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Planned Disposal of Six Heritage Trees on the Oak Knoll School Property Site

Original post made by Carol Taggart, Menlo Park, on May 25, 2008

This summer, most likely mid- to late-June, six heritage trees at Oak Knoll School in Menlo Park will be destroyed. During the span of one-hundred fifty to four-hundred fifty years their roots have hugged the earth and through them sent nourishment up through massive trunks into far-reaching branches and leaves. In turn, the canopies of these trees – four oaks, a pine, and Joshua tree have provided shelter and food for a myriad of birds, and squirrels. For the many children who have played there, they have provided shelter from the sun and rain, and for all of us, beauty. Soon, these mighty oxygen-producing trees will be gone, and for four of those trees a grassy soccer field, with demands for water, will be their replacement.

During the twenty-four years I taught at this school, the trees were always a delight for scavenger hunts, bird identification, and in the fall observation of the gathering of acorns pounded into the oaks’ individually drilled holes carved out perfectly by Acorn Woodpeckers. In the spring there was always the joy of watching birds carrying material to nests, and it would be impossible to count the many times baby birds, accidentally fallen from their nests, were brought into my classroom for rescue.

I agree with Kent Steffens, Director of Public Works for Menlo Park, when he stated in a letter to the Menlo Park City School District (MPCSD), “The School District is encouraged to use every reasonable effort to preserve heritage-sized trees at Oak Knoll School.”

To do so, in planning for new additional buildings, a soccer field, and parking lots at Oak Knoll School, the school board could have made the decision to adopt the Menlo Park Heritage Tree Ordinance, thereby saving the trees and planning around them. Instead, they chose to exempt itself from that city ordinance. In addition, the Board could have chosen a full-blown non-partial Environmental Impact Report, as they did at Encinal School. They chose otherwise.

What the Board did choose was to adopt the Negative Declaration Report, and voted for its passage the evening of May 8th, 2008, which states in part that there will be no negative impact resulting from disposal of the six heritage trees.

In order to conclude that there would be “no impact” by the removal of heritage trees, to my knowledge the MPCSD Board or their lawyers have never requested any advice or information from USFW, The Audubon Society, or any other environmental organization. I have spoken with high-ranking personnel of several of these organizations, and they concur there has never been any communication regarding the trees with the MPCSD.

Incredibly, the report states that removal will not “interfere with movement…of native residents…or use of native wildlife nursery sites” because it claims “There are no natural habitats within the vicinity that would attract native residents or migratory species.” One has only to walk under and in the vicinity of the trees to see the many woodpecker holes used by numerous cavity-nesting bird species, and to watch bird flight and activity among the trees. One of the oaks slated for removal is used as a granary tree for acorn storage in the fall and winter by native woodpeckers.

The report further declares that the project would have impact upon biological resources if there’s “substantial direct or indirect effect on species identified as a candidate…by the California Department of Fish and Game or US Fish and Wildlife Service or any species protected under provisions of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.” The response is “No Impact”. The Burrowing Owl is given as an example, which leads me to believe there has been some confusion between the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) on the part of the authors of the Negative Declaration. It is indeed correct to say that there are no endangered birds on the Oak Knoll School campus, but it is completely false to claim that there are no bird species on this property protected by MBTA.

Additionally, the “No Impact” conclusion is faulty in that it fails to mention the six heritage trees planned for removal, and amazingly makes no mention of any bird activity at all. The numerous native species of birds that live and migrate between and within the six heritage trees planned for removal are fully protected under the MBTA. The report also concludes that “there are no unique habitats within the property”. I guess that depends on one’s definition of “unique”.

When the time comes to take down these magnificent trees, I am terribly concerned about possible harm and/or disposal of nesting birds. The Acorn Woodpecker, for example, may have two or even three broods in a season which makes it very possible there could be nesting throughout this summer.

Once these trees are gone, they will be gone forever, some of which date back to the time when the Pilgrims first arrived on our eastern shores. I can’t help but think, years from now when photographs and stories are shown of the massive trees that once stood at the Oak Knoll School site, people will wonder, “What were those people thinking to have destroyed so much beauty and wildlife right in their own backyard?”

I wonder how we can teach the children of today, Earth’s guardians of tomorrow, the importance of conservation and caring for our earth when we, the adults, choose to dispose of our irreplaceable trees and diminish habitat for other living creatures.

Destroying these magnificent trees that have given so much for so long is an indescribable tragedy. If there was a magic wand that would change the hearts and minds of those who have made what I believe to be a horrific decision, I would welcome it with extreme joy!

Carol Taggart,
Retired Oak Knoll School teacher and Menlo Park resident

Comments (1)

Like this comment
Posted by Tania
a resident of South of Midtown
on May 26, 2008 at 9:52 am

Do not dramatize the "harm and/or disposal of nesting birds", they will quickly find a new home.

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