Thursday, November 8, 2001
Bending over what used to be a towering eucalyptus tree, Carmel city forester Mike Branson pulls a jackknife out of his pants pocket and easily slides the blade into the stump. The wooden core of what very recently was a 114-foot-tall tree has all the firmness and strength of smoked Gouda.
Rising above the cheesy, fungus-infected foundation were thousands of pounds of particularly heavy and dense wood, now snipped into 10-foot by five-foot sections piled in a heap at Fourth and Casanova. Each massive log weighs about 3,000 pounds. All that weight piled atop an anchor of semi-soft cheese was a bad thing for anyone or anything underneath, Branson says.
"This was a big-ass tree," says Mike Iverson, a tree service contractor. "There was a lot of good wood up there." Iverson was hired by the city to take out the 32 eucalyptus trees that grew in a neat row parallel to Fourth Avenue.
When Branson showed up in a city pick-up truck, Iverson had been grinding down the stump with a ferocious, toothy machine called a stump router. He expects to be done extracting all the trees in a month''s time.
"This is our fifth day and this is number eight," he says. Pointing to a piece that would make a decent coffee table, he says, "When it hits the pavement you can hear it. It''s deadly."
In a city that has an intimate relationship with trees, cutting down 32 of them does not go unnoticed. Despite a year''s worth of hearings, reviews and environmental reports, Branson has had two residents complain to him. One hiked into his office. The other called.
After taking out the first few at the top of Fourth Avenue, work crews showed up one morning to find flowers laid out on the stumps, and "Shame On You" written in chalk on the cut wood. Branson says they haven''t found anyone strapped up in the canopy yet.
Mike Branson is a large, bearded man with dark, curly hair. He''s worked for the city for 20 years on the tree crew. For the last year he''s been the acting director of the Forest, Parks and Beach Department. No longer a sawyer, he goes to work in a striped button-down, green chinos and sturdy logger-type work boots.
Back when Branson was on the tree crew, he found it unsettling to have to trim a eucalyptus. As you cut into it, the tree pops, relieving tension from its spiral grain. The weight of the tree can bind the saw blade.
The string along Fourth Avenue is estimated to be 100 to 150 years old. Eucalyptus, or as they''re also called, blue gum, are often planted in hedgerow fashion to act as windbreaks, but Branson thinks these were planted by someone wanting to be "decorative."
In Carmel, the area closer to the ocean has been reforested since the early 1900s from the original coastal scrub. It''s mostly grown in with Monterey Pine now. Although eucalyptus is a resilient tree with many uses, it''s no longer welcome in California cities. It''s a tree with a bad reputation. For one, Branson says it''s been known to suffer from "sudden limb failure," where a branch will just fall off and crush whatever lies below.
"That''s been documented on some trees," Branson says.
The eucalyptus also has some hostile tendencies toward other trees. Natural chemicals in its leaves keep other flora from growing.
It''s a fire hazard too. The leaves are oily and the bark is shaggy, creating what forest experts call a "fuel ladder." Eucalyptus trees are blamed for the quick spread of the Oakland Hills fire in 1991 and other devastating blazes in California like Topanga Canyon and Malibu.
In 1992 a eucalyptus toppled in Carmel only to reveal its dangerous secret. "When it fell it had no roots. It was like someone stuck a pencil in the ground," Branson says.
In the spring of 2000, another arborist cut the Fourth Ave. trees in half. They''ve already regained six feet or so, re-deploying green bushy canopies. And even though the trees were trimmed in 1985, two fell in 1995. They took out a utility pole. Another dropped a branch, narrowly missing a house. That scared the bejesus out of some folks because, Branson says, the limb "was tree-sized."
At the corner of Casanova and Fourth, where the crews were pruning last week, high-voltage transmission lines wind through and above the trees. To have such rambunctious trees hovering over and interlacing through electrical wires frays some nerves, so when it comes to the delicate work around the lines, the power company will commandeer the cutting mission. Branson says the idea that 32 trees will be forever removed is making someone at PG&E smile. "This is like their dream come true right now," he says.
Of course Carmel is well treed, and this corner is not the only place where biology threatens modern convenience. Pointing up the street, Branson notes pine trees equally close to power lines. "If you ask PG&E, they''d want all these trees out, but that''s not gonna happen," he says.
The cutting is only the first phase of the project. Once the eucalyptus are out, the street has to be replanted and the City Council has left the rehab plan up to Branson. He hasn''t decided what he''ll install but since the downward-sloping street is a natural drainage, he thinks redwoods might work. Native oaks, pines, laurels and alders might be in the plan as well. Ornamental breeds are not. "We''re supposed to preserve a forested look to the community, more or less," he says over the drone of the stump router.
A few feet away, Mike Iverson swings the carbide-tipped blade back and forth over the stump, reducing the once-menacing wood to damp dust.