Sedona, Arizona

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Barking Up the Wrong Tree?

No town can fail of beauty though its walks were gutters and its houses hovels if venerable trees make magnificent colonnades along its streets. – Henry Ward Beecher

Bringing people together

Strauch also went the extra mile by communicating with upset residents and posting notes on the tree blog so that people could come together in a pro-active effort to resolve the problem – the very thing that needed to happen.

“What I see is a horrendous lack of discourse and communication between the parties based upon incomplete understanding of the facts,” Strauch wrote in the Save Sedona Trees blog. “The critical issue and mistake being made is listening to one side at a time.

It produces no resolution – only charges and countercharges like an endless tennis game.”

Reminding residents that some trees were going to be lost, he said: “There has never been an ‘Immaculate Construction.’ I only wish that a joint communiqué can be issued by both parties that will put to rest the stirred controversy and fully explain the rationale.”

Many other busy people stepped forward to initiate the dialogue, especially Sedona resident Char Thomas, who showed up at all the meetings and protests. A former attorney, she offered her mediation skills to help remedy the situation, sending regular e-mail updates to those involved in the fray to keep everyone informed.

Creating solutions

After a succession of meetings between ADOT, city officials, tree advocates and community activists, the sun finally broke through the clouds.

With pressure from the city, Tlaquepaque and Save Sedona Trees advocates, ADOT officials decided to reevaluate the road design. As a result, they succeeded in creating a number of refinements to salvage most of the sycamores in question by relocating the storm drain and redesigning a sidewalk, as well as stabilizing the creek bank. They also retained a certified arborist to minimize the impact on the trees’ root systems.

This is what happens when individuals take a stand. Law’s passion and impetus led to a small but visible citizens’ movement that eventually ensured the continuing existence of these environmental “crown jewels” that were hitherto facing unnecessary removal after 300 years of withstanding every storm and obstacle to their existence.

Sedona City Councilman Harvey Stearn noted: “Jim Law was huge in making the community aware. As a result, ADOT made a change where there would have been massive destruction. And Tom O’Halleran was huge in preserving Tlaquepaque.”

All that was needed in the end was for city and state officials to engage in a meeting of the minds, with a former city leader taking the initiative to bring everyone together.

Making it work

Seven out of eight sycamores in question were salvaged by making adjustments to the original design plan. While the cost factors are there, both ADOT and the city agreed it was worth it to preserve a vital part of Sedona’s heritage.

The sycamore issue wasn’t simply about trees; it was about the public’s right to question and to reevaluate community affairs even after prior planning sessions and forums. If something doesn’t seem right, people need to speak up and question without fear of appearing like fools or Johnny-come-lately's.

Law reminded people of this when he said: “As a landscape contractor for over 19 years, ANY time we were doing an installation, if things just didn't look right, we ALWAYS make adjustments.”

We can also replace rampant emotions with balanced dialogue – not through e-mails, but with both sides coming together to listen to another in a dignified manner and in a state of grace.

Sedona: setting a precedent for America

Residents already set a precedent for grass-roots citizen action with the highway planning process a few years ago. ADOT Project Manager Carl Burkhalter said: "Perhaps SR 179 was one of the most groundbreaking public planning processes ever and the biggest in Arizona so far.”

Save Sedona Trees carried that grass-roots torch from The Voice of Choice.

Sedona now has the opportunity to set more examples for other communities with regard to the issues that face us: immigration, drought, land use, housing, economic development, the environment, living wages and sustainable living in general.

Let’s become a real trend-setter for the rest of America instead of just a sad microcosm of everything that’s wrong with it. We can put Sedona on another map instead of just the tourism one - as the city that set a new course for others to follow with leadership by example.

Our work has just begun. Let’s roll up our sleeves and start working together to pave a better future. The trees just taught us that we can do it.


What have we learned?


10 Lessons in Preventative Community Planning


Certainly this recent uproar serves as a wake-up call for the Sedona community to pay more attention and for all residents to become more involved in future public matters. What other lessons can we gain from this experience? Only by analyzing where and how we dropped the ball will we be able to prevent a reoccurrence of this situation.

