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Goleta Hones Plan to Remove Over 900 Dead, Dying Trees from Ellwood Mesa Groves

If approved by City Council next month, $1.7 million project would take out trees that pose public safety risks in famed monarch butterfly habitat

Drought, pests and city neglect have taken their toll on eucalyptus trees in Goleta’s Ellwood Mesa groves. The trees are important clustering locations for monarch butterflies, but city officials are concerned that more than 900 of the dying and dead trees pose a significant public-safety risk. Click to view larger
Drought, pests and city neglect have taken their toll on eucalyptus trees in Goleta’s Ellwood Mesa groves. The trees are important clustering locations for monarch butterflies, but city officials are concerned that more than 900 of the dying and dead trees pose a significant public-safety risk. (Joshua Molina / Noozhawk photo)

Amid escalating concerns about the public safety danger from distressed trees at Goleta’s Ellwood Mesa, the City Council is set to discuss a $1.7 million project to remove more than 900 of them.

“The dead and dying trees pose a safety risk to anyone who visits the eucalyptus grove, and an increased risk of fire,” City Manager Michelle Greene wrote in a staff report for the Sept. 5 council meeting.

Drought, pests and city neglect have forced officials into panic mode to determine how to rehabilitate the grove, which is home to thousands of clustering monarch butterflies that visit each year.

City officials want to remove 907 dead or dying trees that they say pose an immediate public safety emergency — prior to establishing a Habitat Management Plan for Ellwood Mesa, a document that could take up to four years to complete. Goleta wants to perform the work prior to Oct. 1, when butterfly aggregation is expected to begin.

The proposal, however, has raised serious concerns among many Goleta residents, particularly those who live on Ellwood Mesa and consider the grove an extension of their back yard.

Some residents have objected to the sheer totality of removing 900 trees without first creating a management plan. Others say the proposal feels like it has been sprung on them; the city introduced the idea this summer, and now wants to swiftly move ahead with the removal.

City staff has proposed alternatives that will be under consideration at the council meeting. A second option calls for removing nearly 900 trees, but keeping 26 that are considered “dying” but “are providing short-term, but significant butterfly habitat.”

“While these trees will ultimately die due to extensive pest damage, dead sections of the trunks, and/or age, they currently provide habitat for butterflies due to their key locations within aggregation sites and presence of enough foliage,” Greene wrote.

The 26 identified trees would be placed under an arborist’s care. The trees that would be spared are in the Sandpiper (one), Ellwood East and West (four each), Ellwood North (five) and Ellwood Main (12) groves.

A third option calls for the removal of trees from a single grove, but that means the other groves would remain closed to the public.

In July, Goleta closed trails through its Ellwood Mesa groves in an effort to protect the public while officials try to decide how best to tend to dead and dying trees in the neighborhood. Click to view larger
In July, Goleta closed trails through its Ellwood Mesa groves in an effort to protect the public while officials try to decide how best to tend to dead and dying trees in the neighborhood. (Joshua Molina / Noozhawk photo)

“This option could afford an opportunity to observe and learn from the effects of dead/hazardous tree removals in a smaller area, without immediately exposing the entire Ellwood Mesa grove to these practices,” the staff report states.

City planners object to the third option because it will cost more to remove the trees over several years, than it would to remove them all at once.

A fourth option proposes only to remove the 511 trees that are considered “dead,” leaving the dying ones alone. City planners, again, reject that option.

“Allowing one dying or hazardous tree to remain in place would pose a safety risk to the public, which could only be mitigated through a long-term closure of the trails system through the grove,” the report states.

A final option is to leave all the trees alone and do nothing until the city creates a Habitat and Restoration Management Plan. Under that proposal, however, the groves and its trails would remain closed to the public.

The unabated presence of dying and hazardous trees will allow conditions within the grove to deteriorate while the management plan is prepared. Living trees within the grove would be at risk from falling trees and tree limbs or further damaged by the spread of pests, escalating tree health decline, Greene says.

The staff report states that the contractor will propose best management practices for tree disposal, including chipping, hauling, burning and incinerating options. Grinding and spreading material on-site is preferred, because this method neutralizes pests, helps to control erosion and maintains air quality.

Noozhawk staff writer Joshua Molina can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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