A coalition of local environmental groups is urging Santa Barbara County to preserve its oak trees by stopping a two-year-old tree protection ordinance from getting the axe.

Representatives from four environmental activist organizations defended the Santa Barbara County Oak Tree Protection and Regeneration Program at a press conference held Wednesday afternoon at the Santa Barbara courthouse. The program, which was created to prevent removal of the area’s native oaks without first obtaining a permit, is currently up for review, and will go before the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors at its May 10 meeting. Among the oak tree advocates present at the conference were members of the Santa Barbara County Action Network (SBCAN), the Valley Alliance of Santa Ynez, the Women’s Environmental Watch and the Environmental Defense Center.

Dan Milstein, a representative for SBCAN, said it is important for the supervisors to realize how many organizations are in support of protecting the county’s old oak trees. He said a handful of special interest groups are the only ones that have been putting pressure on the board to kill the program.

“The groups [opposing the program] are dogmatic fanatics about private property rights who oppose government involvement,” Milstein said.
“The board could simply receive the status report, but because enemies are so persistent in spreading misinformation, the program could be in danger.”

Milstein said he believes it is still too early to decide whether the program – which only restricts removal of existing oak trees, and does not apply to newly planted oaks – has been effective, and he said interest groups are using the two-year review as a way to end the program prematurely. He said the board should wait until the five-year mark, when the program is scheduled to undergo another evaluation.

Third District Supervisor Brooks Firestone, who will be one of those reviewing the program next week, said he is waiting to formulate his opinion on the matter until the board has seen the progress reports regarding the effectiveness of the ordinance. If the board finds that the program has not worked as planned, Firestone said he would be in favor of looking for other options.

“I don’t know that’s the case; [canceling the program] might be one of the conclusions,” Firestone said. “It might be that we don’t know how effective it is. In that case, we do nothing. It’s too early to say.”

Firestone said he wanted to bring in an impartial third party to examine the effectiveness of the ordinance.

“This has become an emotional thing,” Firestone said. “I would love to find someone with no position who could help us figure out the best way to save trees.”

Cameron Benson of the Environmental Defense Center said 80 percent of the county’s valley oaks have already been removed, and said in 1997 and 1998 over 2,000 acres of oaks were bulldozed for other land uses. Since the ordinance was put in to effect two years ago, less than 100 trees have been removed, Benson said.

“This shouldn’t be a divisive issue,” Benson said. “Between 20 and 50 thousand acres are in danger.”

Carol Herrera of Women’s Environmental Watch said Firestone has recommended voluntary guidelines for landowners to replace the existing ordinance, but she said she does not believe they would provide adequate protection for the area’s oaks. Although voluntary programs similar to those Firestone discussed have been implemented in San Luis Obispo County, none of them have been effective in protecting the trees, Herrera said.

“The valley oaks require regulatory action to protect them,” Herrera said. “It only takes one landowner to implement mass cutting of the ancient oaks.”

Valley Alliance spokesperson Doug Bradley said the beauty of Santa Barbara should not be handed over to special interest groups working for corporations located outside of the Central Valley. He said these corporate groups want to remove trees in order to expand property development and vineyards.

“What we fear is pressure from those who, from their board rooms far from here, would dismantle and export our natural beauty and quality of life,” Bradley said.