John Quigley
Environmental Educator / Tree Sitter

Interview by Leon Worden
Signal City Editor

Sunday, February 1, 2004

[WATCH the television interview conducted Jan. 26, 2004]

John Quigley

    "Newsmaker of the Week" is presented by the SCV Press Club and Comcast, and hosted by Signal City Editor Leon Worden. The half-hour program premieres every Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. on SCVTV Channel 20, repeating Sundays at 8:30 a.m.
    This week's newsmaker is John Quigley, the environmental educator who sat in an oak tree on Pico Canyon Road for 71 days in 2002 and 2003 in an effort to save it from being felled. The following interview was conducted Jan. 26. Questions are paraphrased and some answers are abbreviated for length.

SCVTV: The "Old Glory" oak tree has been moved down Pico Canyon Road. Did you win or lose your fight to save the tree?

Quigley: There was a victory in that the tree wasn't cut down. But moving a tree like that isn't the best solution that we could have come to.

SCVTV: What did you want to see happen?

Quigley: I would have liked to have seen a plan where the road went around the tree, that allowed enough space for the tree to live on.

SCVTV: The road was supposed to be widened to four lanes and would have gone right through the tree.

Quigley: That's true. You have to go back, though. We're talking years and years of planning that led up to that situation, and really, everybody was kind of boxed in. You had the tree that was standing in the way of the road expansion, which was bringing all this development further up the valley, so it was a tough spot.
    The developer was in a tough spot, the county — they were the ones who were insisting that the road be expanded, and expanded in the way that it was. All we were really asking for was a minor modification of the road so that it could actually go around the tree safely.

SCVTV: Didn't the county determine that the road could not run around the tree?

Quigley: It was based on a 65-mph design speed. Considering you have the elementary school just down the road, we were saying, why not slow down the road for that section? Folks coming on the road are going to have to slow down when they're coming up to The Old Road and that section of Stevenson Ranch anyway; make that a safety zone for the school. Have the road go around the tree and make a nice little natural area there for the tree, so it gives it its natural life.
    But that didn't happen, so now we're into a new reality...

SCVTV: Evidently the road needed to be widened to accommodate the future Phase 5 of Stevenson Ranch and then Newhall Ranch — but The Newhall Land and Farming Co. said it didn't want to have to go four lanes.

Quigley: I think what's happening is that the way business that has been done up here in terms of development, hopefully, is getting a second look. I think what's been happening is that it has been piece-mealed together. Ultimately the county thinks that Newhall Ranch needs this road. But I don't think the Newhall Ranch people wanted the public to really be connected with that, because obviously, people in Stevenson Ranch ... don't necessarily want all that traffic and pollution coming through their community.
    So I think yes, it's true, they have been saying that, but ultimately, behind the scenes, I think they knew that the county was going to force them to have an artery into their development through Pico Canyon. So it was a tough situation, but again, I think a lot of awareness has been raised; the fact that the tree didn't become firewood is a victory.

In the tree
John Quigley gives a "thumbs up" from his perch in the oak tree that he lived in from Nov. 1, 2002, to Jan. 10, 2003. Photo by Bryan Kneiding.

SCVTV: You don't live in the SCV, which is a rather conservative area. Here comes some guy from out of town and he's staging an act of civil disobedience. How did you think the community would react?

Quigley: I was just hoping I wasn't going to get shot out of the tree.

SCVTV: Were there threats?

Quigley: The second night I was in the tree, someone came by and fired a gun off at 4 o'clock in the morning.

SCVTV: What was your reaction to that?

Quigley: Once I decided to climb up in the tree ... I just had to trust. I had to trust that something larger was going to protect me. Because I couldn't move. I had taken that stand.
    My first reaction was, I was waiting to see if there was a second shot. But I heard the car speed off, and I realized it was some kind of warning shot or maybe it was a joke. I don't know what it was. I decided I didn't want to tell the sheriffs because I didn't want it becoming a big story. I told a couple of the supporters, and a few days later I told some reporters.
    And then there was that incident where someone blew up a mailbox just up the road. So I wasn't — see, for me, as an outsider, I wasn't coming in to try to tell people what to do in their community. I simply was a guy who was responding to a call for help.

