Image: Jennifer MacDonald, Kim Kelley, Laurie Gould, David Czamanske
Nick Ut  /  AP
Protesters, left to right, Jennifer MacDonald, Kim Kelley, Laurie Gould and David Czamanske gather on Wednesday to save 11 acres of old oaks and sycamore trees that Los Angeles County officials say must be cleared away so that sediment dredged from behind a dam can be dumped there.
updated 1/12/2011 8:38:29 PM ET 2011-01-13T01:38:29

With the sounds of bulldozers echoing beneath him, veteran tree sitter John Quigley perched in a century-old oak Wednesday, saying he won't come down until public works officials stop felling scores of trees as part of a dam improvement project.

Quigley, who helped save a beloved oak with a similar sit-in eight years ago, was joined by a handful of other sitters who took up positions in branches overlooking 11 acres of picturesque foothills.

"They're destroying trees all around us," Quigley said by cell phone as the sound of bulldozers below him could be heard. "It's a sad scene and definitely something that didn't need to happen."

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Public works officials say the 11 acres of trees, some of them more than 100 years old, must go to ensure the integrity of a nearby dam that provides most of the drinking water to the Los Angeles suburbs of Arcadia and Sierra Madre.

As darkness fell about 2,000 protesters and curious onlookers including actress Darryl Hannah gathered at a gate leading to a stand of trees being felled.

"I came out just to support the community that is trying to put out some common sense and not cut down a paradise for a rubble pit," Hannah said.

The actress said she learned of the protest from Quigley, who she has known since she took part in a tree-sitting protest to try to save an urban garden in a warehouse district near downtown Los Angeles that was plowed under in 2006.

Hannah, like other environmental activists, said the sediment from the Dam could be placed elsewhere, including a huge gravel pit about 10 miles away.

Los Angeles County Public Works spokesman Bob Spencer said four people were believed to be hiding in the trees and public workers were checking the area tree by tree to make sure none was taken down with a person in it.

"The safety of all the people here today, the trespassers, the contract workers, the protesters, is of chief importance to us," he said.

David Czamanske, vice chair of the Sierra Club's Pasadena group, said deputies had not asked the demonstrators at the gate to disperse. The tree-sitters were not affiliated with his group, he said.

Spencer said the tree removal project has been in the works for three years and the county has approval from federal and state agencies. He said it must done for the Santa Anita Dam, which was built in 1927, to meet seismic safety standards.

Over the years, Spencer said, sediment has built up behind the dam, limiting its water capacity and compromising its safety in the event of an earthquake or other catastrophe.

Clearing the 11 acres of oaks and sycamores will create a placement area the sediment can be channeled to.

Spencer said the dam provides 75 percent of the drinking water used in Arcadia, a city of about 56,000 people, and all of the drinking water for Sierra Madre, where about 10,000 people live.

The grove occupies a flatland below the steep slopes of the San Gabriel Mountains, about 20 miles northeast of downtown Los Angeles. It is near a residential neighborhood and a small wilderness park in an area popular with weekend hikers and bicyclists.

The clearing operation began after extensive efforts by opponents to stop it. In December, county officials ordered a 30-day moratorium, which ended last week.

Czamanske and Quigley agree the sediment removal project must go forward, but they say the county should have picked a better place.

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"It really is a tragedy that they had to go to this beautiful habitat to dump a pile of mud," Quigley said. "There were plenty of good alternatives."

In 2003, Quigley spent 71 days in an oak tree known as Old Glory that was to be bulldozed to widen a street in Santa Clarita, another Los Angeles suburb. Authorities finally removed him from the tree, and it was saved and replanted elsewhere. His lengthy protest, meanwhile, created a carnival atmosphere, bringing out folk singers, souvenir sellers, schoolchildren and others.

Quigley said Wednesday that he and the other tree sitters had come well-prepared with provisions and would stay as long as they could.

"To me this is one of those moments where the principal of what we should be about here in America is at stake," he said. "We should preserve precious places that are here."

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