Environment/Community Issues

Sycamore Trees:

Disposable or Indispensable?

Sedona shares a vital lesson in grassroots citizen activism

for the rest of America

Investigative report by Catherine J. Rourke

2007 and 2008

 Sedona tree activist Jim Law looks back on a citizen campaign that shook the city,

 exposing the roots of society's core values about the environment

"A Stroll Among the Sycamores with Tree Activist Jim Law"

Interview/script by Catherine Rourke

Video by Steve DeVol


Published January 10, 2009

An update on the Observer's 2007 national award-winning environmental investigative reports,

"Barking Up the Wrong Tree"


"Secrets of the Sycamores"

by Catherine J. Rourke

Recipient of the 2008 First Place Award, "Writing for the Web"

National Federation of Press Women

The poet William Blake once said: “The tree that moves some to tears of joy is, in the eyes of others, just a green thing that stands in the way of progress.”

Global spiritual film distributor and environmental activist Jim Law, of Sedona-based VOICE Entertainment (converging spirituality, science and quantum physics), is one of those people moved to tears of joy by a tree. In 2007 he led a grass-roots citizen campaign to save Sedona’s sycamores – approximately 60 heritage, 300-year-old trees slated for demolition due to the Highway 179 road expansion project near the city’s Tlaquepaque landmark.

As a result of his collaborative effort with many other community leaders and activists, a majority of the trees were salvaged. While this newspaper's original reports, Barking Up the Wrong Tree and "Secrets of the Sycamores," (The Sedona Observer, Oct. 21, 2007) documented a chronology of this remarkable campaign and generated a blizzard of letters to the editor from every part of the U.S., it’s time to revisit the status of the road reconstruction project and gauge its influence over the past year on the trees and surrounding environment.

Has the Arizona Dept. of Transportation responded to the Sedona community’s demand for the preservation of its irreplaceable natural heritage?

In our video by Stephen DeVol, Law answers that question, explaining in his own words the highway’s impact on the sycamores this past year, and speaks to us about the intrinsic value of these amazing trees, their critical role in reducing the effects of global warming  and their benefits to the local ecosystem.

Education and enlightenment

Walking with Law in a grove of sycamores will enlighten people more about these venerable giants than any ecology book. “It’s not just about the trees,” he says, looking up into the expansive branches of a mighty sycamore near Oak Creek. “It goes much deeper than that. It’s about our values and our attitudes.”



“If trees could scream, would we be so cavalier about cutting them down?”


-  Jack Handey

The Sedona Observer’s affiliated investigative report, “Secrets of the Sycamores,” combined science and spirit to highlight the wonder of the sycamores and offer a lesson in environmental stewardship from the Sedona community for others across America. No other single story has generated so many enthusiastic letters to the editor from around the nation as this one did.

By emphasizing the interconnectedness of all things − between the sycamores and the ecosystems they support…the insects that depend on these trees and work to ensure, in turn, the trees’ survival…the lizards, squirrles and blue herons for which these trees provide necessary shelter…the dozens of species of birds that rely specifically on sycamore leaves as a primary food source − we joined Law in his call to action to protect and respect these amazing creatures.

For weeks local citizens led protests around the trees and bulldozers while an anxious community waited for a Julia Butterfly-style tree sitter to emerge, most expecting one in the form of Law himself.

Law orchestrated the public outcry from his "Save the Trees" blog and led an angry crowd of vigilante citizens to stage a midnight protest as ADOT bulldozers reportedly made their way to decimate the sycamore trees around Tlaquepaque. The skirmish between the city's ecologists and developers erupted into a full-blown civil war as activists tied yellow ribbons around the trees in question, threatening a full-fledge tree demonstration like Julia's.


“Tree sitting is a last resort.

When you see someone sitting in a tree trying to protect it,

you know that every level of our society has failed."

− Julia Butterfly Hill, The Legacy of Luna (HarperCollins, 2000)

But local leaders eventually stepped in to negotiate with ADOT representatives for a viable alternative to the road design that cut a swath through the ground these trees had rooted themselves in centuries ago.

This sent a message to city planners and road developers across the state that similar alternatives could become integrated in future development strategies blindsighted by a lack of aware and conscious planning that could prevent any negative environmentla impact.

Sycamore secrets

What are the secrets of the sycamores?

These trees have withstood all of the area’s storms, floods, fires, winds and droughts for more than a century. Yet they have remained firmly rooted against change and withstood so many challenges to their growth – man, weather, environment, development, cars, chemicals, bugs and now road construction. In that, they offer us lessons in resilience and fortitude for the storms and disruptions of our own lives.

Just one sycamore alone processes the pollution of 26 cars speeding along Highway 179. Just one solitary sycamore pod contains 800 seeds that provide sustenance for countless creatures. Just one of its giant roots helps to clean surrounding groundwater. Read more of these spectacular contributions to the local ecosystem and to humanity in the story, "Secrets of the Sycamores" (The Sedona Observer, Oct. 21, 2007).

What kind of society would trade this incredible gift – the beauty and splendor of the sycamores and the life that inhabits them – for road development, paper cups and two-by-fours?

To allow such a tradeoff is equivalent to destroying a great work of art that has taken centuries to create. To allow their demise is to cut off their contributions to our community and environment, slamming the door on Sedona, the planet and our very future.

“Trees are poems that earth writes upon the sky,

We fell them down and turn them into paper,

That we may record our emptiness.

− Kahlil Gibran

Jim Law and other community members taught us to embrace the value of the sycamores while examining our own values on a much deeper level. We thank them for this tremendous lesson – and ADOT for listening.

Click here to read the full story, “Barking Up the Wrong Tree” and "Secrets of the Sycamores,"

recipient of two First Place national and state journalism awards

for “Writing for the Web” from the National Federation of Press Women and Arizona Press Women.


Catherine Rourke is an award-winning professional journalist writes investigative reports about socioeconomic issues, health, work-life balance and other issues . She advocates for public service journalism in the common interest and focuses on revitalizing the media with literary-style journalism to combat today's postage-stamp-size news briefs. She supported the launch of the Observer in 2007 as a digital media experiment in community journalism and New Media without income to uphold journalism ethics and the First Amendment.

Click here to post your comments on this story


Just in checking the sycamore trees article, I find you have not only included the trees themselves as actual entities, but you have also gone in depth as to who they are, where they come from, what they do....ALL good stuff. 

Thank you so much for your very fine writing and your comprehensiveness on every subject. And then you turn around - right in front of us - to take another view of the same subject, giving US, your readers, a real feast of TRUTH....as much as we humans can know of it. THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU! 

Beverly Smith



I live in California and my mom, who lives in Sedona, turned me on to this fabulous article, “Secrets of the Sycamores.” I can honestly say that this is the best writing that I have seen in my 49 years on this planet.

The writer commanded my interest immediately, allowed me to be a part of the issue at hand and provided me with interesting facts. The sycamores whispered to me as I sat under that tree.

I learned a lot today. Thank you, Ma, and thank you for the paper you rode in on. I respect and believe what you stand for.

Annie Kokinos

Goleta, Calif.






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Views and statements expressed here do not necessarily represent the editorial stance of this newspaper. The Sedona Observer abides by media law and upholds the time-honored policies of the Journalism Code of Ethics. It publishes all opinions under the First Amendment and welcomes those with opposing views to post their comments and letters.