2011-10-20 / Front Page

Landmark Conejo Valley oak tree chopped down

City received word that tree was in ‘imminent danger’ of falling
By Michelle Knight


FINAL DAY—A 400-year-old oak tree at Westlake Boulevard and Triunfo Canyon Road was cut down Thursday after the city learned it was in danger of falling. 
CATE BROWN/Acorn Newspapers FINAL DAY—A 400-year-old oak tree at Westlake Boulevard and Triunfo Canyon Road was cut down Thursday after the city learned it was in danger of falling. CATE BROWN/Acorn Newspapers In a city of 1,000 oaks, one oak tree stood out.

Photographer Ed Lawrence captured images of the towering tree over decades as suburbia sprouted up around it, and the majestic valley oak at the corner of Westlake Boulevard and Triunfo Canyon Road came to represent for many an enduring symbol of the Conejo Valley’s rural past.

But that symbol, made of bark and wood, not concrete or steel, could not stand forever. Last Wednesday, the City of Thousand

Oaks received word from an independent arborist that the 400-year-old tree had to come down—immediately.

Kevin Wilson, a veteran arborist and the city’s landscape maintenance supervisor, said the local landmark was dying and in jeopardy of falling, making it a danger to the public. City crews went through with the work early Thursday morning with throngs of spectators looking on.


RICHARD GILLARD/Acorn Newspapers RICHARD GILLARD/Acorn Newspapers “We removed the tree in the nick of time,” Wilson said.

As evidence, he pointed to the 12,000 pounds of branches that crashed down from one side of the massive tree while city crews worked to remove limbs from the other side on Oct. 13.

The limbs fell onto traffic lanes that had been closed while the work was being done. Wilson said it was unclear whether the limbs toppled because of vibrations from the chain saws or from years of vehicle traffic and weather damage.

In any event, a motorist could have been injured at some point if the tree, with a heavy canopy that spanned four traffic lanes, was allowed to remain, he said.

Certified arborist and Acorn contributor Dave Mortimer, who predicted in a December “Ask the Arborist” column that the tree was going to fall, was with Wilson Thursday morning when the branches came crashing down.


‘TIMBER!’—Bystanders look on as city crews fell the 400-year-old oak tree at the corner of Westlake Boulevard and Triunfo Canyon Road. The tree had been attacked by a deadly fungus. 
RICHARD GILLARD/Acorn Newspapers ‘TIMBER!’—Bystanders look on as city crews fell the 400-year-old oak tree at the corner of Westlake Boulevard and Triunfo Canyon Road. The tree had been attacked by a deadly fungus. RICHARD GILLARD/Acorn Newspapers “(Wilson) turned and pointed to me and said, ‘You called it, Mortimer!’” the columnist said.

“It totally at that point justified immediate removal of that tree,” he added.

The two arborists say the tree had been in declining health for at least 10 years. Mortimer, a T.O. resident, told Wilson about the growth of so-called “sulfur conks” on the bark of the tree in 2006. The conks—bright sulfur-yellow, scallop-shaped structures similar to mushrooms—result from the decay-causing fungus known as Laetiporus gilbertsonii.


NO ORDINARY OAK—Residents young and old have placed flowers and other tributes at the remaining tree stump in the week since the oak was cut down. 
Courtesy of Belinda Mark NO ORDINARY OAK—Residents young and old have placed flowers and other tributes at the remaining tree stump in the week since the oak was cut down. Courtesy of Belinda Mark The fungus, whose microscopic spores are carried to trees by the wind, rain or birds, attacks the core or heartwood of the tree. But because the fungus doesn’t usually affect the sapwood, the vascular system that keeps the tree healthylooking, it can be difficult to detect, Mortimer said.

“It’s eating (the tree) from the inside out,” Mortimer said, likening the fungus to cancer.

Although not all trees infected with the fungus die, this one “was so old and . . . it was not able compartmentalize the disease. The disease had spread,” Mortimer said.

Wilson’s department began to closely monitor the health of the tree, noting for nearly six years the continued production of the sulfur conks. The overwhelming consensus among the arborists the city spoke to was that it was time to remove the tree.


