Early Friday morning, the old fig tree in the back lot at Adele Harrison Middle School was felled to make room for a new artificial turf athletic field behind the school.
Sonoma Valley School Board Chair Dan Gustafson has spent the past two weeks, since the bulldozers arrived to prepare the parcel, defending the district’s need to remove the tree.
Ever since the boys’ soccer season in Sonoma County league play moved to the winter months, the SVHS team has had to practice and play its ‘home’ games on rented fields in Petaluma. Girls’ soccer is slated to also move to the winter season in the upcoming school year.
The tree stood in the way of the district being able to fit a regulation-sized field on best spot available to the district - the large open space behind the middle school on Broadway.
The plans for the new $1.6 million all-weather field have been in the works, and public, for almost two years, according to Gustafson. He said he is sympathetic to community disappointment that the tree can’t be saved but stressed that “the kids have been promised and are counting on this field.”
A petition to save the tree was launched on Wednesday, and had 365 signatures as of Friday morning.
Planted generations ago by the family of Virginia Masuoka, the tree was once part of a large grove that stretched along the shores of the small creek. “Oh, we planted at least three orchards there,” 86-year-old Masuoka said. “That tree is really a survivor, with the lack of water and everything.”
Most of the other trees have long since succumbed to development or disease or the limits of time. But the big fig endured, as its kind often do, estimated to be more thaqn 80 years into its potential centuries-long lifespan.
Yannick Phillips, who was until last week a garden coordinator at Adele Harrison, said that the school has been using the tree’s fruit in ice cream, jam and fruit leather made by her students. Phillips also plays a role in the school's horticultural "Farm to Table" instruction.
“We have to support our farmland,” Phillips said in a phone interview last week. “But instead of doing that, our district is destroying it. It’s outrageous.”
On April 26, Adele Harrison’s leadership team, science teachers and garden coordinators toured the site, raising concerns for the birds nesting in the old tree. They made a request that the fledglings be allowed time to mature before the time came down and a biologist was brought in to assess the environment. No mention of the tree’s relocation was made at that time, according to Gustafson, and he feels a bit blindsided now.
“With all facilities projects we try to be as transparent as possible,” he said last week. “I’m sorry. I don’t like to cut down trees… If we had come to a halt we’d incur huge costs. We’d have to go out to bid again and pay off the current contract. Had it come up this winter, we would have considered it.”
There was talk of moving the tree to an alternate location but experts agreed that relocation could only be safely accomplished if done in dormancy, which means that this tree — in full leaf and already fruiting — has missed the deadline for this year.