Planned felling of heritage trees at VA sparks outcry


Twenty-five trees, each marked with a spray-painted red X, are scheduled to be felled at the Menlo Park Veterans Affairs (VA) campus on Willow Road within the coming weeks, according to VA Public Affairs Officer Michael Hill-Jackson.

Twenty-four of those meet the city of Menlo Park's definition of a "heritage tree," which is usually means the tree trunk circumference reaches a specified measurement.

In Menlo Park, heritage trees are given certain protections, and require review by an arborist and sometimes the city's Environmental Quality Commission before they can be cut down.

The trees in question, however, are not – technically – in Menlo Park. They are on the VA's property, which is considered federal land. Different rules apply on federal land, and the VA is not required to comply with local tree protection ordinances.

According to a 2012 arborist report, eight of those on the VA campus were deemed to be in "fair to poor" condition, Mr. Hill-Jackson said.

Where the trees now stand is the site for planned additional parking for veterans, he said, noting that "parking for the campus is really tight right now."

A number of construction projects at the site will expand services for veterans when completed, he said, and the VA needs more parking to accommodate what he called a "growing need" for VA services as baby boomers age and more people return from current wars and conflicts.

"We need to address their concerns and create more facilities for them," he said.

Originally, plans called for cutting down 48 trees, but 23 of those will now be preserved.

After the 25 trees are cut down, the agency plans to plant 135 new trees elsewhere on the campus, Mr. Hill-Jackson said. Forty-one will be native oaks and 94 will be different species, he said.

Local outcry

News of the trees under threat spread quickly after an initial NextDoor posting was made by someone who had seen the red X's on the trees, located roughly in the southwest quadrant of the VA campus.

Over the following several days, the city received numerous emails from residents expressing concern about the trees' fate. The following are excerpts from several of the emails:

"I live in the Menlo Oaks Area of Menlo Park, just blocks from the VA. I find it appalling and inexcusable that there is such disregard for saving the amazing Heritage Oak trees which are to be cut down to make a recreational area for the patients," wrote Marilyn Wong, a resident of Menlo Oaks.

"I understand the VA is on Federal land and they do not need to respect city rule, but we do pay more than our fair share of taxes and they owe us a conversation on what we can do together to come up with a different plan, one that does not involve removing these giants," wrote Pracheeti Nagarkar Desai, a self-described new resident of Menlo Park's Willows neighborhood.

"This is outrageous, and completely impacts the tone and tenor of our neighborhood. It affects all of us by removing trees that provide privacy from their operation, and has deep environmental impacts on our homes too," wrote Amy Baggott, a Menlo Oaks resident.

"The VA needs to respect our native plants. It is possible to happily co-exist," wrote Margo McAuliffe, a Linfield Oaks resident.

One neighborhood group that has rallied to the side of the trees is Menlo Oaks Tree Advocacy, a roughly year-old organization that aims to preserve heritage trees in the Menlo Oaks neighborhood. While the VA trees are not within Menlo Oaks, some organization members were concerned that residents who live on Berkeley Avenue in Menlo Park would be positioned near some of the trees that are targeted for removal.

Janet Goff, who is affiliated with the Menlo Oaks Tree Advocacy group, said she objects to the trees being cut for several reasons. She pointed to language in a VA press release that stated, "Studies have shown that patients with outdoor views and access to trees heal more quickly and with fewer complications. Research also suggests that trees and greenery reduce stress and improve overall mental health. A campus full of healthy trees creates a more positive and calming setting for service men and women who are healing."

"There's a big loss when you cut down these trees," she said. Trees provide air pollutant filtration, oxygen and an environment that is "nurturing and calming," she noted. Plus, compared with other trees, heritage oaks are fairly drought-resistant and don't require additional water.

"We're kind of mystified as to why anyone would cut them down," she said.

Cutting down trees can also be expensive, she said. According to Menlo Park city arborist Christian Bonner, the cost of tree removal ranges from several hundred to several thousand dollars and up.

"The VA has bigger fish to fry than landscaping," said Ms. Goff in an interview.

"They have long wait lists, a lot of need, and not enough funds and resources."

City response

Chip Taylor, Menlo Park's assistant city manager, told the Almanac that he hopes the VA will have a chance to "hear the concerns we've heard."

Ultimately, though, the fate of the trees lies outside the city's control. "We can't approve or deny anything there," he said.

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