Lesson 1 – Gather all the facts.

We lack proper public channels of information exchange as a society and as a community. The lack of clear evidence or a rational presentation of the facts led to mass confusion.

Marlene Rayner of the Sierra Club summed it up this way: “It’s important for people in a community to see exactly what changes have been made and what’s going to happen. We must remember to do these things up front.”

Lesson 2 – Pro-active, joint dialogue is the only way to resolve a crisis.

Despite all of our electronic communications technology, we seem unable to come together collectively and talk.

While the Internet serves its purpose with blogs and e-mails, Sedona still remains without a central forum, town square, Hyde Park or some semblance of a community center where people can gather to exchange ideas and information, especially during a crisis.

We cannot allow technology to eliminate face-to-face communication. And we will never resolve our problems without coming to the table with open minds and hearts.

Lesson 3 – Residents must actively participate in their communities.

We live in a world where we can no longer leave vital decisions up to others. We must all take the responsibility to play a more active role in the decisions that affect us and speak our minds on community issues.

We must ask questions and relinquish the “Let Johnny do it” attitude. Ernie Strauch could have kept out of the fray, chalking it up to “retirement.” But those committed to their communities are never truly retired.

In addition, only a small number of residents showed up at Sedona City Council on the evening it was scheduled to vote on the use of pesticide spraying – a critical issue that poses a serious documented health risk to both humans and animals.

While those few who were present succeeded in swaying the decision for the benefit of public health, how many who didn’t attend would have protested the consequences after the fact if the city had voted to proceed with using the toxic chemicals?

Lesson 4 – Stand up for your truth.

Jim Law came under much public criticism and personal attack. But he stood his ground much like a sycamore because he remained deeply rooted to his convictions.

His action brought people together and led to some design alterations that eliminated the need to remove a good number of the trees, as well as helping to restore people’s faith in their leaders. The final resolution created a win-win for everyone – ADOT, the city, the residents and the trees themselves.

But it took one person to come forward and ask hard questions. In today’s social and political climate, every citizen needs to act as an investigative reporter.

Lesson 5 – Silence and denial will get us nowhere.

The initial silence when the matter broke was deafening. There were no public statements from community leaders on the blogs or in the local papers.

Newspapers failed to properly address public concern and ask officials tough questions. But they quoted ADOT with unchallenged reverence while tree activists were downplayed in the press. The stories offered only small chunks of a multifaceted issue that resembled a giant block of Swiss cheese growing more holes each day.

There were no in-depth interviews with key activists such as Law, or with Tlaquepaque operator Wendy Lippman who had several allegations of her own. As an active member of the Sedona community and a prominent businesswoman, Lippman was left on her own to save trees that are not only an inherent component of her landmark operation, but of Sedona as well, without visible support from the business community.

Are we ashamed to admit error or oversight – and how might we as a community be in denial of that?

Lesson 6 – Community leaders must be willing to take a stand.

On August 16, Law posted the following alert on his blog: “Some residents have asked: How can this have happened in a highway reconstruction plan that was approved by a committee of local citizens during the planning process? And why, no matter how late in the game, is no one from the city or state responding to the public outcry?”

It took a retired city councilman and a busy state senator to bring people together to the table and the tree matter to final resolution.

Where was the direction from city leaders and community organizations during the heat of public outcry? Some responded to this newspaper’s request for statements, such as City Manager Eric Levitt and City Councilman Rob Adams. But most either remained silent or passed the buck to other sources – perhaps because they themselves were baffled by all the contradictions.

While some of this is understandable, real leadership admits when it’s unsure or doesn’t have answers. That alone would have eased the minds of many residents.

So we must ask: Do we withhold our true opinions for fear of public criticism? Do we pass the buck during a local protest on to state agencies, even if the issue doesn’t fall under the city’s jurisdiction? How do we define true leadership?

Lesson 7 – Identify where and how we place our trust.

On September 11, ADOT presented its proposal for refinements to the road improvement plan before City Council. During that meeting, Mayor Pud Colquitt said: "It’s important that we establish a certain level of trust here in our community with ADOT.”

