Historic tree stands in the way of Palo Alto high-speed rail

The El Palo Alto historic tree may threaten the California High-Speed Rail Authority's plans to construct the high-speed rail line. Widening the tracks puts the tree in jeopardy.

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Towering 10 stories above the banks of San Francisquito Creek, the El Palo Alto redwood predates the U.S. Constitution by more than 800 years. It is widely believed to have been a campsite for explorer Gaspar de Portola when he discovered San Francisco Bay in 1769.

It has endured everything from ecological changes to economic shifts, all of which left marks on the ecology of this venerable tree. Now it’s entangled in the debate over high-speed rail.

The tree stands within 10 feet of existing Caltrain tracks between the Menlo Park and Palo Alto stations, with commuter trains passing by 90 times every weekday. Initial plans by the California High-Speed Rail Authority called for widening the tracks to accommodate the new rail line, which would  put the tree in jeopardy. Proposed alternatives included a trench or raised track.

To be sure, critics cite many reasons for their opposition, including the costs. But in Palo Alto and neighboring communities, the tree has become a budding symbol for why high-speed rail — approved by a majority of the state’s voters in 2008 — needs to be evaluated carefully. Dave Dockter, Palo Alto city arborist and current steward of the tree, said, “I think all of the alternatives have a potentially significant and catastrophic potential to impact the El Palo Alto redwood.”

For example, he said, relocating the train tracks could disrupt the tree’s root system.

“The environmental review information [submitted by the city of Palo Alto] has already stated that the placement of any alternatives must be addressed to protect the root plate to prevent catastrophic toppling of the entire tree,” Dockter said. “I think that is one of the first issues that need to be resolved and discussed before the High-Speed Rail Authority can even make it to first base in creating minimal impact to this tree.”

High-Speed Rail Authority officials emphasized that protecting important historical and environmental treasures is a priority. Spokeswoman Rachel Wall said the authority is completing a series of environmental reviews, each addressing increasingly localized concerns.

“There was the broad, program-level [Environmental Impact Report] for the Bay Area, for the Central Valley and for the state,” she said. “Those are really the big, overarching, program-level environmental certifications that we did back in ’05 and then in ’07 and in ’08. What we’re doing now is project level work where it’s more specific and it’s broken down by the 10 segments in the project.”

The initial Environmental Impact Report briefly mentioned the El Palo Alto redwood as a key historic resource but did not  get into details about ways to protect it. The report did address how the high-speed rail project would affect El Palo Alto visually, calling the impact minimal because the tree dominates the landscape.

In a recent interview, Wall said, “I know that the Caltrain right-of-way is very close to that tree. I’ve heard you can reach out and touch it, essentially. But certainly our project will avoid, minimize or mitigate that impact wherever possible … in all likelihood, avoiding it, because it’s such a historical resource for our state.”

El Palo Alto is a Coast Redwood, a species best known for producing some of the tallest and oldest trees on Earth. Some redwoods have grown as tall as 30- or 40-story buildings and have lived for more than 3,000 years. Redwoods have long been a symbol of the conservation and environmental movement, influencing, most notably, Sierra Club founder John Muir.

Ruskin Hartley, executive director of the Save the Redwoods League, said, “If I look at the whole sweep of conservation efforts, I would argue, to a large degree, they started with the redwoods. In 1864, one of the first conservation acts, protection acts, was the Federal Government setting aside the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias and the Yosemite Valley for protection. Redwoods themselves have inspired protection acts going back at least 150 years.”

Coast Redwoods are rare trees, found sporadically along the Northern California and southern Oregon coast. They are considered a vulnerable species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. “In the last 150 years, more than 95 percent of the ancient Coast Redwood forests have been logged,” Hartley said. “Today, anywhere that we find ancient monarch trees that are a relic of the past is a place we need to work to protect.”

Among Redwoods, El Palo Alto itself is an anomaly. Very few Coast Redwoods are found naturally this far into the valley and even fewer are as old or tall as El Palo Alto. El Palo Alto is estimated to have stood on the banks of San Francisquito Creek for 1070 years.

