Trees have certainly given residents much to bark about in Sedona.
Rewind back to Christmas 2003, when the Forest Service declared that trees along Highway 179 must remain free from man-made ornamentations. That decision triggered the greatest onslaught of letters to the editor at the local newspaper where I was working at the time, including several from young schoolchildren – a newsroom first – protesting the removal of their handmade tree decorations.
Other tree concerns have included bark beetle disease, controlled burns and, of course, the devastating wildfires in June 2006 that made national news.
Then in August Sedona faced a new tree debate, this time involving the possible fate of an unverified number of heritage sycamore trees, possibly as many as 60 and some as old as 300 years, along Highway 179 at Tlaquepaque and the nearby creek. Also facing the chain saw were some oaks, cottonwoods and saplings.
Allegedly slated for removal by the Arizona Dept. of Transportation, the fallen trees would make way for road expansion in accordance with the SR 179 Improvement Project, which was reviewed and approved by well-organized and highly publicized citizen groups more than three years ago.
The confusion and debates surrounding the trees heated up much like a forest wildfire for more than a month, leading to protest rallies at the bridge near Tlaquepaque and the spawning of citizen blogs to share information and updates. A steady flow of non sequiturs added to the confusion, especially among new residents and those who were not involved in the SR 179 reconstruction planning process, only adding more fuel to the three-alarm fire.
But, to understand the tree controversy, one must first look at the history of the road itself.
How did this all come about - and why?
Perhaps no road in the state of Arizona has ever received more press than SR 179. Wrought with constant controversy, the swath of asphalt that traverses only 14 miles from beginning to end has been subject of many articles in the Arizona Republic and even The New York Times.
Winding between I-17 and Sedona’s “Y” intersection, it spans some of the most spectacular scenery in the area for six miles between the Village of Oak Creek and the heart of Sedona itself. But this ribbon of beauty has become a major thorn in the side of many area residents.
Some call it a suicide highway, thanks to two lanes teeming with RVs and distracted tourists who make sudden turns without signaling. Others label it as such for its slow-moving traffic, which poses a hazard in the event of a medical or fire emergency, as well as for its meandering turns that have claimed many lives. And during peak tourism seasons, the road becomes a clogged, bumper-to-bumper parking lot that stretches for miles.
Charrettes, facts and stats
When ADOT first presented its initial plans to widen SR 179 to a four- and five-lane highway in 2000, Sedona residents strongly objected and soon formed a vociferous citizens’ action group called “The Voice of Choice.” So effective was this group that, by June 2002, the city rescinded its decision to approve ADOT’s multiple-lane plan.
The next year ADOT launched its Needs Based Implementation Plan with a series of community forums. Thus began an extensive public involvement process consisting of more than 70 public meetings over a three-year period (2003-2006) with nearly 3,000 local participants. During this process, residents expressed a number of core values, including an emphasis on “Environmental Sensitivity.”
ADOT and the community worked diligently to arrive at a final design that would provide the needed safety and mobility improvements while minimizing impacts on vegetation, including large trees, with an on-site arborist to oversee it all.
After reviewing the road project in a series of “charrettes,” or planning workshops with active public input, nearly 62 percent of participating Sedonans approved a two-lane road plan incorporating medians, roundabouts and pullouts “to minimize disturbance to the corridor and to maintain the natural appearance of scenic views from the corridor.”
The highest priority: vegetation
The publicly approved final plan meant cutting a path through the ground near Tlaquepaque where the heritage trees in question now stand.
According to Sedona resident Janet Sabina, author of the book Can't We DO Something? Memoir of Resistance to a Four Lane Highway that highlights the citizen activism during the entire road planning process, the trees, along with other vegetation, were given the highest priority.
Sabina, who actively participated in all of the public planning events, took diligent notes during the process. She wrote: “In this successful struggle to keep ADOT from leveling hills and straightening curves to meet sight line requirements for the higher speed limit and to stop clear-cutting up to 30' on each side of the road, thousands of native trees and shrubs were saved. Inevitably, compromises were necessary. Sadly, a few of the fine old sycamores near the bridge were caught in those compromises.”
Therein contained the essence of the debate that erupted in August: Did residents knowingly approve the destruction of a large number of sycamores at Tlaquepaque? Or did ADOT fail to present the situation in full detail?
Trees: catalyst for a grass-roots movement
The problem arose when a local landscape architect named Jim Law claimed he had received an “e-mail tip” that nearly 60 trees were slated for the chain saw due to the expansion of SR 179. Law explained his initial involvement this way:
“The e-mail was lacking details, so I went straight to the source – Wendy Lippman, the owner of Tlaquepaque,” he said. “I was amazed at what was happening and, being a landscape designer and tree hugger at heart, I just had to make a move. So I took liberty at doing some research and nine non-stop hours of writing up the ‘facts sheet.’ What I saw did not add up to what residents had been led to believe in the planning process.”
