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Loss of heritage trees at Oak Knoll School

Original post made by Carol Taggart 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 (12)

Posted by Martin Engel, a resident of Menlo Park: Park Forest
on May 25, 2008 at 4:34 pm

As a former Environmental Quality Commissioner and as someone who worked successfully to protect over one dozen heritage Sequoia sempervirens from being cut down in our common area, I commend Carol Taggart for her thoughtful and well researched comments.

Think about six heritage trees, four of them oaks, doomed to be destroyed at Oak Knoll School. Hello, it's "Oak Knoll School." The irony of cutting down heritage Oak trees at Oak Knoll School should not escape anyone. Furthermore, as our web site tells us in its very first sentence, Menlo Park is "a Tree City USA community . . . a quiet yet vibrant city of pleasant, tree-lined neighborhoods and friendly people." Apparently, some of our educators (more irony) are not so tree friendly. That's a pity. Unfortunately, what we have become in Menlo Park is bulldozer friendly.

Ms. Taggart, you have written a masterpiece and should send it to various press sources, including the Almanac, for publication.



Posted by Joanna, a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on May 25, 2008 at 9:13 pm

I think it is a shame for any deciduous tree to be felled.


Posted by truth, a resident of Menlo Park: Belle Haven
on May 25, 2008 at 10:02 pm

I agree with all three comments. I just can't seem to understand why the plans failed to save at least a few of the trees.


Posted by Tree hugger, a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on May 25, 2008 at 11:51 pm

While Oak Knoll sadly will bear a disproportionate loss of heritage trees, I would like to point out that the plans for Hillview Middle School also require removal of yet another magnificent heritage Oak tree along with a much used play area for young children. Despite the protestations of the School Board, their voting record clearly belies a set of values at odds with environmental principles espoused by many responsible Menlo Park residents. Checking off boxes on a "LEED" checklist does not absolve them of responsibility for destroying our cherished heritage trees in the first place. Their legacy will be remembered for posterity.


Posted by Maddie, a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on May 25, 2008 at 11:54 pm

Actually, the plans did save a few of the trees. By my count, a few isn't enough. Saving every last tree standing at that school should be the only option considered. It's all a question of priority. The school's priority seems to be that we move ahead with the project and upgrade to a more modern campus before we lose any more time and money. My priority is that we save the lives of trees and the birds that nest in them.


Posted by A second grader, a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on May 26, 2008 at 8:59 pm

As I sit here on my wooden chair, typing this on my wooden desk, I ask myself, where would we be without trees. I wouldn't have my wooden chair and my wooden desk without trees. The world would be a very very sad place indeed, if we were unable to cut down trees and use their wood.

My wooden pencil would be gone! There would be NO paper to write on. I often hear my classmates tell me that it is an oil based economy and the world runs on oil. But no, I tell them, it is really a tree-based world and we would be helpless without the ability to chop down trees and use their wood. I couldn't walk into my room or even live in my room if our wooden floors were taken away. We would be reduced to plastic and all those fake man made materials if we couldn't cut down trees. My house and all the houses surrounding Oak Knoll are made out of trees. Thank God for trees.

I know you like trees. So do I. Trees are not just for birds to live in or an Indian native tribe (Indians really loved using wood). Trees are for chopping down and using them for good things, like church pews or canes for little blind kids.

Sometimes trees get in the way of our plans for a new house or school. It doesn't mean we don't love trees when we chop them down so we have a place to learn or live, it just means we love them differently. I love trees too, just like I love Peanut Butter and Jelly sandwiches. Yum yum.


Posted by Kristin, a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on May 27, 2008 at 11:07 am

Dear Second Grader,

I invite you to read the wonderful and insightful story by Dr. Suess, The Lorax. Perhaps it will add to your understanding of how much we really do need trees.


Posted by CharmedButConfused, a resident of Menlo Park: other
on May 27, 2008 at 11:21 am

Dear "Second-Grader":

I enjoyed your post. "Using trees" is not the problem. The problem is choosing to remove old growth trees that are hundreds of years old when alternatives exist. Clearly my values will be reflected in the beliefs of my children and, I suspect, your parents values are reflected in your positions. The values that I hold are ones intended to preserve the quality of our planet for centuries to come -- not just our present comforts. I suggest you ask you parents how their values promote this end. If they do not know, I recommend balanced and information driven news sources (i.e., not Fox News). By the way, the bench you sit on, the floors you walk on, the pencil you write with can all be made from reclaimed/recycled lumber -- just as they are in my very comfortable newly remodeled home. The trees the school will cut down will, at best, go to a compost heap or, more likely, a landfill. Responsible use of our environment does not mean choosing between birds and "canes for blind children". It is always about making conscious choices to minimize the negative effects we humans have on the world around us. In addition to the Lorax, which is an excellent suggestion, ask your parents about complex non-linear systems and how they think that impacts on the current discussion. And if they do not know....


Posted by PeteorRepeat?, a resident of Menlo Park: other
on May 27, 2008 at 5:42 pm

Dear Second Grader,

Why bother to re-post *verbatim* what you already posted April 29th at 5:01pm in response to Maddie Napel's Almanac Editorial? I already know you love trees and PB&J sandwiches (as do I), but wouldn't it be more interesting if you made salient new points that added to the community discussion?

I'd like to think most of us like trees, as Menlo Park is the "city of trees", Oak Knoll is named for oaks, and both the city and mpcsd use an oak tree as their logo. Yet the mpcsd decided it was "ok" to exempt themselves from the city's heritage tree ordinance in the name of progress, declaring that their removal would have no significant negative environmental impacts on the community or nearby wildlife. Some of us are not "ok" with that decision, and are willing to speak up and say so.


Posted by ken chapetto, a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on May 27, 2008 at 10:30 pm

rumour has it that thneed shirts will be handed out by board members and school staff dressed as pinocchios at the annual otter run. That's so the kids won't miss the soon to be removed trees as they digest their PBJ's and koolaid.
Woody Woodpecker may yet have something on the Truaxes.


Posted by Elizabeth Lasensky, a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on May 28, 2008 at 3:20 pm

A great posting!

If our actions are what our children learn by, what kind of lesson do we teach our children by chopping down these magnificent trees and destroying important bird habits and possibly create future drainage and other issues?

When our children are taught about the environment in the classroom but the school board designs campuses that are so environmentally unfriendly, not only the trees but the amount of land devoted to cars, well, what are we really teaching them?

Thank you for speaking up, Carol!


Posted by just wondering, a resident of Menlo Park: Felton Gables
on May 28, 2008 at 8:47 pm

Would you say the same thing about the environment if they were taking out the trees to put in high density housing?


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