Yet, Dockter pointed out, “It is only been in the last century that mankind has had an effect on the tree, which are manifold. Many, many effects have influenced the tree both above-ground and below-ground. Incidentally, there are other conditions that are even beyond the railroad’s effect on the tree, and one is just our human culture has actually altered the water table in the Santa Clara Valley, which I believe had a dramatic effect on the health of El Palo Alto.”

Early photographs show that El Palo Alto once had two trunks. The widely held belief is that one trunk was washed away in a storm in the 1880s. Dockter is not so convinced. “There’s another controversial thought that maybe the tree came out of necessity for the previous wooden trestle to be put in. There is no record of the actual event that took that second spar out, whether it was a storm or whether it was actually Southern Pacific Railroad crews that could have taken it out on a weekend or something and it just didn’t get reported in the local media,” he said.

The tree is an important symbol for the Peninsula region. It is featured on the seals of Stanford University and the City of Palo Alto. An anthropomorphized version of El Palo Alto has served as the unofficial mascot for Stanford athletic teams since the early 1980s and has even been featured in a commercial for ESPN’s Sports Center.

Trains have impacted the tree’s health for the past century and a half. Until the advent of diesel in the middle of the 20th-century, trains powered by the combustion of wood and coal would storm past the tree, leaving layers of soot that would effectively suffocate it in layers of carbon. Dockter noted, “The first carbon footprint impact was to the El Palo Alto redwood from smoke, actually.”

El Palo Alto is a symbol of survival. As Hartley put it, “I think what this story shows is just how resilient these trees can be if we don’t cut them down. That tree has had just about everything thrown at it with the exception of a saw; its top has died back, and its lost limbs and its lost a trunk, but the tree is still there.”

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26 Comments

  1. says: THETRUTH

    AND it will be just fine with HSR…its alot stonger and less whinney then the people that have moved to PaloAlto in the last 30 years.If it survived the SP coal fired freight tains this will be a breeze for the old girl

  2. says: Trainguy

    Stop this nonsense NOW! The “bullet train” is a complete scam. Anyone out there planning on taking a train to LA when it will be just as expensive as a budget airline and take 3 times longer? Not to mention airports have a vast network of post flight commute options that the train will never have? 100% scam to suck BILLIONS from taxpayers into the pockets of developers, unions and politicians. This folks, is the biggest waste of money in CA history.

  3. says: Mr. Richard

    Since the 1840’s we have logged 90% of our redwood forests. Few functioning redwood environments remain. By functioning, i mean, natural redwood environments (think square miles of ancient virgin/ second growth forest). What is left are “museum” gardens (muir woods) and “heritage” trees such as the El Palo Alto. Having said that, how much value should we really put on this one tree. The environment in which it once thrived for hundreds of years–it’s natural habitat–has long been replaced by the urban landscape. Quite simply, a tree planted today in the same spot would never ever reach the same height as the El Palo Alto because the water, shade, and soil nutrients that made it grow so tall are long gone. As a scholar of the redwood landscape, I suggest we focus attention on the massive swaths of ancient and second growth redwood forest still in private holdings and not on singular trees. As a bay area native, I support high speed rail on the peninsula and suggest that the El Palo Alto not be used as a political tool, but recognized simply for what it is: A dying tree representative of a bygone landscape.

  4. says: Sam Reeves

    Southern Pacific used fuel oil during the days of steam, therefore there were no cinders in the air as coal or wood would produce. Most locomotive fireman were quite skilled at keeping the smoke down and were often awarded by SP officials for keeping a clean smoke stack. Judging from SP’s photos, El Palo Alto looked like it was in much better shape before CalTrain with more branches and needles.

  5. says: latron

    The headline is completely misleading, because it implies that the tree must come down for HSR to go forward. False, false, false. In fact, the rail right of way is are already there, as your historic photo indicates. What needs to be done is to minimize HSR’s impact on the tree, and this goal is incorporated in the project. So cut with the pandering to the right-wingers and NIMBY types.

