In Foreign Parts: Old Glory makes last stand against the LA freeway

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The Independent US

When the planners looked at Tree Number 419, a magnificent 400-year-old valley oak on the northern edge of Los Angeles' great suburban sprawl, all they saw was a minor obstacle to a four-lane highway being built to spur development of hundreds of homes.

When the planners looked at Tree Number 419, a magnificent 400-year-old valley oak on the northern edge of Los Angeles' great suburban sprawl, all they saw was a minor obstacle to a four-lane highway being built to spur development of hundreds of homes.

That was before the tree became a cause célèbre, attracting support from environment- alists, Hollywood stars, outraged suburban grandmothers and just about every political faction in town.

By now, the tree is no longer just a number. It has acquired a name: Old Glory. One environmental activist has clambered into its upper branches and made a temporary home, acting as a human shield against the chainsaws.

Other people have established a base camp at the bottom, playing host to tree doctors, Native American elders, journalists and an endless stream of passers-by who have posted poems and political banners on the surrounding chain-link fence. Teenage couples pull up next to the tree to kiss late at night. University professors are sending their students on field research trips to the tree. The "No Trespassing" signs have been amended to read "No Treecutting". The post office has even started delivering letters addressed to Tree Number 419, with or without the zip code.

It is a non-stop carnival, but it is also the front line in a battle between developers and environmental activists. This area, in the beautiful foothills of the Santa Susana mountains, is the last unspoilt corner of Los Angeles county, and if the environmentalists had their way that is how it would remain. There is not enough groundwater to support mass housing, they say. Besides, the people who moved here in the last wave of building were attracted in part by the pristine mountain scenery; they did not expect the view from their front window to be concreted over with such abandon.

The developers have heard such argument in the LA area for decades, and routinely ignored them. That is how they paved over the once-fertile San Fernando Valley and uprooted every orange tree in Orange county. They also chopped down 150 ancient valley oaks in this part of LA county to make way for Chuck E Cheese, a particularly brash children's restaurant chain.

But pressure from environmentalists has made them cautious. They chopped down the oaks nearest Old Glory in secret, and mostly at night. Only through an inside tip three weeks ago did Lynne Plambeck, a local activist, learn that Tree Number 419 was about to be felled. Immediately, she recruited an experienced tree-sitter called John Quigley to shimmy up as fast as he could.

At first it looked as though the police would simply eject Mr Quigley. But the newspapers started writing about him, engendering a wave of local support, even from the conservative citizens of Santa Clarita, the nearest town. Middle-aged women in their elegant cars started pulling up in front of him to shout: "Save our tree!" The developers threw up the chain-link fence, posted a security guard (called Romeo) and added floodlights, powered by noisy generators, to make a night's sleep difficult for the activists. There is talk now of compromise. The environmentalists want the road diverted. The pro-development county supervisor proposed uprooting and moving the tree.

But the circus continues. The actress Rene Russo showed up the other day to offer her support. People drop off food, or offer help with the tents and makeshift latrines. "I feel like an animal in a zoo, with everyone gaping at me," Mr Quigley said. It's been nerve-racking at times, with 60mph winds blowing up the canyon road and swaying him several feet in either direction. But he's not moving. "We have so many supporters. It's fantastic," he added. "We're going to maintain a presence here for as long as it takes."

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