SCVTV: Who made a call for what kind of help?

Quigley: I got an e-mail from a friend of mine who had heard about the tree. I talked to Cynthia Harris of the (Santa Clarita) Oaks Conservancy, and then there was Lynne Plambeck from SCOPE. In the e-mail that I got, it had both of their names and their phone numbers, so I called and I talked to Cynthia, and she explained the situation with the tree.
    About a month before, I saw this thing on the news where this woman down in Newport Beach had been in court getting an injunction or (temporary restraining order) to protect 20-some-odd trees in Newport Beach. She goes from the court, shows up where the trees are, 21 of them had already been cut down. And I just thought, wow, if she'd had someone in those trees or just someone standing in front of those trees while she's getting this court order — so when I got this e-mail, they said the tree was going to be cut in two days. I thought, I might be the only person who can help them.

SCVTV: You've climbed trees before?

Quigley: I have climbed trees before. Back in the mid-90s, I became aware of a situation up in British Columbia where the temperate rain forest — the last great stands of temperate rain forests in the world — were being threatened by logging. I was invited by this native group, the Nuxalk nation, to come up there. They sort of initiated me into their nation — they gave me a name and did all that sort of thing, and it really touched me.
    I don't think people really understand what a privilege it is to defend a tree. ... It's a lot of responsibility.

SCVTV: You've told our reporters how you've thought the tree "felt." Do you think the tree has feelings?

Quigley: You know, you've got to be careful with that, because people start to think you're a little out there. (If) you spend a lot of time with any living being, if you're listening, you're going to start to tune in to that being. I know a lot of people might have pets, dogs or cats or birds or even fish, where they start to feel a communication with that.
    I definitely felt like that tree was my teacher. It wasn't like it "talked" to me (or like) I heard words. It was more a sense, and it actually has grown since I've been out of the tree. The last few weeks over Christmas, when they were cutting under the roots, I spent a few nights out there where I was just kind of alone with the tree. ... That tree has an incredible flair for the dramatic, with the fires coming up the canyon, and I feel like that tree was trying to communicate with us in a way.

SCVTV: In the beginning, in November 2002, it looked like they were going to remove you. The sheriff's crisis negotiator had you on the cell phone and advised you about the consequences of your actions. What did you think would happen that night?

Quigley: When you take an action like this, you have to accept all the consequences that flow from it.
    I felt called to take this action. I had some serious things going on in my family, and — I'll tell you. You remember the (Washington), D.C., sniper story? The first person killed was at my mom's gas station. So the few days leading up to this, I was on the phone with my mom every day and she was talking about doing tuck-and-rolls going to the supermarket. It's a pretty wild thing to think about your mom living in terror. I was going to fly back there, and I wasn't quite sure what to do. It was kind of a helpless feeling.
    So when this call came, I just felt like, I need to do something that stands for life. And a 400-year-old oak tree, if I can get up in that tree and it gives enough time for people to say, "Hey, wait a minute. Why are we cutting down a 400-year-old oak tree? We don't have very many of those anymore" — that then it could be resolved.
    I knew I could get arrested. I knew people could come and throw stuff at me, which they did in the early days, but I was really amazed and surprised at what happened. Because day by day, more and more people came to the tree, and I learned about Santa Clarita from them. Not from the environmental community here (but from) the woman who showed up, who talked about when she had been proposed to under that tree. The kids who came down, who really had a huge impact on me. There were four young guys that were probably 10 (or) 11 years old. One was Matt Zubel, who became a good buddy of mine. They talked about how they used to catch frogs in the creek right there by the tree, and they were like, "You can't come down. You gotta save that tree." And I took that seriously.
    I know the police were concerned about safety, and I knew my systems were safe. What I said to them is, "Look, I know I'm going to be safe. If you guys are safe, nothing is going to happen here. I'm committed to saving this tree." They weren't sure if they were dealing with someone who was going to get violent. My commitment was to total nonviolent protest.