MARK OF HISTORY—A view from Thousand Oaks looking east toward Agoura. The lonely tree in the center of a large field is the Triunfo oak. This photo helped it earn the name “Lone Oak.” 
ED LAWRENCE/Courtesy of the Thousand Oaks Library Foundation MARK OF HISTORY—A view from Thousand Oaks looking east toward Agoura. The lonely tree in the center of a large field is the Triunfo oak. This photo helped it earn the name “Lone Oak.” ED LAWRENCE/Courtesy of the Thousand Oaks Library Foundation In July, Wilson obtained a city permit to dig up the oak, but to ensure the city took every possible avenue to save the landmark tree, he hired Robert Wallace of Tree Life Concern of Simi Valley earlier this month to perform a detailed analysis. The study cost the city $1,500.

“I think we . . . went above and beyond what would be reasonable to try and save the tree,” Wilson said.

Wallace, a tree-risk assessor certified by the International Society of Arboriculture, looked at the tree last Wednesday and immediately placed a call to city hall.

“In my opinion, this tree cannot be saved,” Wallace wrote in his report to the city. “Remove this tree as soon as possible.”

He gave the tree a hazardous rating of 11 on an industry scale of 12, meaning the tree could fall apart at any time and had to be removed in days, not weeks, leaving the city without enough time to organize and post a public meeting on the issue, said city spokesperson Andrew Powers.

“The report we got back is the tree is in imminent danger of falling, so (City Manager) Scott (Mitnick) decided we have to act,” Powers said Oct. 12. “It is not an easy decision.”

Not everyone was satisfied with how the city handled the removal of the oak, in particular that less than 24 hours’ notice was given to the public.

“I just thought it was very heavy- handed the way they treated the community,” said Elisha Bell, who stood with her son at the oak passing out fliers to alert drivers and pedestrians that the city intended to chop it down the next day. “I don’t dispute that it had to come down, but I really wish they had notified people and given it a send-off like they did the other tree.”

Bell, who’s lived a few blocks from the tree for 14 years, said the city had a public hearing before an oak near city hall was cut down and a ceremony afterward.

“It just didn’t seem right for that particular tree, because it’s a historical tree,” Bell said. C ounty Supervisor Linda Parks, a former T.O. City Council member, agreed the tree is a historical landmark prized by the community but said she feels the city was left with no choice.

“It was a greater loss to see it go and unfortunately to see it have to be chopped down,” Parks said. “But in this case, I do understand the public safety concerns.”

Parks and others wished Lawrence, now a resident of Lake Tahoe, had been in town to photograph the tree’s final moments—completing a series he began in 1962, when a few ranch buildings were the sole structures anywhere near the oak. Its appearance in the first photo in the series (see above) in an empty field earned the tree the nickname “Lone Oak.”

Lawrence captured the growth of the oak tree and the area around it in a series of four photographs taken over 21 years.

Those black-and-white pictures were among the thousands the city, the library foundation, Cal Lutheran University and the park district bought from Lawrence in July for $75,000.

The series of four chronicled the area’s transformation from a ranching community to a sprawling suburbia.

In an interview with the Acorn Tuesday, Lawrence said it’s sad to know the tree is gone.

“I can understand their point,” he said of the city’s need to protect the public by removing the tree quickly. “But if they would have let me know a couple of days ahead, I could have come down and taken a couple of pictures of the tree.”

Lawrence said he planned to leave his Lake Tahoe home this week for a six-month stay in Thousand Oaks to catalog the photo collection the city bought from him.

Lawrence said the four photographs of the “Lone Oak” have meant more to him than all his others. He waited three hours on a hill for the right cloud formation to take the first picture. The acclaim it brought him led to other assignments, including his best seller: sheep crossing Thousand Oaks Boulevard on a foggy morning in 1962.

“That one picture opened many doors for me,” Lawrence said of the valley oak photo. Wilson said the city plans to rep lace the oak with a 15- year- old coast live oak that’s about 25 feet tall, at a cost to taxpayers of between $10,000 and $15,000.

The new tree could be planted next month.

“ Wh en you’re dealing with an emotional situation like this . . . the city recognizes the sensitivity of the situation, so we know that the best thing that we can do is to get a beautiful, large tree back into that location as soon as possible.”

A plaque is also planned to commemorate the former tree as a permanent part of Thousand Oaks history.

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