Seeing the forest and the trees

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I stood dwarfed by towering coast live oaks and sycamores in an Arcadia woodland wonderland marked for destruction by the county Department of Public Works and Flood Control.

An older woman wearing sunglasses stopped to talk to me.

“This is a great place to walk because it is flat,” she volunteered.

“Whadya mean?”

“I can’t walk up in the mountains because it’s too steep. I’m 85.”

I didn’t say anything because I realized she was right. And because I hadn’t thought of it that way.

“Sometimes I’ll take my friend here, when they open the gate, and I push her in her wheelchair.”

“Yeah. My wife won’t hike with me in the mountains because the trails are too steep,” I told her.

The woman saw things that the county engineers, Board of Supervisors, EIR writers and bureaucrats had missed. The bigger picture. It is a special feeling being able to walk amid trees, birds and salamanders. Especially when you’re 85. Hiking up the Mount Wilson Trail or Mount Baldy is often for the experts, or the very in-shape. All nature preserves should be thought of as part of a big picture, as many parts of one whole.
“You would never know there are so many people living around here,” she said later on in the walk.

Again, she had something that we all missed. Saving trees is not the point. Saving a habitat is. It is the whole — or in this case an 11-acre stand which connects to the larger significant ecological area that extends to Altadena — that matters.

When the people who founded Chino Hills State Park called me to tell me they were upset about a proposed housing project for the ridgeline, I didn’t get it. “It’s better if the park guest can’t see houses, roofs, from inside the park. It is supposed to feel like being surrounded by nature,” someone explained to me.

Greedy? Maybe. But greedy for trees and birds.

When bringing my kids, my family, my friends to the Ben Overturf Trail above Monrovia, everyone would always say the same thing when they reached the part of the trail where the streams interconnect and the forest floor is bedded with a soft mattress of fallen leaves: “It doesn’t feel like civilization.”

I remember in the 1980s when I was working at the Orange County Register and a group fought to save the Newland House in Huntington Beach. I always considered it a hollow victory because, although the house was saved, the area around it was not. It is surrounded by a shopping center and a supermarket.

On both ends of the 11-acre stand in Arcadia are sediment dumps. Trucks pile up dirt removed from mountain dams. The reservoirs must hold water or risk flooding the neighborhoods. I realize it is an important part of the flood control task performed well by the county. In between is the stand of trees and a carved out dirt road. The county wants to split the acreage by “saving” the lower half and cutting down most of the oaks and sycamores from the top half. Cutting down trees that are between 100 and 170 years old to dump dirt and sediment is not holistic thinking. In fact, it’s just plain dumb. Yet, to engineers tasked to solve a particular problem, it makes sense.

They’re not looking at the whole.

Saying the lower half is saved is technically true, but not really. A raised conveyor belt humming along the forest with dirt and rocks will disrupt the nature experience of the average person out for a stroll. Just as the entrance to San Gabriel Canyon in Azusa is disrupted by the electronic buzz of mining machines and miles of conveyor belts and the occasional blasting from the mountain mining operation.

It’s the first thing riders on the river bike paths notice. It’s not “nature” until you ascend beyond the mining dust and the last tract home and see only trees.
But not everyone can climb that high.