El Palo Alto restored by 'hero' with a light touch

Palo Alto's landmark cleaned up after graffiti spray-paint attack -- major high-tech health exam planned

The spray-paint vandalism of El Palo Alto, the "living landmark" of the City of Palo Alto, has been delicately removed by a part-time employee of the city's Public Works Department who turned out to be a little-known expert in removing paint from living trees.

"Thanks to two heroes the tree has been restored to its original condition, with no damage," city Environmental Planner/Arborist Dave Dockter declared Thursday after an inspection of the thousand-year-old Coast Redwood tree.

In addition, Dockter said the incident has prompted scheduling of a state-of-the-art health check of El Palo Alto, using an advanced-technology ground-penetrating radar device that will literally see into the tree and its root structure. The device has been offered free to the city by Robert Booty of the firm Arborist OnSite Horticultural Consulting, Inc., based in San Jose. It is the same firm that examined the condition of a huge oak on the site of the city's proposed public-safety building before the plan was shelved for economic reasons.

Dockter said the front-line hero in restoring El Palo Alto to its pristine state is Chris McCarthy, a part-time employee of the tree division of the city's Public Works Department who had developed a special skill in removing spray paint from living trees. He said McCarthy's supervisor, Steve Banks, also deserves recognition for his support in assigning McCarthy to the delicate El Palo Alto challenge.

McCarthy, Dockter said, "has hundreds of trees under his belt" in terms of removing paint from vandals, but heretofore he has been virtually unrecognized for his abilities.

"He is a master tree cleaner," Dockter said. "He handled so much responsibility." The city had created a special task force to find a way to restore the tree and had discussed painting over the graffiti or using high pressure water and other methods before McCarthy was allowed to try his delicate-touch technique.

Dockter said McCarthy used different grades of sandpaper on dead-wood portions of the tree trunk plus worked "meticulously with a wire brush" on living bark, so the paint was removed but the tree was not damage.

City officials were deeply concerned about how best to restore the tree without harming it, following the ancient Hippocratic Oath dictum to "do no harm," Dockter said.

"Almost nothing is visible any more" from the mostly illegible graffiti sprayed on the tree last week. Trash and alcoholic containers were spread around the base.

But the debris has now been cleaned up and the tree is once again on the list of tourist attractions as part of the "Destination Palo Alto" program designed to attract more visitors to the city, Dockter said.

He said Eric Krebs, an arborist in the Public Works Department, also inspected the work and said he was "extremely pleased" with the result.

But Dockter said a major benefit coming from the incident may be the full-blown health checkup of the tree, to be scheduled in coming weeks or months.

He said the Arborist OnSite firm will use the ground-penetrating radar to actually see into the tree to determine the condition of its trunk structure. It will also be able to precisely define where El Palo Alto's roots lie. Dockter earlier said a study of the root structure showed that some roots have veered almost straight down beside a concrete retaining wall protecting the San Francisquito Creek bank from erosion. Others appear to have grown underneath the adjacent Caltrain tracks and are extending toward El Camino Real.

Dockter and Booty are scheduled to speak next Friday at a major arborist meeting at Stanford University's Tressider Union building, sponsored by the Western Chapter, International Society of Arboriculture (WCISA).

Booty of Arborist OnSite will lead off the speakers with an 8:15 a.m. presentation on "Arboriculture from the Inside Out: Using Radar Imaging to Evaluate Tree Health & Stability."

Dockter will follow at 9:15 a.m., discussing "Municipal Use of Arborists Reports: How Cities Use Your Information." (Information on the conference, which will draw attendees from a multi-state area, is at

Related story:

El Palo Alto tree sprayed with graffiti

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Like this comment
Posted by qq
a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 20, 2010 at 1:32 am

Maybe they can come save the trees on ECR that have signs tied to them blocking the sidewalks.

I'm looking at you Verizon and Mike's Bikes.


Like this comment
Posted by K
a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 20, 2010 at 10:42 am

:) Yeah! to the tree expert heros!

Like this comment
Posted by Dave
a resident of another community
on Aug 20, 2010 at 10:43 am

If now we can save the "Tree" from the wonders of the planned railroad expansion for the L.A. bullet train!

Like this comment
Posted by Elizabeth
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 20, 2010 at 12:08 pm

Thanks so much for giving the tree the loving attention it deserves!

Like this comment
Posted by Keep him
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 20, 2010 at 7:59 pm

Give that guy a raise, a permanent job plus all the pension benefits, and anything else he requests to keep him on our staff. He's much more valuable than any $125,000 a year firefighter.

Like this comment
Posted by Sylvia
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 20, 2010 at 8:33 pm

What wonderful news! I was so distressed to hear what had happened to a thousand year old symbol of our community.

I wish there were a video of Chris McCarthy's restoration work. It would be enjoyable to watch the care he took in restoring our city's landmark.

Like this comment
Posted by Nayeli
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 21, 2010 at 9:47 pm

Wow -- this is good news! I hope that the police catch the idiot(s) who did this and a judge forces them to pay these workers for their efforts.

Then again, the culprits are likely to have little in terms of tangible assets other than the things they probably stole from people who actually work for a living.

Like this comment
Posted by Joseph E. Davis
a resident of Woodside
on Aug 21, 2010 at 10:23 pm

Now there is a real public servant. Thank you for a job well done.

Like this comment
Posted by Cynthia
a resident of another community
on Aug 22, 2010 at 10:08 am

Things kids do while bored on summer vacation! You would probably be surprised to actually know who committed this crime. It could have been some of the homeless that live in the community. In reality, it was still probably someone that you guys are always defending for bad behavior because of the way they look. Remember we only commit "real" crimes, so you have to look "within" for the culprits of this one.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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