Last week I was among the many who were surprised to learn that the nearly century-old fig tree behind Adele Harrison Middle School was slated for removal to make room for an artificial turf field. Nowhere in any of the news articles or public forums about the District’s Master Plan, was attention given to plans to take down this tree, along with other fruit trees in the Adele garden donated a couple of years ago by NASCAR and Sonoma Raceway. As a parent of four children who have gone through Sonoma Valley public schools, I find this discouraging.
The Adele fig tree is no ordinary tree – it is a fruit-bearing classroom for the Adele horticulture program where students learn to use the figs in ice cream, jam, and other recipes as they learn to grow and acquire a taste for homegrown produce. Because it is large and mature, the tree provides valuable ecological services such as carbon sequestration and improved air quality, not to mention food for birds, wildlife, and Sonoma families who collect the fruit after hours. Saving the fig tree preserves a living symbol of the District’s commitment to sustainability and of the Valley’s agricultural heritage. Removing it for the sake of expediting grading is shortsighted and fails to recognize that the school campuses are part of a larger ecological continuum, not isolated islands.
After listening to student and parent testimony at the School Board meeting, it was clear that there is a dire need for upgraded athletic fields. What was also made clear to me, after brief conversations with the construction manager and architect, is because the School District is Categorically Exempt from environmental review, local ordinances, storm-water permits, etc., they did not deem it necessary to conduct due diligence prior to breaking ground. As a result, concerns from key stakeholders such as students, teachers, neighbors, and even the Ecology Center — the appointed stewards of Nathanson Creek — were all but dismissed.
Categorically Exempt or not, replacement of natural grass with artificial turf may not change the use of the land, the basis of exemption from CEQA review, but it does completely change the physical and biological environment right next to a sensitive riparian corridor and a creek that hosts both Steelhead Trout and Chinook Salmon and provides multiple public benefits. If all the School District feels it needs is a green light from Sacramento, then they lose the opportunity to build broader support in the community for school programs and goals. And without transparency about the new field, they risk credibility when it comes to District reassurances that components of the artificial turf, like plastic grass and any fungicides and herbicides that may be used, are safe for our kids and the environment.
As of today, even with a local champion who is willing to incur the costs of saving and moving the fig tree (in the fall, when it is dormant and has a 90% chance of survival), the District is pushing ahead with plans to cut it down with the hopes that the noise will quiet. But trees have their own agency and their own stories to tell, and this tree’s story isn’t over. For the sake of future growers, stewards, and citizens, the District should be doing everything in its power to honor this regal fig tree as a living centerpiece of the horticulture program, instead of destroying it.
Going forward, perhaps the best time to offer an olive branch is before you need a fig leaf.
Lisa Summers, Sonoma