Willow/101 interchange

You may have seen something sad happening at the Willow Road/101 interchange: All the oaks and redwoods are being cut down. As of Saturday morning (June 17), three of the four cloverleaf loops have been clear-cut.

Well, not quite, there is still one tree standing in the northern loop – it might be a different species, but there is no obvious reason why it has been spared. As of this writing, the western loop is still untouched (below right) and gives you one more chance to exit southbound 101 through a small but healthy urban forest.

This clear-cutting has taken me completely by surprise. I somehow assumed that the redwoods would endure the tumult of construction of a new “safer” interchange and still be there when it was done. On the chance that I missed a public debate about whether any trees need be sacrificed, and if so, which ones, I searched online, finding only a May 3 press release “Tree Removal Scheduled…”

CalTrans’ 2013 “Initial Study with Negative Declaration” of environmental impact states “…the proposed project would have no significant effect on visual/aesthetics, geology/soils, air quality, noise, water quality, natural communities and animal species.”

I suppose this is true if you think a field of stumps has the same “visual/aesthetic” value as a grove of living trees. Will replacing redwoods large enough to be considered heritage trees in any other part of Menlo Park with the miniaturized shrubs currently in fashion as highway landscaping create a better visual entrance to the city?

A declaration of “no effect on … animal species” seems to mean the hawks I have seen resting in the treetops are not significant. Nor are the pedestrians, who for the last few decades have had a bit of shade from summer sun on either side of the overpass. I expect homeless people have slept overnight under these trees from time to time; they are not significant enough for us humans to give them shelter, and it is to the trees’ credit that they made up for the lack.

How is it that trees are not part of the “natural community?” These trees, like all others, have been absorbing CO2 their whole lives, not to mention dampening traffic noise and filtering diesel soot from the air before it reaches the lungs of my neighbors in the Willows.

I guess the rationale is that these are non-“natural” landscape trees, and therefore considered disposable by highway planners. CalTrans, in its wisdom, has decreed that, like public employees on short-term contracts, these trees can be terminated at will. If CalTrans had better reasons than just to clear parking space for their construction equipment, maybe they could explain their thinking to the public. Please.

As I passed through the interchange this past week, I saw stacks of redwood trunks cut into sawmill-size lengths. I hope that at least their value as timber (if not as living trees) was recognized and the State of California recoups the value of the lumber. And just maybe uses this un-budgeted income to replant redwoods that in only a half-century or so will restore this little scrap of forest.

I confess that I have given these trees little thought in all the time I have lived in Menlo Park. Apparently, nobody else gave them any thought, either. Strong arguments have been made about whether the new interchange will be safer than the old, and whether it will make any difference to our congested traffic. Nobody has said a word for the trees, as far as I can tell. Where is the Lorax when you need him?

While there are still a few trees standing, you might say “goodbye” the next time you loop around the cloverleaf at 101 and Willow on your way home. I plan to.

Eric Sabelman, author of this post, has been a Menlo Park resident since 1979. We profiled him on InMenlo in 2011.