  6. says: anna lynn

    NIMBY. I think the rail is a stupid idea, but this is just as stupid. You know you are out of logical arguements when you start citing individual trees that tracks shouldn’t be next to even though there already are tracks next to it and the world didn’t come to an end.

  7. says: Thomas

    The train and the tree can coexist. The High Speed Rail Authority hasn’t even had the time to figure out all their options, much less fully develop the 2 or 3 most viable ones. We need the rail, and anyone who thinks we should stick with air travel is insane. A) Because being in an airport is a lot like being in “enemy territory” these days what with all of the ever changing and expanding security and screening rules. B) Because air travel between SFO and LAX is only going to get more congested unless you either relieve transit pressures with rail or build another runway for SFO out in the Bay, which is NOT going to happen, ever.

  8. says: Steven

    Let’s move the tree. Dig up the soil around it, and transplant it to a safe place like in a Stanford-owned plot of land somewhere, and build a little fence around it and make it a museum piece. Also, plant a bunch of new saplings around it to start a grove. Keep the tree alive, but just move it. We can land a man on the moon, we can move a tree without killing it. Then let’s build the high speed rail and name it the Treeline.

  9. says: Dave Candelaria

    This historic tree was a landmark for early Californians,and growing up in Palo Alto in the 70’s , it was an occasional gathering place for local youths.Although lately there has been homeless camps in the vicinity,that doesn’t mean we should terraform it, in the name of high-speed rail.If you’re in a hurry, fly.Drive your $60,000 flying tennis shoe as fast as you can while texting.LOL

  10. says: Greg

    But surely we can make an artifical tree like the one Disney made of concrete at their animal park. Nothing is beyond our technology – even if it is somewhat lifeless.

  11. says: Commuter

    The carbon footprint of taking a train to LA is 10% of the carbon footprint of taking an airplane. It saves a tremendous amount of fuel resources.

  12. says: Stuart

    I thought “El Palo Alto” came down in 1906 – my grandfather was at Stanford at the time, and had pictures of it, on the ground. Or was that a different “El Palo Alto”?

  13. says: Evan

    Yo, Trainguy, you called? Take a train for cheaper than airfare, and not have to hassle with airport security, weather delays and crap seat room? Umm…yes please!

    Must agree with Latron on this article bias.

  14. says: Howard

    The so-called El Palo Alto was planted much more recently than the tree that supposedly served as a landmark for the early explorers. The present tree is overly-hyped and has no significance.

  15. says: J Reece

    Trainguy says HSR will take three times as long. Funny, a few years ago the Chron had a race to get from the East Bay’s Claremont Hotel to a LA address between someone driving all the way and someone driving to SFO and flying. I forget who won, but the door-to-door times were very, very close. I don’t see how HSR could be worse and the BS factor would be much less than with the airlines/TSA..

    Funnier still, the same distance situation exists for Tokyo-Kyoto, Paris-London, etc. yet the citizens in these more technologically advanced countries choose to pack their HSR trains instead of flying.

    Finally, the airlines have a track record of opposing HSR for obvious reasons and I really wouldn’t be surprised if “Trainguy” turned out to be “Southwestairlinesguy”.

  16. says: David

    Hey, what the heck’s in LA anyway that worth building some zillion dollar train for? I like it hereabouts just fine. Maybe build the thing through the Owens Valley. They’ve ruined that place already by stealing all its water. Now they want our tree! No way! Let’s build the Great Wall of California just south of Big Sur. They keep the desert and we keep the Redwoods.

  17. says: Joe

    The article’s headline is indeed misleading. The historic tree doesn’t stand in the way. It’s a concern for all on how to protect the tree, but it’s not physically in the way and HSR can be designed to avoid impacting the tree’s root system with appropriately placed structures. This is truly a case of “not seeing the forest for the trees”. HSR is the environmentally sustainable solution to regional transportation in the state and this tree is being used as an excuse to kill it by grumbling NIMBYs in a wealthy community.

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