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McKinleyville's To Be Tree 

An old outdoorsman fights to save the last of Central Avenue's heritage cypress trees

Aaron Libow has lived at the bottom of the dip in Central Avenue, north of the Highway 101 offramp, for most of the past 38 years. From his half-acre, he's watched the town's main bisector go from canopied-over country road to strip mall-lined thoroughfare. He's watched the old Monterey cypress trees that formed the canopy be ripped out one by one for progress, from Murray Road to School Road and beyond. He fought to save most of those old trees, and lost, until there was just one of them remaining.

That one -- close to a hundred years old, three-trunked, massive and graceful, and flanked by clunky giant yellow crash barrels -- fronts Libow's place on Central Avenue. And recently Libow -- 68, woolly bearded, burly -- was in a lather because he was certain the old tree was in danger of being pruned to the quick, and likely killed, by tree-trimmers hired by Pacific Gas & Electric.

Libow is no enviro-treesitter, mind you. Not like those kids who climbed into redwoods back in the day and sometimes got pulled from them by hired climbers such as the famous/infamous Eric Schatz.

Aaron Libow hunts and fishes. He and his four brothers have a welding shop down in Southern California where, among other things, they've made stuff for Disneyland's light parade and special effects. He moved to Humboldt from Los Angeles in 1970 to study fisheries at Humboldt State University and ended up as a commercial fisherman.

In his giant barn-like shop, he welds and fixes anything you can think to bring in. He collects kitchen knives and makes his own lox and sausage and steaks. He grows his own vegetables -- this year in a boat, to flummox the gophers -- and he rarely steps across the street to the shopping center for grocery items at Ray's.

And, in fact, Libow is good friends with Schatz, that gray-mustachioed professional arborist of treesitter-extraction notoriety. Last Thursday, the two sat in Libow's kitchen talking about the fight to save the old cypress. Libow had taken a break from fixing an old wood stove and come inside to fry up some sausage patties he and a friend had made from a deer he shot recently in Eastern Oregon.

"A lot of activity goes on in here," said Schatz, who'd doffed his broad-brimmed straw hat. "There's a constant flow of people through here -- Aaron's personality's like a people magnet, everybody loves him and he's got 10,000 friends."

The kitchen grew warm and spicy. Libow talked about the old tree fights and how he'd already saved the last cypress once before. Officials wanted to cut it down, saying it was a traffic hazard. He convinced them it wasn't. That's when the yellow crash barrels went up.

"At that time, a friend made this banner that we put in the tree -- the To Be Or Not To Be Tree," Libow said. "It turned out to be the To Be Tree."

Now, he said, PG&E contractors were talking about trimming the old cypress beyond the company's minimum four-foot line clearance required for fire safety. Already two PG&E consultants had come out, months apart from each other, pointed up into the canopy and described a swath of destruction, Libow said -- big, main limbs throughout the top third of the tree.

Libow told both of them it was a heritage tree. They went away, and he heard nothing more.

So Libow called Schatz for an expert opinion. Schatz told him the trimming they'd indicated likely would kill the tree. Then Schatz sent a letter to PG&E and its consultants saying the same, adding that Libow would sue to protect the tree if he had to.

"There's no reason to take the top off," Schatz said. "It's not dangerous. And I've heard PG&E say it usually tries to do just the minimum line clearance. Why is it all of a sudden they want to exceed those minimum standards?"

When a third PG&E consultant -- Tony Walls -- came out last Wednesday, Schatz was there with Libow to talk to him. It went well. Walls told them the tree was old and of course could use some pruning.

"And he said, ‘I don't see any reason why this needs to be topped,'" said Schatz. "He saw it as just a basic status quo four-foot line clearance. So, you know, light snipping of little sprouts where they have trimmed it before."

On Monday, by phone, PG&E spokesperson Jana Morris said she'd talked with Walls.

"From what I understand, there was a little bit of a miscommunication," she said. "At no point was it going to be topped. We were originally going to trim or remove any overhanging dead or dying branches ... so that they wouldn't fall and become a hazard or in any way hit the high voltage conductor. That is no longer taking place, because we know the gentleman was sensitive to it. We decided we're only doing the [four-foot] compliance pruning."

She said the work would take place within the next two weeks.

Libow, Monday afternoon, hadn't heard that news. He sounded pleased, but not entirely relieved.

"Once you have a guy in a bucket with a chainsaw, anything can happen," he said.

It isn't that Libow worships the tree for its grand treeness. His connection seems more one of kinship than spirituality.

"It reminds me of the way McKinleyville used to be," Libow said. "Kind of a real place instead of a strip town. It's like an old friend standing there, and it's a symbol of McKinleyville."

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Heidi Walters

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Heidi Walters has been a staff writer with the North Coast Journal since 2005.

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