According to Law, several sycamores on the highway frontage near Tlaquepaque would be directly affected by the storm drains since the excavation plunges to the root bed of the trees. “The butchering of the root beds opens these ancient trees open to disease, root rot and potential death,” he said.
In addition, as work progressed in the area by utility companies this year, Law charged that ADOT had altered the original proposal to remove a small number of trees. Instead, he believed that 60 would be removed.
“Sycamore trees can live to be 600 years old, and one in particular that is slated for removal is well over 30 inches in diameter,” Law wrote.
As word spread across the community that many of Sedona’s heritage sycamores would be destroyed, a grass-roots citizen action group quickly formed called Save Sedona Trees. Spearheading the group, Law instantly became Sedona’s version of Julia Butterfly, leading protests at the site of the condemned trees and posting updates on a daily blog.
In what must have appeared as déjà vu, ADOT had yet another vocal citizens group in Sedona challenging its plans for SR 179.
Questions, contradictions and no solid evidence
Amidst the flurry of data and rumors that erupted across the community, the same unanswered questions kept reverberating in the e-mails of concerned residents. And no one seemed to have any conclusive answers.
Were the intentions to remove these trees presented in the plans that residents originally reviewed and approved during the charrette process? And, if so, was the decision an informed one?
Some people argued that the construction plans were not presented on a scale that most citizens could understand during the charrettes while others accused ADOT of later altering the originally approved plan altogether.
According to Law, “There were no 20-scale or less detailed plans that were viewed WITH a tree survey. Otherwise, people would have had a better grip on the environmental impact issues – i.e., trees proposed for removal,” he said.
A number of those involved in Voice of Choice and the original charrette process claimed that they were only aware of “some loss of some vegetation” but had never heard anything about the heritage sycamores being included. Still others said they realized the city would have to “lose a few trees for the sake of progress” but denied any realization of the large size and number now allegedly targeted.
A grove of trees should be kept just as we would a great cathedral.
– Theodore Roosevelt
Twists and turns
For weeks the statements continued to twist and turn, much like the road itself, in mind-boggling contradiction.
ADOT denied the rumors while some city officials said it was out of their hands because it represented a state transportation issue. Residents jockeyed back and forth via e-mails and blogs, some pointing the blame on ADOT and charrette participants while others pointed fingers at those who failed to participate in the decision-making process years before.
The bottom line, according to Law, was that most Sedona residents simply did not comprehend what was really happening with the SR 179 Improvement Project, then or now.
“How many of you have seen the most recent master plan of the widening of Highway 179?” he asked. “How many of you not only saw the conceptual design many months ago, but actually have viewed, up close and personal, the construction ‘details?’ ADOT does not have these plans in a detailed construction format that can be easily understood as to what trees will be impacted in certain high visibility areas of Sedona.”
Who’s to blame?
Many people, it seemed, had not seen the designs, nor had they stepped foot in ADOT’s local public outreach office or logged onto its Web site designed to inform the public. Even community leaders involved in the original planning process changed their stand over and over again because the details were so bewildering.
While trying to identify the source of blame, it seemed no one was to blame and then every one of us was responsible. As the situation reached the breaking point with no conclusive evidence, official response or direction, residents on both sides of the issue voiced total exasperation. E-mails became ugly, with rumors and accusations flying in all directions.
Meanwhile, the mighty sycamores in question held their breaths, decorated with neon green signs that read: “Save our trees!”
Strauch steps up to the plate
Sedona resident and community activist Ernie Strauch was officially retired when the tree debacle erupted. But true leaders never really get to kick back. Strauch can tell you that.
The former Sedona city councilman and vice mayor had already vested much of his time and energy in many facets of the community. He had served as vice president for Voice of Choice, Inc.; participated on the boards of Keep Sedona Beautiful and Sustainable Arizona; and was a former member of the SR 179 Executive Team. And now he would serve again.
Nobody knew about SR 179 better than Strauch after his years of involvement with the project he thought was a closed matter. But it pulled him in once again as he caught wind of the anger and accusations flying around the community.
“There’s no solid, tangible evidence and there’s a lack of logical sequence for anyone to grasp an overview of what’s going on here,” Strauch told The Sedona Observer during an interview in late August.
Strauch took the lead with the city, opening the door to joint communication with all those involved. While bringing both factions together, he credited State Senator Tom O’Halleran for initiating the dialogue to address the matter.