Do we trust our officials to address the issues properly? Do we trust our media to ask the right questions? Do we trust ADOT in its statements? Can we trust other citizens to serve our interests when they represent us at public meetings? Do we trust each other?

Can we trust our agencies to uphold and safeguard what’s best for us and in the environment? It’s no different than asking if we trust our elected leaders to properly represent our interests. Likewise, can we trust our fellow citizens to make vital decisions for us in our absence?

We must become more rigorous in cross-examining our government agencies and planning systems on every level. Individually, we must stand accountable for our lack of participation in decision-making processes – from public elections to community issues. We can no longer leave vital matters in other hands; we must take them into our own or live with the consequences.

Lesson 8 – Think outside of the box.

Are there solutions lurking in a seemingly impossible situation? ADOT managed to find positive alternatives to save a number of the trees that would have originally been lost. It redesigned the sidewalks and relocated storm drains. It found a way to make refinements in order to protect part of Sedona’s heritage.

Why couldn’t these adjustments have been made in the first place? What needs to be addressed in future projects to ensure that such aspects do not become overlooked again?

Lesson 9 – Practice compassionate listening.

In order for communities to solve their problems, citizens are going to have to learn how to control their emotions and open up to compassionate listening to other points of view. By loosening our grip on presumptions and an inability to walk in the shoes of other people, we miss out on a world of possibilities that can bring matters to a quicker resolve.

Name-calling, rash judgments, abusive labels and finger-pointing should be left with toddlers in sandboxes who don’t know any better.

Lesson 10 – We are all connected.

The root of the tree problem can be summed up in two words: separation and disconnect.

The sycamores were not the problem during the recent community fray, nor was the road or ADOT or the city. The problem is that we as a people remain fragmented in a state of separation from nature and from each other.

“Everything is connected to everything else,” Strauch declared during the mayhem. This is a concept that must be kept in the forefront of all personal and collective decisions.

The condemnation of individuals; the slandering e-mails that attacked persons by name; and even a few residents who, without any journalism background, felt that they needed to tell this paper how it should report the issue – all of it is shameful and a useless expenditure of energy.

How do we manage our angry emotional response mechanisms? When we realize that we are all connected, it will reduce the need for anger and lead to mutually beneficial outcomes for the highest good of all.

The Sedona Observer extends special appreciation to Lin Ennis, a full-time Sedona resident and writer, for all the time and energy she devoted to provide information for this article.

 Secrets of the Sycamores

What treasures do these magnificent trees hold?

by Catherine Rourke

October 21, 2007

Follow the reporter as she sits under one to find out.

Learn some amazing facts about trees and why their presence is critical to human health and survival.



                                                                                        Photo by Graham Spence

                          I never before knew the full value of trees. Under them I breakfast, dine, write, read and receive my company.                                                                                                                                             - Thomas Jefferson


Forget about ADOT, charrettes, roads and roundabouts. Let’s focus on the trees themselves for a moment.

Why all the fuss? Why should we sweat it over a dozen or so stumps? Man needs paper, furniture, particle board – and roads, right? So what if we lose a few trunks in the process? After all, like Ronald Reagan once said, “A tree is just a tree. How many more do we need?”

These were some of the comments overheard around town as the tree debate escalated late this summer. So I decided to do some research on trees to see what I could find.

Nature’s nuclear power plants

Do trees have more to offer than lumber, firewood and fruit? What about food and shelter for birds and animals? How about simple shade and sheer beauty? Trees actually supply the planet with far more than most people realize.

One large tree can:

