Earth Day: Death of a heritage oak

The 150-year old heritage oak tree in 2006 before high winds send its limbs crashing to the ground. Photo by Jim Holt/The Signal

Drivers cruising through the parking lot of the Bridgeport Marketplace of restaurants and YogaWorks Valencia, perhaps taking advantage of the Wells Fargo ATM drive-thru, might notice in the expanse of asphalt, a circle of waist-high wrought iron fencing that encircles – nothing.

On Earth Day 2017, however, it might be worth noting that the empty space was once – something.

Before the plaza, the ATM machine, the parking lot and even Santa Clarita itself, when there was nothing but scrub brush and rough uncut grass, it was where a mighty oak grew to a majestic size.

When it first poked its way through the earth 150 years ago, the American Civil War was unfolding on the other side of the continent.

Then in 1861, the District of Southern California was just created and, a year later, the Western Pacific Railroad was formed up near San Francisco. And the tree still thrived.

The oak tree that spent a century and a half growing at the undeveloped northeast corner of McBean Parkway and Newhall Ranch Road was, at least in 2006, resplendent inside a wild hilly home that swelled up by the tree’s roots.

Scores of birds rested there. Bees lived there, squirrels ran through the limbs.

So when property owners – local developers Intertex of Valencia – wanted to build Bridgeport Marketplace and lay down a parking lot, they accommodated the oak.

They had to – because the oldest ordinance laid down by the city of Santa Clarita said so –  that heritage oaks such the oak at McBean and Newhall Ranch had to be protected.

The wild area around the oak tree, however, was cut and flattened.  A metal fence was wrapped around it.

It was beautiful.  And, property owners paid homage to it by fastening spot lights to the metal enclosure, positioning them in such a way as to light up its wide-reaching limbs.

High winds

In April 2013, however, high winds split the tree in half, sending 150 years’ worth of expanding limbs crashing onto the tiny fence.

“The tree was a heritage oak before it failed,” Carrie Lujan, city of Santa Clarita spokeswoman told The Signal Friday.

It “failed” because it collapsed.

“The first ordinance passed by the city was to protect heritage oaks,” she said.

When the tree fell, however, it stopped being a heritage oak.

Safta and Deemitree Lungu lament the collapsed of an oak tree in the Bridgeport Marketplace parking lot in Valencia in 2013. Signal file photo by Dan Watson

Heritage oaks

In January, planners with the Los Angeles County Department of Regional Planning gave permission to two developers to cut down 320 oak trees in the SCV – 29 of them heritage oaks – in order to build to two projects.

Two developers – one planning to build a film studio on Placerita Canyon Road, the other a senior condo complex on The Old Road – were given more time by the planners after they requested more time to pursue their respective projects.

According to the Sacramento Tree Foundation, large, old oaks that still stand in small groves or alone in our neighborhoods are often called “heritage oaks’ or “landmark oaks.”

A “heritage oak” is often defined as a living native oak tree, several hundred years old that is in good health.

Some heritage oaks have trunks with a circumference of more than 100 inches, but some have smaller trunks. Some very old oaks are tall, and some are quite short. The correlation between size and age is not as straight forward when it comes to the trees.

The health condition of trees is usually the deciding factor as to whether the trees need to be cut down.

Bees swarm around a bee hive in a broken limb of an oak tree which split apart and collapsed in the Bridgeport Marketplace parking lot in Valencia in 2013. Signal file photo by Dan Watson

City of Santa Clarita officials valued heritage oaks so much they made the first city ordinance an order to protect them.

And they put a heritage oak on the city seal.

But, when the heritage oak split and “failed” it died and it lost its special status.

Stump removal

Chainsaws removed the crashed branches from the fence.  Sections were cut up, branches fed into a wood chipper, until only a stump – a wide stump with 150 countable rings – remained.

A visit to the stump in late 2013 revealed the promise of green sprigs sprouting from what was no longer an ordinance-protected heritage oak.  It was a stump.

“The tree failed in 2013,” Lujan said. “It was cut to a stump following that and the stump was removed nearly two years ago.”

Sometime during the last weekend in April 2013, the three “scaffolding limbs” of the sprawling valley oak split and collapsed, sending one of its limbs crashing onto the protective metal fence around it. Scaffolding limbs are major branches that extend from the trunk of a tree; this one had three, and all three broke overnight.

The tree, however, did not appear to be dead, Robert Sartain, the city of Santa Clarita’s oak tree specialist, said at the time.

“There’s one sprig left on the trunk of the tree,” he said, noting the tree was at least 150 years old. “But valley oaks don’t always regenerate.”

One sprig was not enough, however, to save the tree.

So, this Earth Day, if you visit the site and join motorists as they leave the ATM and round the contour of a metal fence enclosing – nothing – perhaps you can remember that it was once something worthy of being protected.

A fence remains around where an oak tree fell in 2013 in the Bridgeport Marketplace parking lot in Valencia. Katharine Lotze/The Signal

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