Caltrans and another tree-cutting caper

By Tom Rusert and Darren Peterie

We just read the Index-Tribune’s Jan. 28, front-page article on removing the trees along Highway 12. This type of urgency and surprise has been a long standing pattern of Caltrans and their duped victims. Thanks to Susan Gorin for her comments about cutting and replacing trees, and consideration for the bird nesting season, which is already underway for some species. There are laws addressing this that Caltrans and others have a tendency to disregard unless people speak up.

Why are tree related “safety issues” suddenly prioritized as urgent in early spring for this Highway 12 project? It is as if the trees were not there in the winter when clearly less harm would be done to birds and the natural surroundings.

Removing 31 trees (including 20 oaks) is a major natural disruption that could take many weeks to finish in this very busy Highway 12 corridor – certainly all of February and some of March. We are surprised these communities did not wake up to important oak trees already removed that could have been thoughtfully saved. This will happen.

People are well aware that sidewalks can be carefully installed around some trees that we really want to save, but it is much easier to simply cut them all down.

Plans for tree planting, tree trimming, tree removal and replacement trees appear to remain secretive. Trees and habitat matter to people, and they add value. It is time for this “we know best” mindset to change and include the community in the environmental conversation.

Tom O’Kane, from the Sonoma County Public Works Department, and others responsible for scheduling these tree removal projects, are being ill-advised by Caltrans and bidding contractors, or they are simply in the dark about environmental issues and federal laws. The unfortunate timing of tree cutting in Sonoma County, and the related tree policies, needs to be seriously re-thought. It appears that Caltrans and contractors are once again the silent voice here and the messengers do not want to be shot.

Caltrans, as many know, was just put on the hot seat this month by Audubon and others for physically “netting” the Highway 101/ Petaluma River Bridge and unnecessarily killing great numbers of migratory cliff swallows during nesting season last spring, as if it did not matter and no one was looking.

It took six organizations and a lawsuit to finally curtail that misconduct.

We also saw Caltrans remove dozens of trees in the City of Sonoma on Broadway, cut down indiscriminately in the early spring several years ago while disregarding federal laws. In that instance, nesting great horned owls were left to die while being studied by nearby elementary school kids.

Caltrans even had their “ornithologist” observe and approve this untimely action.

Fortunately, we have seen local neighborhoods on the City of Sonoma’s west side challenging city government and contractors to rethink tree removal, planting and sidewalk designs in town. Eventually, positive, inclusive changes were made. Including the ideas of the people is a positive accommodation that builds trust in government.

Most of these drastic tree measures are obscured in darkness, with government officials far removed from local reality and way more interested in their own organizations’ logistics and scheduling than the long-term well-being of the environment or neighborhood values. No one ever said safety is not important.

A one-week extension on this tree-cutting plan speaks volumes about very poor government timing, planning and budgeting. It also suggests that Highway 12 citizens of Sonoma Valley were consciously left in the dark by those who could care less about the value of the healthy, established trees that we need to save, now more than ever.

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Tom Rusert and Darren Peterie are the co-founders of the Christmas Bird Count for Kids, the Sonoma Valley Christmas Bird Count and the Valley of the Moon Nature Lecture Series.