UC Gives Tree-Sitters 72-Hour Warning to Leave Grove

By Richard Brenneman
Friday September 05, 2008 - 06:22:00 PM

A day after winning their battle in court Thursday, UC Berkeley gave Memorial Stadium tree-sitters a 72-hour warning Friday morning that their days in the branches were nearing an end. 

The state Court of Appeal rejected a plea Thursday to issue an order barring UC Berkeley from bringing the chainsaws to chop down trees at Memorial Stadium. The next morning chainsaws were at work, cutting down branches of oak trees next to the redwood where the last remaining tree-sitters gave a defiant press conference by cell phone. 

Nothing but a last-minute order by the state Supreme Court could halt the university’s plans to begin work on the four-level gym and office complex planned for the site. 

The first phase of the process will bring down the majority of the specimen trees in the grove, including some that were growing before stadium construction began in 1921. 

In an effort to save the trees, protesters took to the branches on Big Game Day in 2006, and as of Friday morning a changing contingent of activists had stayed aloft for each of the 648 days that followed. 

“I am requesting that all of the volunteers who have come out because they care about the community to come out,” said Droog, a tree-sitter speaking from atop the redwood. “We’re asking for everyone who shares the same values to come out.” 

“We will bear witness to their desecration of sacred mother earth,” he said. “We will remain here.” 

UC Berkeley spokesperson Dan Mogulof said that though the university had given the tree-sitters a previously negotiated notice promised before any action against the treesitters, “by no means does it mean we are preparing for a forcible extraction in 72 hours.” 

The Friday morning task of the arborists, he said, was to further isolate the tree-sitter and prevent reinforcements from reaching them from other trees. 

Mogulof said the university is not prepared for the immediate commencement of construction activities other than site clearance.  

“We were surprised by the speed and decisiveness of the Court of Appeals ruling,” he said. 

The university has still to choose contractors for either the initial excavation or the actual work of building the Student Athlete High Performance Center. 

“We’re in the process of getting the resources in place,” he said. Bid notices need to be posted, following by the selection of the actual companies that will do the work. 

“We are beginning the initial steps of a construction process that will last two-and-a-half years,” Mogulof said. 

Meanwhile, attorneys who have been battling to save the trees have taken the case to the Supreme Court in hopes the justices issue a writ of supersedeas to halt work at the site. 

Release of the Court of Appeals ruling Thursday afternoon prompted an e-mail alert from supporters of the ongoing tree-sit: “The appeals court has ruled, UCB can cut trees any time they want, get ready, we need witnesses & direct action.” 

The unanimous ruling by a three-judge panel of the court’s First Division rejected pleas to apply a 20-day stay sought by two attorneys who have been fighting to save the grove of Coastal Live Oaks and other trees, some of which predate the start of stadium’s construction in 1921. 

The university plans to build a four-level office and high tech gym complex along the stadium’s western wall, the first stage of a massive construction project in the southeast area of the campus. 

The university says the suit has cost it millions of dollars, both for construction cost increases and for the massive law enforcement presence surrounding the grove, where tree-sitters have occupied the branches for the last 21 months in an effort to stop the project. 

The ruling was issued by Division Three Presiding Justice William R. McGuiness, joined in the ruling by Associate Justices Peter J. Siggins and Martin J. Jenkins  

The key legal issue for the jurists was that Alameda County Superior Court Judge Barbara J. Miller had lifted her earlier injunction against construction activities at the grove at the time she ruled last Thursday, ending the proceedings in her court. 

Had Miller not rescinded her earlier order, state law imposes an automatic 20-day stay to maintain the status quo while the appellate justices review the case.  

“Because there was no judicial stay in effect when the notice of appeal was filed, the statutory 20-day stay is not in effect,” the justices ruled. 

They rejected the arguments by Volker and Michael Lozeau that the university’s voluntary two-day promise to delay action meant a legal ban remained in place at the time at the time they filed their appeal. 

“We are disappointed with the District Court of Appeal’s ruling,” said Volker. 

The university was represented by attorneys Paul Fogel and Dennis Maio of Oakland. 

Meanwhile, the university has brought in a number of powerful floodlights mounted atop heavy wooden stands and aimed upward the redwood where the treesitters are holding out. 

During Friday morning’s oak-trimming action, one of the contract arborists worked for the university was struck in the head by a glass bottlewhich gashed his forehead between his eyes. 

While Mogulof said the bottle was intentionally thrown by a tree-sitter, Droog said it had fallen as the tree-sitters moved their belonging to a higher platform near the redwood’s crown.  

Michael Kelly, president of the Panoramic Hill Association, said the court decision “doesn’t influence our resolve to continue forward in the appeal process. In fact, in some ways it makes it more important.” 

Kelly said the legal issues raised in the appeal “go far beyond the trees,” and even should the trees fall, legal issues involving state earthquake and environmental statutes remain. 

“We are absolutely delighted” with the court ruling, said university athletic director Sandy Barbour. “The real winners here are the more than 400 student athletes who will finally get the safe and suitable facilities they need and deserve.” 

“It would be tragic for those beautiful old trees to be cut down,” and absolutely unnecessary, said Doug Buckwald director of Save the Oaks at the Stadium. 

Buckwald said a central issue was construction of “a huge new building ... right beside a dangerous earthquake fault. That is irresponsible and unsafe. We could use a dose of common sense here, and we hope that the courts will provide that as the case proceeds. 

“It is not over yet, not by a long shot,” he said. 

“The time has come for these people to come down and put an end to this dangerous and illegal occupation of university property,” said UC Berkeley Vice Chancellor Nathan Brostrom. ”They have had their day in court and failed to convince impartial judges that their protest had any legitimacy whatsoever." 

But the activists on the ground and in the branches above have vowed to continue their fight to save the trees, and the struggle that could become moot in the next few days. 

Treesit supporters have planned a candlelight vigil at the grove this evening through Sunday and again next weekend.