SCVTV: Do you feel you had the right to go up into that tree?

Quigley: I do. I do. As long as I was willing to face the consequences. Because here's a situation where you have this irreplaceable natural resource ... for our lifetimes and the lifetimes of maybe 10 generations. We can't replace that.
    Our country is based on the notion of dissent. The Boston Tea Party. As long as you're willing to face the consequences — I respect anyone who stands up in a nonviolent way for what they believe in.

SCVTV: John Laing Homes filed a lawsuit to get you out. The judge even ordered you out but you didn't go. Do you think the system is broken?

I think that you can't paint it all with a broad brush. I think at that point, the court made a decision based on what it had in front of them, (and) some of the information was not accurate, like they had to move the tree in five days. Part of their contention was that it had to be moved by Jan. 15, because it was dormant, when it clearly had already come out of dormancy —

SCVTV: Jan. 15 of 2003.

Quigley: Of 2003, so it took them over a year.

SCVTV: When it was dormant again.

Quigley: When it was dormant again. But that was the urgency for them to pull me out of the tree in terms of them getting the eviction order. So I felt there was some misrepresentation there.
    But ultimately, the reason why I didn't come out of the tree? I had a conversation with my dad, and I said, "Dad, here's what's happening." And he said to me, he said, "Stand by your principles." And I had made a commitment to those kids. To me, that was the highest contract that I had at that point. Because that was the future.

SCVTV: Is it right to involve kids in political causes?

Quigley: I think it just depends what happens. That was something that happened organically. I mean, those kids came down, their parents brought them down, every day before school. That was something that I didn't — I couldn't orchestrate that. I was just sitting in the tree.

SCVTV: And it was kids who named it Old Glory.

Quigley: That's right. It was Taylor and Blake Borland. They wrote a letter to the county supervisors, and I wept when I read it. They talked about the kissing oaks that had been cut down in the middle of the night —

SCVTV: The ones that formed an arch over Pico Canyon Road.

Quigley: Yeah. And so I heard all these sad stories about how the developers had come in in the middle of the night, and they'd get up the next day to go to school and their trees are gone. And how they used to watch the hawks nesting in them. For me it was an emotional journey, and I was trying to use my moral compass of what was the highest good.

SCVTV: Was there some legal reason to go at least 50 feet up?

Quigley: No, that's a tactical reason. All my decisions were made tactically, and the higher up you are, the harder it is to get you out. When you're in the forest, you always put a platform at least 80 feet up so no machine can come up and get to you.
    See, I knew that that tree was not tall enough to really defend it. Because they could always bring a cherry picker or a fire ladder up there.

SCVTV: Which they ultimately did.

Quigley: Which they ultimately did.
    I just want to say one thing about John Laing Homes and (Division President) Bill Rattazzi. Often times you get into a battle like this, and sometimes it can feel a little personal as you go back and forth. But I like Bill, and I think that he was in a very difficult situation. And I really appreciate the efforts they've gone to, to fulfill their commitment.
    Even though I didn't agree with the moving of the tree, I know he was in a tough spot, and I think he made some good choices in terms of dealing with what he had to deal with. Hopefully in the future — you know, this is not a personal thing between the environmentalists and developers. This is something where we all need to work together.

SCVTV: Your effort reportedly cost John Laing Homes about $1 million over the past 14 months. What do you think Bill Rattazzi is thinking today?

