The interests of birds, butterflies, trees, kids, and hikers were again headed on a collision course at last week’s Goleta City Council meeting. An update on habitat and tree conditions at the monarch butterfly preserve on Ellwood Mesa – public lands established after a decades-long community effort – advised cutting down 14 more dead trees, and added information on SoCal Edison’s need to prune or remove trees as well as the thrashing of a number of “trail closed” signs. The public took an active part in the session in person and in writing; a letter from the Audubon Society asked about the well-being of a white-tailed kite family’s tree.
At the previous butterfly grove hearing in September, public intervention, including attorney Ana Citrin speaking for the Friends of the Ellwood Monarchs, had saved innumerable trees, reducing the cull from over a thousand to only 29. This time, the speakers and letter writers protested that a last-minute report about “risk” trees that could fall and land on homes or power poles gave too much information in too little time for analysis. How did “risk” align with tree health? or with the trees in Edison’s sights? they asked. Why was the tree report being separated from the habitat management plan?
The drought has killed 20 percent of the more than 5,000 trees in the various Ellwood eucalyptus groves, usually a popular playground for the families and kids who live in homes around the forest, through which a couple dozen trails head out to Ellwood Mesa. A threat posed by falling dead trees was disclosed at September’s meeting, which was an update on the research and writing of the Monarch Butterfly Habitat Management Plan. The city closed many of the trails until the dangerous trees were removed, then re-opened some. For those who lived nearby, the closing and opening of the trails seemed arbitrary. For anyone unfamiliar with the forest, the signs failed to direct them to a useable trail.
Meeting participants learned that after January’s storm, two trees had tilted, perilously close to trails, and the trails closed again. Why was that not disclosed to the public? people asked. Perhaps that’s why signs were being knocked over?
The upshot of the long and careful presentation by consultant Althouse & Meade and Public Works staff was that the council would revisit the topic when more information was finalized. Included the discussion, however, was that only 27 of the 29 trees were actually cut down (two were deemed savable by the arborists) and also that watering saplings was not feasible. The tree situation was changeable, said Public Works’ Chris Julian, and was being separated from the longer-term habitat plan.
Once the “tree risk” is incorporated into the staff report, as well as insurance risk information, Edison’s plans, and identification of other trees slated for cutting, the council will hear the item again. A site visit by the council, Planning Commission, and tree and parks commissioners was also suggested. New planning director Peter Imhof stated the public and council would be kept informed via agenda items, email, and web-blast information on permits sought and specific tree information.
Also discussed at the meeting were monarch butterflies. Relatively few appeared this winter in Ellwood and across the state. Goleta’s count was actually 65 butterflies greater than in 2016 – 2,185 for 2017-18 – but a far cry from the heights of 2011’s count of 47,510. In California, the count was down 33 percent even though more wintering sites were monitored.