Upland City Officials are disputing the widespread notion that the city’s current arrangement with the concern that cares for the city’s publicly owned trees involves a conflict of interest that has led to the actual or slated destruction of a considerable portion of those trees. Those officials are further downplaying the suggestion that the city is on the verge of deepening its entanglement with that company.
Early last month controversy erupted when the city council at its May 9 meeting adjourned into a closed session and was provided with a so-called action report that was authored either by a city consultant or the city attorney. After the council members read the report, all of the copies were collected by top city staff. The council then voted while yet in the closed session, according to city attorney Richard Adams, to “accept” the report. When some residents sought to pry from city officials what, precisely, the implication of accepting the report was, they were rebuffed, and city officials conceded only that the report pertained to the city’s trees.
For many Upland residents, the condition of the city’s publicly-owned trees is a critical consideration. Many consider the so-called urban forest, which consists of all order of trees that line both sides of Euclid Avenue and blanket Euclid’s 53-foot wide median, as the city’s most distinguishing feature. The Euclid median was the brainchild of George and William Chaffey, the founders of Ontario and Upland. The Chaffey Brothers laid out Euclid, running some seven miles from the south end of Ontario north to San Antonio Heights north of Upland at the foothills below Mt. San Antonio, in the 1880s. Originally, the 53-foot wide median boasted a horse-drawn trolley. The trolley has given way to what is referred to as a bridle path but which is utilized mostly as a walking or jogging trail lying between dual rows of trees, including fern pines, silk oaks and California peppers. In South Ontario, both sides of Euclid serve as a dense commercial zone. As Euclid progresses northward, in north Ontario and through most of Upland, Euclid traverses several designated historic districts, with craftsman homes and civic buildings, including some dating from the late 19th Century lining either side of the avenue. The nearly seven-mile-long median is considered one of the most resplendent such public amenities in the nation, comparing favorably to similar but less substantial medians in Palo Alto, Dearborn, Michigan and Philadelphia and rivaling tree lined avenues and boulevards internationally, such as those in Paris, Melbourne and Park Lane in England.
In the days prior to the May 9 meeting, either city employees or the city’s consultant had marked in excess of 120 trees with orange dots, a symbol arborists recognize as designating a tree for removal. This had resulted, prior to the May 9 meeting, in a spate of emails and exchanges on social media, alerting the community to the city’s proposed action.
During the open public session of the May 9 meeting, which followed the closed session at which the action report was accepted by the council, Rusty Cushing, a member of Upland’s tree street committee, publicly resigned from that panel, stating that the marked trees were in fact slated for removal. He said that the street tree committee had been kept in the dark about the plan to remove the trees. While acknowledging that many or all of the city’s trees were somewhat worse for wear because of the drought, he insisted that the trees were not diseased and should not be considered eligible for removal. He blasted city engineer/public works director Rosemary Hoerning for having long neglected the trees by not having pruned and trimmed them in a timely manner. He said that city officials, led by the public works department, were moving to irresponsibly remove the trees rather than attempting to save them. An agronomist who has taught horticulture at Cal Poly, Cushing accused Hoerning of hiring a consultant, Fred Roth, to provide her with a disingenuous report justifying the removal of the trees. He said the tree committee and the Upland population at large included professional arborists whose assessment of the trees’ conditions contradicted the conclusion of the city’s consultant.
During the ensuing two weeks, city officials expressed dismay at the adverse publicity and press attention that resulted from Cushing’s broadside. Cushing had layered inaccuracies into his statement, city officials said, misleading many into believing the city was going to take far more drastic steps than they actually intended. City manager Rod Butler, while referencing “major issues” with both trees in the median and along both sides of Euclid as well as on the city’s west side that involved “decay… aging… [and] the drought,” accused Cushing of engaging in hyperbole and scare tactics. Rather than removing somewhere between 120 and 180 trees, the plan was actually to take out just 76 of them, a mere 2.17 percent of 3,500 trees growing along Euclid or in its median in Upland, Butler insisted. In an apparent attempt to backpedal, city officials began removing or painting over some of the orange dots.
Begrudgingly acknowledging that they had opened themselves to criticism because of the manner in which they had proceeded with marking the trees and not communicating with the city’s residents, city officials nevertheless faulted Cushing for needlessly alarming the public, accusing him of engaging in a personal vendetta against Hoerning and being both overbearing and tactless in his approach.
This elicited a response from Cushing, who, having unearthed that the city paid $38,000 to Roth for his assessment, reiterated that there were Upland residents and community volunteers who were certicated and qualified to inspect the city’s trees, including a member of the street tree committee, for no charge. Roth’s hiring, Cushing said, “was a waste of money,” intended to provide a foreordained conclusion that would alleviate the public works department of carrying out the extensive work to save the trees that were for too long neglected, as well as the maintenance effort to prevent more trees from being removed in the future. “How much tree trimming and tree planting could we do for $38,000?” Cushing asked.