Quigley: I think he's probably relieved to have the tree moved. That was hanging over his head for a long time. I think they have to reflect, had they just designed around the tree from the beginning, they probably would have made about $1 million less, (the value of) a couple houses out there, and they could have gone around the tree. So it's probably a wash, financially, for them.
    I think once they made the decision that, OK, we're committed to doing whatever we can to save this tree, they realized that would be a good public relations move. And I also think that Bill, in his heart, really cares about that tree.
    That tree has a lot of magic in it. It's something that touched a lot of people's hearts, and I think Santa Clarita should be thankful for that tree. It has really brought a lot of attention and ultimately will become a destination.
    I've also got to say, think of all those jobs that $1 million created, instead of cutting the tree down — all those security jobs (etc.) — so there's an economic factor in there as well. It's just a different way of looking at it.

SCVTV: Let's talk about John Quigley. What's your educational background?

Quigley: I have a bachelor's degree in drama. I was a drama major. But then, out of college, I became interested in the environment, so I started working on Earth Day events and doing education around the environment.
    I grew up in a house next to some woods on the East Coast. So I was used to a lot more nature, and being in L.A. with all the concrete and the roads and the smog, I just felt like, wow, we need to rethink where we're going with all this. Because I know there's a higher quality of life, and I think it's really important that kids get a chance to interact with nature.
    A lot of people here might not know that in Los Angeles, there are a lot of kids who have never seen the ocean. A lot of kids. I mean, they live 10 miles away, they're 10 years old, they have never been to the beach. So that became part of my work.

SCVTV: Tell us about the Ruckus Society. According to its Web site, its motto is, "actions speak louder than words," and it says, "The Ruckus Society provides training on the skills of nonviolent civil disobedience to help environmental and human rights organizations..." What has been your involvement with this group?

Quigley: Actually it was a brief period of time — this is back just after I had worked up in British Columbia, and I was an experienced climb trainer for trees. They asked me to come and do tree-climb training. For about a year I did several camps.
    It's a good group of people. What they were trying to do is create an excellence about, if you're going to take an action — and it's all sort of modeled (on the concept of) the Boston Tea Party — in our democracy, as it's evolving, there are times when the laws actually reach a point where they need to be changed, and the letter of the law is actually counterproductive to the society; and that the way to rectify that, sometimes, is to do an act of nonviolent civil disobedience.
    You look at Martin Luther King, you look at various movements we've had, the women's movement, where people did that. But they did it with a consciousness. They did it with a commitment to nonviolence. And there's a great history, a great American heritage, of this tradition. And so what the Ruckus people were attempting to do is to try to channel that body of work and have it be a resource for people if this is something that they needed to do for their various campaigns, the various issues that they were working on.
    After about a year or so of being involved — I never worked for them; I would come in and be a climb trainer at camps — I just have a broader perspective. That's a very tactics-oriented group, and I like to look at the big picture and see what is really going on as our society is changing and evolving.

SCVTV: You were one of the demonstrators at the 2000 Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles, right?

Quigley: I had some friends ... at that point I had been sort of out of demonstrating for a few years. It was in L.A. and I had some friends who are working with a tribe down in Columbia, the U'wa. They were doing a march with these giant puppets, and they asked me to carry one of the giant puppets, so I went down.
    But I always felt that demonstrating at conventions is not really, at this point in time, not really productive.

SCVTV: What was the goal? Isn't the Democratic Party typically sympathetic toward environmental causes?

Quigley: The message was very specifically, in that instance, about the U'wa people and the destruction of their rain forest in Columbia. It was very specific. There was an attempt to get (then-Vice President) Al Gore to support that.

Miami Beach
Miami Beach
Top: A thousand people, arranged by John Quigley into the form of a Picasso painting on Miami Beach, present a message about free speech and civil rights on Saturday, Jan. 17, 2004. Bottom: closeup. Photo by Peter Andrew Bosch/The Miami Herald (used by permission).

SCVTV: What were you doing in Miami Beach on Jan. 17, four days before the tree was moved?

