The felling of 148 trees on county parkland next to the runway at Rancho Murieta Airport began Wednesday morning.
The tree-cutting at the Rancho Murieta Airport was already under way Wednesday morning when Sacramento County Deputy Parks Director Jill Ritzman led a media contingent from the airport parking lot to county parkland between the runway and the Cosumnes River. A backhoe was loading huge logs and leafy debris from felled black walnut trees into a truck on the dusty levee road as the group arrived.
The county is cutting down approximately 148 oak, walnut and cottonwood trees and trimming a similar number 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 county faced a $1,000-a-day fine if the work didn’t begin by Aug. 15. The fine is in effect for every day work continues past Sept. 15. The work was able to begin after a biologist confirmed Monday there were no active raptor nests in the work area. The requirement is one of many environmental considerations for the project, and a biologist is on-site daily to monitor the work.
As the work continued in the background, Arthur J. Negrette, legal counsel for the airport, told reporters the airport was in danger of losing its day permit to operate as well as the night permit because of the safety issues the trees pose for pilots.
Nobody wants to remove the trees, he said, but the courts agreed with the airport that the county had to comply with state and federal regulations. He said the airport’s inability to operate 24 hours a day is "a major inconvenience" for airport tenants and users.
Arthur J. Negrette, lawyer for the airport, talks with reporters as work goes on.
The airport is owned by the estate of the late businessman Fred Anderson. After Anderson's death in 1997, the family trust made unsuccessful efforts to sell the airport and offered it to county and state agencies with the goal of keeping it an airport.
The airport seemed to be facing complete shutdown when the tree issue came before the county Board of Supervisors in 2002, but the threat to day operations was addressed by the county's decision to cut down 10 trees at the end of the runway. At subsequent hearings in 2002 and 2003, local pilots and airport business operators spoke in support of removing the trees necessary for the restoration of night operations. Negrette told the supervisors a possible sale of the airport hinged on having 24-hour operation.
In 2004, the airport took legal action against the county to have trees removed. The airport won a court ruling in 2005 and the county lost its appeal of the decision.
In 2006, Murieta West, a development proposal by local landowners including the owner of the airport, called for adding "aviation-related residences" and expanding the airport business park and hangar storage.
When asked on Wednesday, Negrette said the trees have not been a factor in any accidents at the airport.
It will take a week to cut down the trees and three weeks to clear the debris, according to Chris Andis, communication and media officer for the county. "There is a very small window of time this can be done," Ritzman said.
The trees are part of a riparian environment that supports a variety of plant and wildlife. In addition to raptors like Swainson’s hawk, the area is also habitat for the valley elderberry longhorn beetle, a threatened species that is completely dependent on elderberry shrubs.
On-site biologist Mary Maret, senior natural resource specialist for the county, said the state department of Fish and Game requires measures to protect the “critical habitat” of the beetle. Maret has flagged elderberry bushes in the project area and the workers have been alerted to take precautions.
Although the environmental impact report for the project specifies that the tree trimming and removal should be done without the use of heavy equipment "to prevent additional damage to riparian vegetation and soil compaction" and "trunk sections from trees larger than 24 inches (in diameter) should be left on-site," heavy equipment is being used and the trees are being removed from the site. The change in approach came about after the Central Valley Flood Protection Board decided the cut trees couldn't be left on-site in the flood plain of the river, Maret said.
"Ideally, you keep (heavy equipment) out," she said. "(The workers) are being really careful. So far I haven’t seen much damage at all."