Century-old Cowper Street oak to be saved -- for now

Palo Alto arborists will remove tons of limbs to stabilize heritage tree

A 100-plus-year-old heritage oak tree at 816 Cowper St. in Palo Alto that had been slated for the chopping block may be saved, officials have announced.

Public Works staff met with neighbors and tree supporters Wednesday afternoon to outline plans to save the venerable oak, nicknamed "George," from the chainsaw.

Arborists plan to remove three to four tons of limbs to help redistribute weight that is threatening to topple the tree, Public Works Director Michael Sartor said.

"Under normal circumstances, we would never take off this much. It needs extraordinary measures," said Dave Dockter, a city arborist.

The tree was considered a liability after arborists discovered a fungus had eaten out all but 6 inches of the heartwood on the 13-foot-circumference tree, Dockter said.

Despite the expansive and healthy canopy, the tree's structural integrity is precarious, he said.

"It's as thin as a pipe. The tree is hollow about 8 to 10 feet up. It's like an eggshell," he said.

The oak's outer layers of wood form a protective shell, through which the tree continues to get nutrients that keep it healthy. But the arborists were concerned the weight could cause the trunk to crack, and the tree could come crashing down, he said.

Sartor said public works staff decided to give the tree a second chance. On Wednesday he ripped the two tree-removal signs down.

Carol Kiparsky and Ian Irwin have lived in their home beneath the oak's canopy for 16 years.

"It's a very important tree," Irwin said.

The couple has only seen one larger that rivals George -- on the Coal Mine Trail in Portola Valley, they said.

Catherine Martineau, executive director of Canopy, said the tree is a remnant of the original Palo Alto.

"This area was an oak-studded savannah. These are the real trees of this area. The city has a particular connection to these types of trees," she said.

A 1991 survey found that about 9,000 native oaks inhabited Palo Alto's urban area.

"It would be interesting to do that survey now and see what's still here," she said.

Eugene Segna, interim public-works arborist, said workers would remove asphalt from around the tree's roots on Friday (Sept. 30).

On Monday (Oct. 3) arborists will do a root-crown excavation to evaluate the tree's health and assess how long it might be able to stand.

If the roots are not diseased, crews will start removing several major limbs on Tuesday.

Crews will also look at cabling and any supports that need to be added, he said. After that, the tree will be monitored and residents will be notified each time.

"In addition to this particular tree, the urban-forest group will be evaluating other heritage trees in Palo Alto that need similar attention," Sartor said.

That process would be incorporated into the Urban Forest Master Plan the city and Canopy have been working on for the last couple of years, he said.

Segna said it is hard to categorically state the life span of the trees. In most urban settings, it is usually 50 years, due to environmental impacts.

Most detrimental to the Cowper oak is damage from parking vehicles. The tree juts out into the roadway, a remnant of when the city still had dirt lanes, Dockter said. The damage allowed the fungus to get started, he added.

Martineau said she is glad the city is taking the time to help residents understand the tree's condition and complexity. She stressed that Canopy is not in a position to make an assessment.

"We rely on the city's experts. We have good arborists," she said.

Dockter said the department has had some requests from residents to obtain a special piece of the tree. One woman plans to have a friend make a bowl.

The arborists and crews are looking forward to the challenge of pruning the old tree. They even have a wager going regarding the weight of the branches that will be trimmed off, he said.

"We have bets. The guys are so excited to do this type of cutting. Roughly shooting from the hip, I've determined that about 3.8 tons -- 7,546 pounds -- will be taken out.

"When we prune the tree we'll load up the truck and go by the scales and see which climber comes closest," he said.

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Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 30, 2011 at 8:10 am

I sincerely hope that this tree does not come down and harm anyone or anything in one of the storms this winter. If in fact it does come down in a storm, is the City liable for any damage it may cause?

Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 30, 2011 at 8:10 am

So when the tree falls on their house, the homeowners have agreed not to sue the City? If not, remove the hazard.

The City should get a signed waiver of liability. Otherwise, our taxes will go to pay for the home repair when the tree falls on it.

Like this comment
Posted by Alphonso
a resident of Los Altos Hills
on Sep 30, 2011 at 9:05 am

And who is paying for all of this work - sounds like it would more effective to use the resources to remove this tree and plant a couple of dozen young and healthy treee.

Like this comment
Posted by Emily Renzel
a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 30, 2011 at 11:10 am

I'm so pleased that the City is sparing this Heritage Oak. Thanks to the Oak's neighbors who worked with the City to help keep this magnificent Tree. There are actually two other nearby heritage oaks that join with the one in question to indicate how Palo Alto may have been forested years ago.

Like this comment
Posted by Sylvia
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 30, 2011 at 11:42 am

@ Resident

"Our taxes will pay for home repairs if tree falls."

Wouldn't the homeowners' insurance pay for damages to the house if a tree falls on it? My eucalyptus fell partially on my house many years ago, and my homeowner's policy paid for tree removal and roof damage.

Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 30, 2011 at 12:47 pm


The liability is due to the known issue that has now been exposed. There is only 6" of good trunk left. If the tree fell before that was known, insurance would pay. Now that it is known, the insurance company will claim that the City was negligent for not removing the hazard. This is the same reason we lost all of the majestic trees in Pardee Park.

Why is this situation different? Who are these neighbors?

Like this comment
Posted by Walter_E_Wallis
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 2, 2011 at 11:43 am

Walter_E_Wallis is a registered user.

Let's face it - trees are a crop. They grow, flourish and then die. That is what acorns are for. Get used to it.

Like this comment
Posted by keep tree please
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 2, 2011 at 9:16 pm

I support the OAK tree!!! Very important to keep our tall trees for the shade, for the creatures within this tree, and the beauty of an old old tree.

Like this comment
Posted by Walter_E_Wallis
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 3, 2011 at 5:00 am

Walter_E_Wallis is a registered user.

Then build a structure strong enough to support the damn tree. For about $50,000 you could make a steel frame to hold it up. Painted green, of course. Trees, yes. Tree, no.

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

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