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SRJC to remove 200-year-old landmark oak tree over safety concerns

Sometime between George Washington and John Adams' presidencies, an acorn sprouted on land that is now Santa Rosa Junior College's football field.

Two centuries later, the 45-foot Valley Oak tree will meet its demise at the hands of chainsaws and progress.

It seems the tree, which sits 3 feet beyond the north end zone and within the running track's surrounding oval, is nearing its end of life and is likely to suffer 'catastrophic failure' within the next 10 years.

That's what an arborist's report concluded, college spokeswoman Erin Bricker said.

The college is replacing the football field and track, which requires excavating soils and compacting a new subgrade across the entire field, including the area around the tree. The $4.5 million project should be finished by Nov. 1. The baseball, softball and soccer fields also are being renovated and reconfigured.

School officials had hoped to save the tree, which was carefully avoided when the Bear Cubs' field and track was installed years ago.

But during the renovation planning, officials evaluated the tree's health and found it likely wouldn't survive many more years and could be hazardous in the meantime.

'The report came back and said as a result of all the work being done on the field, 'the tree would likely have catastrophic failure within 10 years, and it could be sooner,'' Bricker said. 'With a report like that, it is a safety hazard. We have to first consider before anything else the safety of our students or any other attendee walking under the tree.

'As a result, we decided to take the tree out.'

The Valley Oak, the largest oak species found in California, can grow to be more than 100 feet tall and live for 300 years.

The oak and other indigenous flora has been a symbol of SRJC since early on. The school was started in 1918 with classes at Santa Rosa High School.

Several years later, the Board of Trustees began eyeing a plot of land just north of the high school that could be the perfect home for the expanding college.

Famed horticulturist Luther Burbank had long hoped the 40-acre site would be turned into a park, but funds could never be raised for the project, according to the college. Rights to the property were secured in 1930 and construction of Pioneer Hall began in October.

'The old indigenous Valley Oak trees are the honored monarch of our landscape, which hosts many other native plants as well,' the SRJC boasts.

Sometime later, the football field and track were built, carefully avoiding several large oak trees between classrooms and athletic fields.

During construction, two large oaks were left — the one in the end zone and another further north inside the track's northeast curve.

In 1977, graphic artist Doug Offenbacher designed SRJC's official logo with oak leaves and acorns, reinforcing the legacy of the species in school lore.

Students live their scholastic lives surrounded by trees, more than 1,400 trees of 400 species on the main campus grounds alone, according to a school inventory.

Few seemed to know the fate of the football-field tree.

'Huh, I didn't even realize it was in the middle of the field,' said Marco Escobar, who was walking through campus last week. 'I guess if they're redoing the field it has to go.'

Another student, Jennifer Mattos, said she thought it was odd the tree was left inside the track when it was built.

'You wonder if anyone ever ran into it or something,' she said.

Apparently not.

Football coach Lenny Wagner, at SRJC since 2000, said opposing players often walk out to the field and stare at the tree, but none have hit it running after a pass.

'It's pretty funny. All of sudden they notice there's a tree there, and you see them looking at the branches and going, 'What the heck?'' he said.

'It was only 3 feet outside the back of the end zone. The branches actually hung out to the 10-yard line, but were high enough that no balls ever hit them and nobody ever ran into it.'

One time a Butte College player threw a ball at the tree after a touchdown — and hit it, Wagner said.

The school put a big blue pad around the gnarled tree trunk in case someone were to slam into it.

'It's such a bummer we're losing it,' he said. 'It's such a beautiful landmark.'

He said players who go away to school often ask years later if the tree is still there.

'Until now we've always been able to say yes,' Wagner said.

This isn't the first campus tree to come down for safety reasons.

In 2014, after two large trees, weakened by a root fungus, toppled in storms, school administrators decided to remove four more trees due to safety concerns.

Bricker said a second oak on the field will remain, but several other campus trees will be removed as part of the overall athletics renovation project. Officials plan to plant about 60 new trees as part of the project.

'They are really closely tied to our identity as a college,' she said. 'It's a sad moment, but we want to celebrate its impact on the community.'

To mark the tree's history, school officials plan to host a Native American ceremony to honor its long life.

The wood will be used to make a bear cub statue that will greet football fans, and Bricker said it may also be turned into campus benches or bowls, which could be used to raise funds for the football program.

You can reach Staff Writer Lori A. Carter at 707-521-5470 or lori.carter@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @loriacarter.

Lori A. Carter

 Sonoma County courts and Rohnert Park, The Press Democrat

Local journalism is vital to a community's wellbeing, and that means keeping an eye on what happens in our justice system and our communities. I cover Sonoma County courts, as well as the city of Rohnert Park. In my work, I want to share the stories that affect our daily lives and, yes, maybe even rile us up. 

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