No, Amanda Oakson did not chain herself to a tree. But she considered it.
By protesting, erecting signage and lying at the base of Valley Oak No. 273 Thursday, the Los Altos Hills resident attracted the attention of Mayor Kavita Tankha and Council member Linda Swan, who intervened and stopped arborists from chopping it down.
Tankha could not be reached for comment Thursday, but Oakson said the mayor told her work on the tree would pause until an independent arborist can examine the tree and determine preservation and public safety options.
“All we ask for in this is time to consider a third option instead of life or death,” Oakson said. “And the option that we’re looking for is some way to safely preserve this historic tree and also keep it safe from hurting any human life or property.”
The 50-foot-tall oak is located near the intersection of Elena Road and Josefa Lane beside land owned by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, a grantmaking organization named for the late co-founder of Hewlett-Packard Co. and his wife. Its boughs tower over a dirt track leading to the Packard Pathway, and its upper branches intertwine with utility wires. The trunk is within inches of Elena, making it a frequent but unintended target of passing vehicles.
“The form of the oak is poor with two cavities from apparent vehicle damage on the street side of the lower trunk,” according to a report from Kielty Arborist Services submitted to the town Public Works Department in October.
Boasting a diameter of 51.4 inches, the tree’s girth is well above meeting the town’s 12-inch threshold for heritage oak protection, but its current condition could arguably justify a removal permit; in addition to the cavities, which are visible from the exterior, drilling and mallet tapping revealed a C-shaped section of decay within.
On a “hazard rating” scale between 1 and 12, in which 12 represents a high probability for causing damage and/or injury, Kielty rated No. 273 a 10.
In April, after consulting the Kielty report and another from March that also characterized the tree as hazardous, the town signed off on removal. Municipal code directs the owner of land adjacent to a right-of-way containing the condemned to pay for removal, and so the Packard Foundation would foot the bill.
On Thursday, City Clerk Deborah Padovan cited the reports and referred to resident safety as “paramount.”
“We don’t go out and arbitrarily cut down trees,” she said. “We love trees as much as anyone else.”
A call for action
Oakson has resided in Los Altos Hills for 46 years. She doesn’t live on Elena Road, but she passes No. 273 every day. When driving by Tuesday, she was alarmed to discover workers severing limbs.
Both Oakson and resident Ann Duwe lobbied for a reprieve, and their pleas prompted interim planning, building and public works director Steve Padovan, Deborah Padovan’s husband, to consult a third arborist. Oakson also called the Packard Foundation, and she said chief financial officer Craig Neyman agreed to evaluate the situation.
When a third inspection cleared workers to resume cutting Wednesday, Oakson published an appeal on Nextdoor.
“IM AT TOWN HALL PLEADING (for) HER LIFE,” Oakson wrote in capital letters. “IF YOU HAVE TIME OR ARE MOVED PLEASE JOIN HERE OR AT THE TREE. IF YOU JOIN ME PLEASE BE (protective of) HER BUT KIND TO ALL INVOLED. THIS IS A PEACEFUL MOVEMENT.”
A small group of like-minded residents gathered at the base of No. 273 Thursday morning. Someone tucked a stuffed toy representing Groot, the ambulatory tree creature from Marvel Comics, between the trunk and the caution tape cinched tight against the bark. A sign hung over Groot’s head: “Help us preserve the oaks, starting with this one.”
Oakson is advocating for a report from an independent arborist not driven by what she describes as a “purely liability perspective.” In just a few days, she has launched Appreciating Balance, a group dedicated to working with town leaders to change the evaluation process for tree preservation.
“This town is about the oaks,” she said. “Our town symbol is the oak. This is about the planet. This is bigger than this tree.”
Addendum: “Sadly Baby Groot was babynapped and taken from the tree,” Oakson told the Town Crier Friday. “We are offering $70 reward for this safe return to the oak, no questions asked. Anyone with information can contact us at email@example.com.”