Cushing and a certificated arborist who lives in Upland, John Ickis, have been highly critical of not only Roth but the company, West Coast Arborists, with which the city contracts for tree maintenance.
Over a period of several years, Upland had a contract with Anaheim-based West Coast Arborists for the maintenance of its trees, including during the crucial period corresponding with the drought and what many residents have observed as the years of neglect that led to the decline of the urban forest. Since the contract has expired, West Coast Arborists has continued in the role of maintaining the trees, doing so on a month-to-month basis at a rate consistent with the per month prorated cost contained in the expired contract. According to West Coast, it is, by working at the rate specified in a contract signed several years ago, providing Upland with a discount. There have been hints that the company is pressuring the city to again enter into a long term contract. One report is that under discussion is a contract that would entail the City of Upland, West Coast Arborists and the City of Fontana entering into a tripartite contract that would, because of economies of scale and a longer term guarantee, provide both Upland and Fontana with the services of West Coast Arborists for an extended period of time at a price below that which either city might negotiate separately.
Cushing and Ickis have expressed their view that further and deeper entanglement between Upland and West Coast Arborists is not advisable. The neglect of the trees during that company’s tenure in Upland is at the basis of the current urban forest crisis, they point out. Moreover, the terms of the arrangement between the city and West Coast allows West Coast to harvest the wood from the trees that are cut down for processing into lumber at the sawmill the company operates, and to thereafter sell the wood at a considerable profit.
Cushing said he is astounded that city officials do not recognize this as an unacceptable conflict of interest. That they do not, he said, is a combination of their ignorance with regard to trees in general, the lumber industry as well as their misplaced trust in Roth as well as West Coast Arborists.
“Lumber from healthy living trees is far more valuable than the wood from a dead tree,” Cushing said. Noting that Upland’s urban forest is composed of many types of trees, including liquid amber, silk oak, fern pines and California pepper, Cushing pointed out that the lion’s share of the trees slated for removal are the California pepper and the silk oaks. The silk oaks are extremely rare and valuable, Cushing said, and make excellent lumber, representing a sale potential of several thousand dollars.
“Those are trees they want for their sawmills, so those are the ones that are going to get cut down,” Cushing said.
Ickis told the city council last month, “These trees are of very high value and should not be sold as furniture or sculptures by your unethical tree contractor.”
Upland Assistant City Manager Jeannette Vagnozzi insisted that “no conflict” existed. The city had used, she said “separate arborists” in terms of making the determination as to which trees should be preserved or removed.
“West Coast Arborists do not determine which trees are going to be removed,” she said. “It is Dr Roth who is examining the trees. He gets no kickback from West Coast Arborists for any determination he makes.”
Vagnozzi said charging the city with neglecting the trees was both unfair and inaccurate. All trees in the city, she said were being trimmed, manicured or pruned on a five year rotating basis. “Saying they are not being taken care of is not true,” she said. “We have a grid maintenance system. She conceded that the trees were not being provided with optimal care but that it was adequate.
“When you have financial difficulties you have to balance your resources,” she said. “What we are doing is sufficient. It is an acceptable system used by many municipalities. However, in addition to a system of maintenance, the trees have to be assessed periodically for overall health.”
She defended the hiring of Roth, saying the job of evaluating the city’s public trees was too vast to be carried out by volunteers who have other professional and time commitments. Moreover, she said, Roth is highly qualified and utilizing him in that role provided the city with indemnification that using volunteers would not.
She dismissed as “sensationalism” the charge that the city was looking to destroy trees pell-mell. “Ask yourself:” she said, “Why would we want to destroy these trees that so many people in this city love and that is such a big part of our community identity?”
She dismissed suggestions that the withholding of the action report that was reviewed in the May 9 closed session was an illegitimate effort to keep the destruction of the trees secret until their removal was a fait accompli. Of note, she did not justify withholding the report on the basis of the liability issue some have alleged the report dealt with, an impression that was furthered by city attorney Richard Adams intimating at the time that the report pertained to a significant issue of potential litigation. Rather, Vagnozzi said, the report was withheld because it was in draft form at that time and for discussion with city council and legal counsel from a liability standpoint. She said that the report is completed and would be publicly released at the June 13 council meeting pending council approval to do so.
As to the suggestion that Upland is about to double down on its relationship with West Coast Arborists by entering into a three-way contract with the company and the City of Fontana, Vagnozzi said, “That has not officially been discussed. It might have been part of a list of options.”