  • provide a day’s oxygen for four people
  • absorb noise
  • release up to 400 gallons of water into the atmosphere each day
  • filter dust and remove a wide range of toxic pollutants, such as ozone, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide, airborne ammonia and sulphur dioxide, from the atmosphere
  • trap 75 percent of the carbon monoxide produced by the average car
  • filter 7,000 dust particles per liter of air
  • absorb 4,000 liters of water from the ground
  • regulate temperatures through the evaporation of water in its leaves
  • limit the severity of storms by filtering the fall of precipitation, holding some of it in and lessening its impact
  • intercept rainwater, aiding soil absorption for gradual release into streams, preventing flooding, filtering toxins and impurities and extending water availability into dry months when most needed
  • cleanse groundwater as it filters through the root systems
  • improve property values by 10 to 20 percent
  • help offset the "heat island" effect resulting from too much glass and concrete.
  • can cool urban neighborhoods up to 11 degrees cooler in summer heat than those without trees
  • slow down rainwater, helping runoff to soak into the soil at a slow and even rate, which takes the pressure off storm sewers and allows for the renewal of groundwater
  • reduce stress and crime
  • improve our aesthetic environment, providing a peaceful place to relax
  • provide a sense of "home" to a neighborhood
  • speed the healing process. According to the International Society of Arboriculture, hospital patients get well faster when their room has a tree view.  

In addition to all these incredible feats, one acre of trees produces enough oxygen for 18 people every day. It also absorbs enough carbon dioxide per year to match that emitted by driving a car 26,000 miles

Yet almost every city in the U.S. has recorded a drop in the number of trees along its streets due to development, pollution, disease and neglect.

Whispers of the sycamores

Likewise, what incredible secrets do the sycamores - Platanus occidentalis - hold? What would we lose by cutting just one tree down?

I knew the trees themselves would provide some answers. So I traveled up Oak Creek Canyon with my pen and notebook for experiential contact to a spot beside the creek where I could sit and write under a marvelous canopy of sycamores.

I sat at the foot a tall sycamore and looked upward at its expansive branches stretching out across the creek bank.

There is something magical about sitting under a great tree. Giant leaves tumbled to the ground, the largest of any tree in North America, along with bouncing acorns. Various animals scurried in and around it: ants, birds, lizards, insects, squirrels and even the Great Blue Heron.

We have nothing to fear and a great deal to learn from trees,
that vigorous and pacific tribe
which without stint produces strengthening essences for us,
soothing balms, and in whose gracious company
we spend so many cool, silent and intimate hours.


- Marcel Proust, Pleasure and Regrets

I closed my eyes and touched its towering trunk. It told a story about the passage of time.

This was a very old tree that had withstood all the storms, fires, winds and droughts of the canyon for more than a century. Yet it remained rooted firmly against change - gnarled and mighty. It had withstood so many challenges to its growth: weather, man, environment, cars, chemicals, bugs and other animals.

But it had survived all of the assault and continued to grow against all the odds, ready to embrace whatever changes and struggles it had to face. And it was determined to grow for another 100 years.

It served as a perfect living example of resilience, stamina and perseverance – the connection to the Earth and its creatures, the beauty of the struggle for growth and the acceptance of one’s surroundings. As such, each tree offers a treasure trove.

I asked how it felt about the potential loss of its cousins along Highway 179. It whispered a reply: It’s no different than slitting your grandmother’s throat.

Then I asked if their presence greatly impacted human health. The tree just smiled with a broad grin.

Sycamore stats

A follow-up search on the sycamores produced some pretty impressive data.

Just one sycamore alone processes the pollution of 26 cars speeding along Highway 179. A single, fully grown sycamore tree can transform 26 pounds of carbon dioxide into life-giving oxygen every year. Large sycamores remove 60 to 70 times more pollution than small trees.

Sycamores help to cool and freshen the air. Not only do they moderate the air temperature, but through photosynthesis, their leaves take in carbon dioxide and release oxygen for us to breathe.

They are happiest clinging to the banks of a stream, with their hollow logs providing homes to ducks, fish, raccoons, squirrels and many other species of animals as part of Oak Creek’s ribbon of life.

Their massive roots and towering white trunks also provide cleaner drinking water. During the autumn and winter months, their leaves become an important link in the stream food chain. More than 1,000 aquatic species (fish and insects) directly benefit from the way sycamores improve a stream's habitat and water quality.

During floods, their trunks create eddies, which provide important fish resting areas from strong currents. They increase the diversity of stream habitats by stabilizing islands and gravel bars and create deep pools and undercut banks, which are important habitats for fish during summer droughts.

A roost for many animals

When it comes to supporting a 2,000-pound bald eagle nest, sycamores provide one of the best. With the largest leaves of all American trees, sycamores produce seeds for the eagles as well as dozens of other birds.

