Op-Ed by Peter Deene: Soule Park tree tragedy offers opportunity

web Peter Deneen

By Peter Deneen

The county’s report is complete; we poisoned the 82 mature trees in Soule Park to death with herbicides.

On a slightly longer timescale, we’ll kill ourselves with them, too. The Soule tree tragedy offers us critical feedback and presents a rare opportunity to reimagine and recreate Soule Park in a new way.

First, the feedback: Activism works! It was encouraging to read in the investigation that our county representatives are aware of Ojaians’ opposition to herbicides, so they limit their use. That means we are being heard, but it also means we need to turn it up. The mass tree killing is clear feedback that ecocidal practices have consequences and is a crystalline invitation to stop using herbicides, especially when it isn’t an absolutely got-no-other-option last resort, e.g., in certain instances of invasive Arundo eradication.

Of course, the herbicides were only part of the story. The trees were pre-weakened by drought and groundwater pumping. We know now that we must leave more water in the creeks. We receive less rain than decades past and climate change is going to extreme-ify things. To keep more water in the ground, we must take less from it and take measures to sink more into it.

Second, the opportunity: Sycamores aside, we just killed a lot of non-native trees at the confluence of San Antonio and Thacher creeks, a crucial junction in our watershed. Let’s not miss this chance to replace those dead ash and maple trees with natives. Soule Park will be a clear-cut hellscape once the standing tree skeletons are removed. 

A suggestion: While we’ve razed the park, let’s go big — let’s take the opportunity to rethink the landscape!

Soule Park is stunning, and yet it is the most underutilized green space in Ojai. The mid-20th century thinking in its design is showing. Despite its views and greenery, Soule Park is an inaccessible 223-acre expanse of turf and non-native trees. Significant irrigated grass on the margins could be returned to native vegetation, saving water and supporting more life. Imagine the bike path, instead of abruptly terminating at the industrial park on Bryant Street, continuing into the park, allowing ingress by foot and bicycle. We can have all the green space we want for recreation while significantly enhancing life in the park and reducing water consumption.

Of course, this would all be a closer reality if Ojai had local control of Soule Park, which lies within Ojai city limits. This breach of public trust begs Ojai to assume stewardship of the park from the county, an idea that has support among Ojai’s City Council. The county has proved to be an inept steward of the park thus far. According to its report, the employee responsible for applying the county’s herbicides for the past 32 years was not certified — more than enough time for bad practice to do serious damage. A tissue analysis of the trees also revealed high levels of chloride and salt from surface irrigation.

Between the tragedy and the opportunity it presents is the real threat of continuing the unacceptable status quo, where new trees are replanted, a newfangled cocktail of herbicides is applied, excess turf isn't reduced, native vegetation remains absent, cyclists and walkers continue to be stymied by an anticlimactic end in the business park, and Soule remains an oceanic expanse of grass with few visitors and little life. Let’s not let this happen.

Trees communicate their feedback over time. Now is the moment to recognize what they are saying and adjust. The loss of Soule Park’s trees is a timely opportunity, if we choose to integrate their tragic lesson.

— Peter Deneen is an Ojai native, former U.S. Coast Guard officer, and holds a master’s in Climate + Society from Columbia University.


Not a subscriber?  choose your subscription plan.