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New Road(s) for Old Glory:

Though I’d read the story umpteen times, scanned articles from newspapers across the nation and even visited the famed Santa Clarita site last year, the Old Glory tale continues to fascinate. All the more so standing with a group of 4th and 5th graders from New Roads Elementary School, noses pressed against the fence circling the massive oak tree, waiting to hear a live recount by one of the tree’s dedicated defenders, John Quigley.

We’d been invited on a field trip to visit Old Glory, the 400-year-old oak that spawned a high profile media controversy several years back. Having held court in the same Santa Clarita valley spot for over four centuries, the silent sentry suddenly became an “inconvenience” as it lay directly in the path of a proposed highway expansion project. Overnight, the fate of this single tree on Pico Canyon Road exploded into a matter of international concern.

Along with the story’s more dramatic, newsworthy elements – Quigley’s 71-day tree sit, the warning shots fired his way one dark night, the steady stream of visiting reporters, police officers, community supporters and his final forced “treeviction” – Old Glory also moved people on a deeper level.

The themes surrounding Old Glory have been replayed in countless contexts and settings – development vs. preservation, the human effort (or lack thereof) to reconcile the two and the legacy lost when we fail to find a balance. On a more uplifting note, the issue illustrates the positive power that committed individuals can wield in the public arena.

In short, the ideal backdrop for a pre-Earth Day lesson with thirty ten-year-olds from New Roads School in Santa Monica. For teachers Evan Beachy and Christy Elliot, the visit brought to life some of the critical environmental themes that each weaves into daily academic classes. These themes reflect the school’s commitment to ecological awareness.

Seated on blankets under the shady foliage of a nearby oak, students and teachers alike listened to John relive the events that lead to his temporary residence in Old Glory’s gnarled branches.

Years before entering the public eye, the ancient oak had become a thorn for developers working to design a long-term expansion plan for the local residential community. To smooth car traffic into the growing region, the plan included widening the entry road from two to four lanes, directly through Old Glory’s space. The proposed solution: lose the tree.

Alerted by email to the tree’s situation, environmental educator John Quigley felt the call to act. Originally from the Palisades, Quigley had undergone extensive forest defense training in British Columbia. The chances of finding another experienced tree sitter nearby were slim. And so in November 2003, a scant half-hour before the scheduled bulldozing, John climbed Old Glory. His hastily constructed platform, home base for the next two months, fit perfectly in the crook of four branches as if custom designed; the first of many mini miracles that lead to the tree’s eventual relocation.

The moment Quigley ascended Old Glory, the tree instantly became off limits for destruction. And as his presence became increasingly publicized, his and Old Glory’s fates were under increasing public scrutiny. Cutting the tree was no longer an option – Quigley and his support crew stood rooted to their commitment. So developers were forced to choose a very costly option – moving the tree a quarter mile down the road, a move that took one year and $1 million. The solution raised ongoing concerns about the tree’s long-term survival. Moving a creature of this magnitude is serious business. And while the tree today appears healthy and vibrant in its new locale, it will take several years to determine its true state.

We ended our visit with a short drive up Pico Canyon Road to Old Glory’s original site, her home predating the time of the Pilgrims. Not a trace remains of her long reign, the site now a paved road flanked by streets with bucolic names suggesting thriving oak forests. Imagining the absent tree where a clean road now lays, several students wondered why developers didn’t simply design the road around the tree – the very question activists had vocalized for years. The lesson learned for these students: plan things well the first time around and consider well the consequences of your actions, or you may well face heightened challenges down the road.

Many of us see in Old Glory visions of similar past and future struggles. As populations grow and our demands for space increase, we will encounter more Old Glory’s in our path. We can only hope that more of us, especially our next generation of decision-makers, will learn to apply some of these lessons learned to present situations for a more sustainable future.

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