Quigley: I've got to go back a little bit. I have an eclectic — I have a lot of different interests. I like to do a lot of different things, and one of those things is through the education programs that we've been doing for over 10 years.
    We bring a lot of kids to the beach every spring for the storm drain education program. They do beach cleanups ... in Los Angeles, down at Dockweiler State Beach. There were a couple thousand kids, and I had the idea, while they're cleaning up the beach, why don't we have them send out a message? So we asked the teachers and said, "Do you guys want to spell out 'Clean Up L.A.?'" And so they did, with 2,000 kids, and it kind of established a tradition which, over time, has grown into doing things like dolphins and whales — simple messages that reflect the education program — about protecting wildlife and about keeping the beaches and oceans clean.
    Well, the skill that I developed from that ... has become a big part of what I do for a living now. ... I'm to a point of recreating Picassos on a large scale with thousands of people, and doing it for various messages. So because of the growth in this work, I was asked to come to Miami to do a message about free speech and civil rights.
    It has to do with the group Greenpeace, which right now is under federal indictment for a protest that they did about illegal mahogany shipments coming from the Amazon. The activists already paid the price; they were sentenced to several days in jail for boarding a ship.
    I felt like that was an example where this is going too far. We need to protect our country, but we need to do it constitutionally. We need to protect our rights. We need to remember what democracy is all about.
    So they asked me to come and do one of my artworks. I found an old Picasso from 1959 which was about the political persecution under (Spanish dictator Francisco) Franco. It has a man standing behind three bars, releasing a dove. So we recreated that with the words, "endangered freedoms."

SCVTV: You arranged 1,000 people on the beach in the shape of this painting?

Quigley: Exactly. It was over a football field long.

SCVTV: Are there groups you won't work with?

Quigley: I won't do an image that I don't believe in. That's the first time I had ever worked with Greenpeace, doing an image like that. I don't do logos. I don't do corporations. My motto on this is "collaborative art for the common good." When you gather thousands of people into a form, I think it's a sacred experience. The message has to be something that is the best for everyone, because people won't get into it if they don't believe in it.
    That's pretty much it. It's about social and environmental themes which reflect what I think, where society needs to grow.

SCVTV: What do you do for a living? Who pays you?

Quigley: First of all, I am sort of a man of simple means. I don't live elaborately.

SCVTV: You spent 71 days in a tree —

Quigley: That was a stretch. That was tough, financially. But basically the state of California gives me a grant to do the aerial artworks with the kids as part of the education program. I also go into schools, and I still do assemblies. I did one about 10 days ago, teaching about storm drain education. It's really teaching kids about responsibility, and don't throw trash on the ground, because that trash can end up at the beach.

SCVTV: So you're an environmental consultant.

Quigley: I guess you could call me that. I do that. But most of the consulting is in the realm of education.

SCVTV: SCOPE didn't pay you to sit in the tree.

Quigley: No.

SCVTV: And Greenpeace — did they pay you?

Quigley: The event in Miami, they hired my production company to do that. But the tree was a different — that's one of the things that always angered me. Because that became sort of spin from (Supervisor Michael D.) Antonovich's office and all that.
    If you know the background of what it is to be trained in forest defense from a native tribe, where you're dealing with elders and chiefs, it's an honor to do that. And that hurt — that whole angle where they were trying to somehow paint me as a mercenary or something like that. Because no one sits in a tree for that long unless they absolutely believe in what they're doing. There is no price that could be paid that is worth that, in going through the winter storms, and the frost-bitten toes, and everything that goes on with that. That's something that comes from the heart. That's passion.
    But I do, in my other work, I obviously get compensated for going in the schools, and since the tree, I've been made offers to do public speaking and I've gone and given speeches various places.

SCVTV: Is the tree going to live or die?

Quigley: I believe in miracles. My mind — all the rational thoughts were saying, don't move the tree; it's going to kill the tree — but my heart and my spirit say that Old Glory will live. Because Old Glory has a miraculous spirit.

    See this interview in its entirety today at 8:30 a.m., and watch for another "Newsmaker of the Week" on Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. on SCVTV Channel 20, available to Comcast and Time Warner Cable subscribers throughout the Santa Clarita Valley.

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