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After years of legal wrangling, on Aug. 15 Sacramento County will begin cutting down more than 100 trees at Rancho Murieta Airport to comply with a court order.

The owners of the private airport took legal action to compel the county to comply with Federal Aviation Administration safety requirements after the airport’s night operations were suspended in 2001. The trees are on county parkland located between the airport and the Cosumnes River. The airport is owned by the estate of the late businessman Fred Anderson.

Runway and trees

Trees near the runway at Rancho Murieta Airport will be felled next month.

The county acquired the 129-acre stretch of land from the Pension Trust Fund for Operating Engineers in exchange for the Yellow Bridge in 1979.

“The reason Aug. 15 is the magic date to start work is that’s when (California Department of) Fish and Game allows you to go in because it’s after the nesting season for raptors,” Sacramento County Deputy Parks Director Jill Ritzman said recently. “And we have to have the trees down and we have to be in compliance with FAA by Sept. 15, so we have about 30 days to get the trees down."

The county faces a $1,000 fine for every day it delays the work start past Aug. 15 and the same fine for every day work continues past Sept. 15.

“The (tree-removal) count right now is 148, and there will be some field calls on some of those,” Ritzman said, adding that a similar number of trees is expected to require trimming. “If the tree is going to be taken down by a third and the tree is in poor health, we will probably just remove the whole tree because it’s going to die anyway. If you have to take a tree down by 40 or 50 percent, you may as well just remove it. So there will be a lot of those field calls made by the arborist and biologist.”

The final number will be determined by a tree-by-tree analysis. The environmental impact report for the project notes there are up to 187 trees that now intrude on the airport’s safety zone and approximately 93 additional trees that will pose a risk in the next five years. The county is required to manage the trees and trim them to comply with FAA requirements a minimum of once every five years.

According to the environmental document, at least a dozen oak trees and 66 Northern California black walnut trees will be cut down.

The black walnut is considered the rarest species on the site, and four of the oaks meet the definition of a heritage oak -- a California oak tree with a trunk 60 inches or greater in girth measured 4.5 feet above the ground. The EIR estimates 3,537 inches of tree loss would have to be mitigated, which is typically done by planting a corresponding number of saplings.

The trees are part of a riparian environment that supports a variety of plant and wildlife. Swainson’s hawk nests have been found near the tree removal area, said Todd Smith, environmental analyst for the county Department of Environmental Review and Assessment. The EIR notes the potential for impact is high for Swainson’s hawk and the valley elderberry longhorn beetle, a threatened species that is completely dependent on elderberry shrubs. A 2007 survey of the property located 134 elderberry shrub clusters. The fall run of the Chinook salmon could be affected to a lesser extent.

It’s estimated that roughly nine acres of woodland habitat may be lost as a result of the project.

“Until we get the work finished, I don’t know how much acreage we’re going to disturb in this process,” Ritzman said. “The good thing that’s going to come out of this is that we’re going to be forced to buy … some additional open space land. It would have been sad if we just paid into a mitigation bank. … Once the project is completed then we will know more about exactly how much mitigation is going to be required. We’re mitigating for disturbance for the elderberries with plantings and with an option of paying into a bank. As far as the mitigation related to our stream bed alteration agreement, which is the Fish and Game permit, we are asking if we can buy like property in the area.”

Tree trunk

One of the heritage oaks on the site that's tagged for cutting.

A two to one purchase of land is suggested in the EIR, and may be mandated by the Fish & Game stream bed alteration permit, which would require the purchase of 20 acres if 10 acres were disturbed.

The environmental sensitivity of the area dictates not only when the project can take place but how it is carried out. The EIR describes special provisions for protecting the elderberry shrubs and the trees that will remain, and mandates that “all tree trimming and removal will be performed by hand to prevent additional damage to riparian vegetation and soil compaction from the use of heavy equipment or vehicles. The cut trunk sections from trees larger than 24 inches (in diameter) should be left on-site to prevent further disturbance of the understory and provide future habitat for wildlife. Downed logs provide habitat and value to wildlife and the ecosystem, but do not add a significant ignition source for wildfires in terms of fuels management. All slash materials (limbs, branches and other woody debris) resulting from trimming and removal activities should be removed from the study area and properly disposed at an appropriate off-site location.”

The county Project Planning Commission approved the project at its June 23 meeting.

An alternative that would have saved trees by lighting them was rejected because it wouldn’t satisfy the safety requirements of the project.

Ritzman said the tree work will cost the county about $200,000. The county is preparing for the Aug. 15 start date by mowing, fencing tree protection areas, and checking the fencing for the elderberry bushes, she said.

Last year, county officials estimated the project would cost $620,000, with most of the funds going to habitat restoration for the beetle. The costs are the county's responsibility, according to the court decision.

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