She said West Coast Arborists continues to work for Upland “on a month-to-month basis.”
Nick Alago, an Upland resident and West Coast Arborist employee assigned to oversee Upland’s trees, told the Sentinel, “Our contract is up and we have agreed to work under the terms of that contract on a month-to-month basis until the city signs a new contract, either with us or some other company. We weren’t going to just leave the city hanging.”
To inquiries as to whether West Coast Arborists was progressing toward a tripartite contract involving his company, Upland and Fontana, Alago said, “I think what you are referring to is a piggyback arrangement with other cities. When we sign a new contract with one city, another city can adopt that contract. They are able to do that within one year. Whether Upland is considering following Fontana, I could not tell you. I am not involved in the inner city works.”
Alago was dismissive of suggestions that some order of conflict existed as a consequence of his company operating a lumber processing plant, and that this conflict had resulted in healthy California pepper and Silk Oaks being sacrificed to augment West Coast Arborist’s bottom line.
“That wood is junk,” Alago said. “Silk oak makes you itch. Neither of those woods make premium lumber. For anybody to say that, they don’t know anything about wood. Oak and elm make a usable product. We do have a mill. We try to recycle. When we get wood that is good for lumber, we deliver that back to the community.”
He said Upland was striving to perform adequate maintenance and upkeep of its trees.
“The city has developed a grid preventative maintenance program system,” he said. “They have five grids. We trim to acceptable International Society of Arboriculture standards. If someone has any objections, they should address it with me personally.”
Dr. Roth on June 9 told the Sentinel that he and his two colleagues had completed his survey of Upland’s trees the previous day. He said he could not say with absolute exactitude how many trees would need to come down. “I cannot say at this point because I still need to compile the last three days of my examination data,” Roth said. He ventured an estimate of somewhat fewer than 180 trees needing to be removed. “I would say less than 80 silk oaks and as for the pepper trees, I very much doubt the number will exceed 100,” he said of the numbers that will be consigned for removal from the Euclid median and from the parkways lining both sides of Euclid.
The pepper trees occupy the median and the silk oaks are confined to the parkways.
Roth concurred that the tree controversy in Upland hinges on Euclid Avenue.
“Euclid is ground zero,” he said.
“Some things can be done for the trees,” he said. “Many of the silk oaks can be mitigated by pruning. I doubt that we will exceed that number . I think it will be very close to that.”
Roth objected to the application of the term “diseased” to the trees. “I am a plant pathologist,” he said. “Diseases of wood are every bit as complex as diseases of animals. I might say that many of these trees are in decline, but I am not engaged in diagnosing disease. My charge was to identify, to determine what trees represent a risk to the community. I want to make it clear I was not diagnosing the trees. Their condition is not a concern beyond conditions that cause poor structure. A healthy tree can still have poor structure. Tree health is only a part of that issue. We are also looking at root involvement as part of structural safety. Unless people have adequate training they may get confused on that point.”
Roth cleared the city of having neglected its urban forest.
“I do not think what you have was caused by a lack of maintenance by the city,” he said. “Some of these trees were planted 130 years ago. If we are talking about recent maintenance, it is not neglect causing the current concern. On the other hand, I think I can say that some of the poor structure and hazard was caused by poor treatment by Caltrans over a long period long prior to the city assuming responsibility.”
Euclid Avenue, also known as State Route 83, was formerly maintained by California Department of Transportation. The state relinquished it to local control in 2008.
“Caltrans topped the trees severely during their time,” Roth said. “Some of the structural defects are the direct result of the trees being topped.”
Resident concern that some of the trees are to be removed is misplaced, Roth said.
“My understanding is the city’s intention, the city’s goal, is to preserve the stand of trees,” Roth said. “Removed trees will be replaced. On Euclid, my understanding is pepper trees will be replaced with pepper trees and silk oaks will be replaced with silk oaks. There is no question that the goal of the city is to maintain the character of Euclid Avenue. My philosophy is no tree can be maintained into perpetuity. Trees for a variety of reasons will die or become dangerous. You can’t maintain them for ever. Even the redwoods who live more than 2,000 years will come down eventually. But you can keep a stand alive and thriving. That requires replacement of the individual trees that become dangerous or go into decline. You can keep the stand intact. That is what the city is trying to do and at same time trying to avoid injury and property damage from trees that have been identified as unacceptable. I could take you onto Euclid Avenue and point them out. It doesn’t take an expert to see what is likely to happen. People should not see a single tree as a memorial to someone. If you want to have someone remembered, plant a grove of trees. We can keep a grove alive by replacing the individuals as they need to be. There is nothing wrong with having younger trees replacing the older trees.”