Hollow cavities overhanging a stream create a safer landing for ducks as their young fall from the nest. Yellow-throated warblers, formerly known as the sycamore warbler, also favor riparian sycamores.

Sycamores provide preferred nesting sites, cool deep pools and stable stream channels for many species of animals. Their great height, open canopy, strong limbs and numerous cavities provide preferred nesting sites for yellow-crowned night-herons, ospreys, great-crested flycatchers and many woodpeckers.

Their cavities are also frequented as den sites by raccoons and other mammals.

Man’s best friend during floods

Creekside property owners should consider sycamores as one of their favorite trees. They are one of the few plant species that can hold a naturally meandering stream channel together during seasonal floods and frequent high flows.

Their massive roots and ability to grow next to a stream's low water level make sycamores one of the best natural plants to prevent stream bank erosion.

Riparian sycamores create a chain of benefits that affect the world around them, from natural stream channels to wildlife and humans.  Sedona needs to protect these mighty giants along rivers and creeks for benefit during floods.

An integral part of our past, present and future

What kind of society would trade the splendor of the sycamores and the life that inhabits them -- deer, eagles, blue heron and others -- for paper cups, two-by-fours and road development?

Frenetic societies such as ours in which we fail to pause and acknowledge the vast hidden ecosystems all around us.

To allow such a tradeoff is equivalent to destroying a great work of art that has taken centuries to create and that enhances the local experience for hikers, backpackers, bird-watchers and millions of others seeking Sedona’s natural world as an escape from crowded concrete cities.

Sycamores remain of immense environmental value, providing opportunities for inquiry and for increasing our understanding of this unique ecosystem and its role in our lives and in those of future generations. To allow their demise is to allow pollution and to cut off their unknown contributions to the community and the planet, essentially slamming the door on Sedona and its future.



Locals react to the Observer story and sycamore tree debate


Tree activist Jim Law explains why he went "out on a limb

I believe this issue with the trees in Sedona goes much deeper than the removal of these particular sycamores.

This is about human consciousness and what the human race is doing to the planet as a whole.

The ice caps are melting at an alarming rate, areas of the world are flooding for the first time in recorded history, our oceans are deeply polluted and our air quality is getting worse. The human race is living on the edge of extinction.

I wrote a song about this and it is in the movie From Here to Andromeda, a docu-drama about what will happen to 6.6 billion souls on this planet if we keep doing what we are doing.  

This issue is a wake-up call to everyone. We are approaching an environmental collapse, and for ADOT and others to say "only 10 trees are coming down" is very disconcerting. We are not yet in an enlightened society where the removal of vegetation is grounds for review and consideration.   

Someone sitting in an air-conditioned office blatantly bulldozed through a grove of trees with their CAD design system not knowing where all of the trees, the successor trees and miscellaneous vegetation were located.

And because this was not done, the people who saw the plans did not have or get a clear idea as to the actual environmental impact that the implementation of the design would entail.

ADOT is willing to make some alterations by moving the storm drain pipeline location to get it away from the Tlaquepaque wall/tree roots and the tree wells, and serpentine walkways will be created to save the trees that are along the north side of the highway.

The fact that this was NOT done in the first place provides a clear picture that there were oversights.

I saw this happen in the destruction of the ocean, the reefs and natural sand dunes in south Florida while venture capitalists gained on real estate investments and the natural beauty of the area suffered.

Now the reefs I dove on as a teenager are all buried deep in the sand because of the offshore dredging that was done to restore the beaches to the foundations of the condo high-rises that now dominate the coastline.

I took this helm to steer a course of a possible reality that we can save trees in Sedona and in hopes of creating a new way of thinking for the designers of our future roadways. All trees need successors, as do people. 

Of course, it is nearly impossible to create a new road without having some kind of environmental impact. Our outreach here is to lessen the environmental impact that needs to take place and that this is taken into consideration now and in the future works that ADOT and others perform.

It is NOT any one person’s fault, nor is this any failure of any group. Some very important issues somehow slipped through the cracks and as in any major projects of this scale, there might be the need to pause to regroup in order to find a better solution.

