Climate change and SoCal storms topple campus oak trees

Sarah Van Buskirk
Editor-in-Chief

A recent downpour series of storms have been plummeting through the state and specifically the southern region which have caused environmental damage to the landscapes in many cities across California. The University of La Verne was directly affected as three oak trees have toppled over on campus in the past few months.

In early January, the first oak to uproot was west of the Wilson Library entrance that provided a canopy of shade at Sneaky Park. This tree was planted by La Verne College and was believed to be more than 105 years old. Given a celebration of life, this was a monumental and iconic tree on campus and was devastating to see go. 

The other two oaks that fell were city of La Verne trees that inhabited the campus grounds. 

Angela Moskow, California Wildlife Foundation and the California Oaks Coalition information network manager, said native oak trees provide ecological and cultural advantages. The California Oaks Coalition is known for its preservation and ability to keep these mature trees standing upright as they are native to California and serve a vast purpose to our lands. 

“The oak trees support much of California’s biodiversity,” Moscow said. “Oaks are also important for our watersheds, restabilizing soil and recharging groundwater. They also sequester carbon, so the more trees standing, the more we are helping to deal with the climate crisis we are in.”

Moskow said for millennia, California Oaks were very important to indigenous communities where they participated in cultural burning practices which helped sustain oak woodlands, as well as their nutrition and medicinal properties that are meaningful to the Native American population in California. 

Due to the exponential drought that puts lots of stress on Southern California, many species of plants have a hard time establishing deep root vacancy because of the dry and rock-solid soil the roots are trying to penetrate. Therefore, roots are forced to grow horizontally in a web shape, and their durability is weakened. This climate change impact negatively affects the environment and nature in the community by not allowing a solid foundation of roots to be grown. Thus, when cyclones like of recent hit our communities, it makes it much easier for trees to fall down, losing the benefits that the trees produce.

However, there are other outside factors that have been causing damage to the native oak trees’ roots that can be prevented by students and faculty. 

Professor Emeritus of Biology and Biochemistry Jay Jones said that in the 1980s, there was a big push to beautify the campus. The University added large lawns of grass, which is a European carryover concept that gives the appearance of a prestige area because it costs money to maintain a green well-kept lawn. With that comes irrigation, and the oak trees stood near the grass areas so the trees would receive water during the lawns’ scheduled watering times. Nevertheless, when the watering needs of the grass are met, too much water is entering the oak tree soil. 

Jones said that the oaks do not need much water to survive. Only in times of severe drought would water help the trees out.

The oak trees cannot function properly when there is not enough oxygen within the soil. Overwatering is the number one factor in root rot and causes almost all plants to die. 

“The roots over time have been impacted by this, so the root development was outstripped by the canopy which makes them top heavy and the anchoring of the roots becomes less sturdy,” Jones said.

The trees on campus that were planted to provide beautiful scenery were placed in areas near asphalt walkways. Another mistake that was initially made by the city and University that has detrimental effects on the trees’ health. Not only planting trees near concrete pathways but also the strain of being walked over can further damage the roots. Two-thirds of the roots should be protected in order for the tree to live to its healthiest potential.

Jones said he was grateful years ago when the University implemented signs that prompted people not to step on the roots. Jones said people on campus were stricken by that and reacted against it though it was aiding the well-being of the tree.

“This phenomenon is very symbolic of what we are doing around the world,” Jones said. “People do not see the damage we are doing environmentally.” 

Fortunately, the fallen tree incidents that are resulting from the primary climate change issue have not caused too much other damage to the city and campus. 

Tim Hepburn, mayor of La Verne, said a way the city protects the oak trees is by sectioning them off so no trespassing can enter.

“If you have noticed, in some of the parks, we have white fencing around the trees because we don’t want to damage the root base,” Hepburn said. “We want the roots to go as deep as possible, so we keep people off.”

Hepburn said the city has its own arborist and services that will respond immediately when a city tree has fallen, as well as carrying insurance when a tree hits a building, car, person, etc. 

Garth Jones, director of physical plant operations and systems at the University, who is in charge of the landscape on campus, said when a tree falls on campus, the first step of evaluation is human safety. Garth Jones said that the next precautionary step would be to tape off the area to make sure damage will not continue to occur. As well as evacuate any building in a close radius.

“We have been very fortunate with all the trees that have fallen, even in the city, have missed everything basically,” Jones said. “Very little property damage was caused, and no people were hurt.”

Jones also mentioned that the University is fully insured if a tree falls on property or people.

By reducing the water intake toward the trees and staying off the root base, there are ways to preserve the well-being of the oak trees and encourage healthy growth that those on campus can contribute to. As a University, there are ways to promote the robustness of these trees that will help counteract the underlying climate change issue that is on a larger less tangible scale.

Sarah Van Buskirk can be reached at sarah.vanbuskirk@laverne.edu

Sarah Van Buskirk is a senior journalism major with a concentration in print and online journalism. She is the Spring 2024 editorial director for the Campus Times and has recently served as editor-in-chief, sports editor and staff writer. She is also currently a staff photographer for the Campus Times and La Verne Magazine, and a staff writer for La Verne Magazine.

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