In response to the suggestion that there were certified arborists living in the community that could have taken on the evaluative assignment he had conducted, Roth said, “I don’t know what the dedication level would be of someone serving as a volunteer for the city. I don’t know what the number of those interested would be. With my two colleagues, we worked more than two months to do the survey. That would seem beyond the resources of a volunteer or three volunteers. That is just my opinion. There were three of us doing the work. I would not think to question the dedication or expertise of a volunteer, but it would be an extreme commitment if they were to do this on a volunteer basis.”
Roth was dismissive of the accusations that the city, he and its contract tree maintenance workers were seeking to harm the urban forest.
“Let’s make an assumption, that is false to begin with, that the city has an idea ahead of time of what answer they want here, which is to remove the trees, and another false assumption that they have hired a consultant who will give them that answer,” Roth postulated. “Under those two false assumptions, why would a staff member want to remove trees that are highly treasured by the city’s residents and make a policy change to remove those trees, unless that staff member wanted to be fired? I cannot see any city personnel wanting this firestorm. It is beyond me that people are saying the city wanted to remove trees and that they found some specious reason to do that. It would have been more sensible for them to ignore the hazards and liabilities and to just let them fall. What these people are saying is beyond credibility.”
Roth said that it was true that the silk oak lumber “can be used for furniture.” He said, however, “It cannot be used for structural use. It has not been tested for that. Silk oaks are not widely used. They are not widely used here. There simply is not an industry that uses silk oaks for that purpose in California. People have used silk oaks for furniture in Hawaii, where it is considered an invasive species. It does make nice looking cabinets and furniture. I don’t know of anyone using it commercially here, though. The question has arisen as to what happens to trees when they are cut down. I am aware that West Coast Arborists’ operation has a small sawmill, but the product that comes out of that sawmill is not a profit center for them. They rescue some wood from the urban forest to make small items they use for promotion.”
As for this constituting a conflict of interest, Roth said, “There is none, whatsoever. I don’t know who would be conflicted. I am not part of West Coast Arborists. I and my associates are making an independent evaluation. They are simply doing the work we are recommending. I see no problem if they use some of the wood for furniture that might go to be used as firewood otherwise.”
Roth said the criticism that was leveled at him had reached the level of absurdity.
“I can tell you some of the most ridiculous things I have ever heard about myself are part of this episode,” he said. “I have been besmirched as being a conspirator in this. I have heard this statement that the logs from these trees are worth a thousand dollars each. This wood is not good for structures. No industry is cutting them up and making money on what is coming out of the urban forest. All we are engaged in is an effort to keep the stand functioning and preserve the character of Euclid, not just today, but tomorrow and tomorrow’s tomorrow, basically for the children of people who are here today. Some people hate change. Removing a tree is clearly a change, but it is a change that preserves the stand.”
Cushing told the Sentinel that the true reason behind the city’s push to remove so many trees, which totals more than 350 trees around the city including the approximate 180 on Euclid, is that “the public works division wants to decrease the city’s tree inventory to reduce maintenance costs.”
Cushing said the city could have headed off the problems it is now facing by “properly pruning and trimming the trees on a consistent basis.”
Ickis disputed both Alago and Roth’s characterization of the quality of silk oak lumber, pointing out that “The silk oak, Grevillea robusta, is a tree that produces an attractively figured, easily worked wood, which was once a leading face veneer in world trade. It was marketed as ‘lacewood.’ They are going to sell those trees.”
Ickis echoed Cushing’s contention that the city had in large measure created the crisis by neglecting the upkeep and maintenance of the trees. He contradicted Vagnozzi, saying, “She is not qualified to make statements about the quality of pruning that is being done. She knows nothing about trees. What are her qualifications to be making these statements? Does she know how often the trees should be pruned based on the way they have been trained or pruned in the past? Ask her how the trees were pruned prior to the city taking over Euclid from Caltrans eight years ago. How many times has the city pruned the trees since Caltrans gave it millions of dollars when Euclid was given to the city? A 5-year cycle is not ‘adequate.’ Ask her to prove they were trimmed in the last five years. They have not been ‘adequately’ pruned in the last five years. The silk oaks have not been pruned in way over five years and that is why branches keep falling off of them, creating a ‘liability.’ This is all about reducing their inventory and cutting down on maintenance cost. These trees are very difficult to trim properly because they are so large and haven’t been trimmed in a long time.”
Ickis asked, “Is there anyone at the city who can make the determination that West Coast Arborist’s practices are ‘adequate?’ Nobody watches them because no one on city staff cares or is qualified to care for trees. It’s like asking the fox to watch the hen house.”