So many people live in snow-world and take what is fed to them rather than to really read the label. In the human experience, I see Unity through Diversity. Coats of many colors can come together for a common cause. 

This school called Planet Earth is a sort of proving ground for human consciousness. We have the chance to see if we can all work together to build from the same foundation or to continue on with polarity and duality. Human consciousness can move mountains, or tear them down. 

It takes resilience and courage to create change. And those who take the helm may face bad weather once in awhile. It's just the nature of the beast. Being a sailor for over 40 years, I know what it’s like to be out in the middle of the ocean in gale-force winds, and this is NOTHING compared to that. 

I am willing to bear the cross when it comes to something that I feel so passionate about. 

Jim Law

Land Art Works

Executive Producer,

VOICE Entertainment



A lesson in compromise

This has never been about any one individual or group or government entity.

It is about a passion for all who are concerned, about protecting a passion for all who are concerned, about protecting our beautiful city, to have the very best outcome for the positive growth that we all want to occur, as well as doing that in the most conscientious and least destructive and non-obtrusive manner that will support our long-term goals and wishes for forward movement, keeping the sanctity intact of the natural beauty of our city.

It is about compromise; it is about working together for the good of all. This campaign is not about destructive ideas or actions; it is about constructive ones, a willingness to listen and compromise with an open mind and heart.

I am also extremely proud to be a part of such a beautiful, loving and caring community and environment, whose people she adores and keeps nestled in the depths of her heart in such a pure, soothing and nurturing manner.


We are all very fortunate to be a part of this extraordinary place on Earth at this time, when we have the opportunity to work together to see to it that the generations to come may enjoy the same beauty and serenity that we have all come to respect, love and care for so deeply.

Change is inevitable, and change can be good as long as living things are taken into consideration. 


Char Thomas



Persist in order to educate

Tlaquepaque is a Sedona treasure and creative solutions need to be found to preserve as many trees as possible. It seems that the cry to "preserve the wonder" is being heard more and more these days.

It's getting harder to "keep Sedona beautiful," but we have to persist in order to educate the public and our leaders about making decisions in line with the community plan and vision of Sedona.


Barbara Littrell

President, Keep Sedona Beautiful



Can't We DO Something? Memoir of Resistance to a Four Lane Highway by Janet Sabina is a book that captures the power of citizen activism during the SR 179 Road Improvement Project.

Sabina, a local freelance writer, believes that "Sedona's successful grass-roots effort to change the way a huge government agency does business deserves to be told."

The book contains everything anyone might want to know about the history of the SR 179 Road Improvement Project.


Sabina’s chronicle is "the story of residents who were appalled that a scenic road through their two small towns was about to be converted to a four- and five-lane highway."

"One foot planted in environmental activism and the other in grassroots political action, it details what twenty-seven men and women and their supporters did to persuade the Arizona Department of Transportation to reexamine its data, consult with ALL interested citizens and, they hoped, reach consensus for an improved two-lane road." (Excerpt from Author’s Note, p.3).


Sabina writes: “Love of their small town, sensitivity to threats to the environment and disgust with the tactics of several people on the ADOT staff motivated these 'road warriors' as they came to call themselves.” (pp. 17 and 18)

"If it were not for the voice of choice that moved ADOT to bring in a new team and listen to citizens, the outrage in Sedona as four and five lanes were built would have dwarfed today's Save the Trees campaign," Sabina concludes.

The book has received praise from transportation officials around the nation. Carol Murray, commissioner of the New Hampshire Dept. of Transportation, said: “This powerful story tells how a group of people stood up for their community’s values and vision… a case study that shows why the transportation industry has embarked on a sea of change in the way we do business.”


A must-read for all Sedona residents and anyone interested in grass-roots community activism, the book can be purchased at www.wheatmark.com ($11.95 plus shipping), amazon.com or at The Worm bookstore in Sedona. Visit www.sedonaworm.com or call (928) 282-3471 to order your copy.


The Sedona Observer thanks the author for permission to quote from the book and for her clarification of many facts during the recent debate. For more information, visit http://www.sedonaroadcontroversy.com