hill, living in a Humboldt County redwood tree for two years to make a daring political statement, but we do care. We care on a macro level--depleted rain forests, rampant logging--and on a purely personal, selfish level. We care because our property basically has no trees of its own (OK, one little apricot tree), and we're wholly dependent on neighbors' and city-owned trees for shelter from a blank and monotonous skyline.

But Biter asks, how do we protect ourselves from the dumb and misguided mistakes of others? One neighbor inexplicably cut down a fully grown, lush, fruit-bearing apple tree that draped over our back fence. How could anyone do such a thing? Then the neighbors' construction workers accidentally sawed off at its base an elegant, shimmering birch tree that we often gazed upon. And then the same neighbors, without telling Biter, took out three flowering trees alongside our driveway that had afforded us privacy and sanctuary. Biter was in shock.

Biter is still scarred from an incident a couple of years ago when, to make room for a traffic diversion that would last a grand total of three hours, city workers came out and chain sawed down an 80-year-old pink blossoming tree planted directly in front of the house. They just whacked the poor tree in one fell swoop; why give it a second thought? It was beyond stupid: it was criminal.

Sometimes it's hard to believe that Palo Alto prides itself on its tree stewardship. Palo Alto is in fact named after a 1,061-year-old coast redwood that still rises up majestically near the railroad tracks. (Palo Alto means "tall tree" or "big stick.")

"Palo Alto is world renowned for its canopy cover and unique tree ordinance [protecting trees]," says Dave Dockter, planning department arborist. Palo Alto is easily spotted by satellites and airplanes because of its dense tree thicket, he says. The value of the city's trees is estimated to be upward of $81 million; there's even an inventory of city-owned trees (about 40,000) and a recently compiled survey of the area's oak trees (9,000).

"Palo Altans definitely have a love affair with their trees," says Jana Dilley of Canopy, a nonprofit group founded by the city to protect its trees. In the early 1900s, members of the Women's Club would water young oak trees planted beside the roads with milk cans from their horse-drawn buggies.

Biter, for our part, is finally getting ready to plant our own tree. This is a solemn occasion. We'll now have another tree to call our own, one that no one can touch, trim, cut back or hack down. This time, it'll be up to us.

Send a letter to the editor about this story to letters@metronews.com.

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From the March 6-12, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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