Tree huggers aren’t letting go or giving up on their efforts to save 54 mature ficus trees along Second and Fourth Streets in Santa Monica from being uprooted and converted to compost or replanted in the city.

About one month after the Santa Monica City Council approved a Second and Fourth Streets Pedestrian and Streetscape Improvements Project that called for the removal of 54 ficus trees and 21 palm trees, about 80 activists and tree lovers gathered for a tree savers rally on Sunday, September 23rd.

The activists convened at the corner of Fourth Street and Broadway — to rally against the city’s plan to remove and relocate or convert to compost 54 of the city’s mature ficus trees.

After the rally, activists tied green ribbons, donated by Michaels arts and crafts store, and posted “Save These Trees” notices on the ficus trees set for removal along Second and Fourth Streets between Broadway and Wilshire Boulevard.

“The rally was a big success,” says attorney and activist Susan Hartley. “We got a lot of positive response. People where shocked that the city was considering cutting down the trees.”

The newly-formed Santa Monica Tree Savers group is not giving up and is discussing new and creative strategies to try to save the ficus trees that are to be removed for the streetscape improvement project.

“We’re going to do everything possible legally and politically to save these trees,” says local activist Jerry Rubin.

Of the 54 ficus trees set to be removed from Second and Fourth Streets, 23 were identified as “diseased” by the city and will be converted to compost. The other 31 — along with 21 palm trees — will be replanted elsewhere in the city.

But Hartley, Rubin and others disagree that the 23 ficus trees are “diseased.”

“The whole diseased thing is a misrepresentation,” says Hartley. “They’re not diseased; they’re healthy trees. I think the main reason the city wants to remove these trees is the design factor. They decided the ficus trees are out of fashion, so, ‘Let’s put in different trees and different patterns.'”

On Friday, September 21st, the city put up a “Notice of Intent to Remove Trees” on the trees slated for removal.

The work is scheduled to begin approximately 14 days from the date of the notice — probably in early October.

The notice says that “the criteria for removal [of trees] included but were not limited to internal decay, extensive root pruning, poor canopy structure, damaged canopies from oversized vehicles, design factors and too large for relocation.”

The notice also states that two Ginkgo biloba trees will be planted in every removed ficus tree’s place.

“They’re going to kill 23 trees,” says Hartley. “That just means, in with the chainsaw, out with the trees. This is a serious issue, beyond emotional and the love of trees. The decimation of these trees can have serious consequences on Santa Monica’s fragile ecosystem.”

Chris Paine, who has been very involved in the tree saving efforts and is the director and writer of Who Killed the Electric Car?, agrees.

“I think this is a very poor decision and if Santa Monica wants to be talking removing mature trees in 2007 in the midst of global warming and all the reasons we need to stop removing trees, then how are we supposed to expect to combat these problems in other places?” Paine said. “Santa Monica is trying to be a green city, so it should protect and manage its existing trees and not be destroying them in the name of street improvement.

“I’m sorry it’s gotten to this phase. If they end up chopping down these trees, I think it’s going to be embarrassing and a sad day for the city.”

The “core” of the Santa Monica Tree Savers activist group was set to have a meeting with city manager Lamont Ewell at 1:30 p.m. Wednesday, September 26th.

“We just want him to accommodate our concepts and delay the tree removal aspects of this plan,” Rubin said. “They can do the other aspects of the plan without removing the trees.”

Other aspects of the $8.2 million streetscape improvement project include new pedestrian lighting to illuminate the sidewalk area, the addition of decorative uplighting to the trees, upgrading the electrical service, irrigation and structured soil, enlargement of the tree wells, accessibility improvements, repair of ficus tree-damaged sidewalk and curbs and the installation of curb extensions and new curb cuts, city officials said.

About $600,000 will go toward to the removal and relocation or conversion to compost of the trees.

The Santa Monica Tree Savers group gathers weekly to discuss possible ways to save the trees — and meeting attendance keeps growing, organizers say.

The next public tree savers meeting is at 7 p.m. Thursday, September 27th, in the Third Floor Community Room in Santa Monica Place.

There will also be an “emergency tree savers march” at 6 p.m. Tuesday, October 2nd, which, as Rubin points out, happens to be Mahatma Gandhi’s birthday.

“What would Gandhi do?” Rubin asked. “He’d march. So environmental activists are going to indeed march with the same spirit as Gandhi.”

The march will be followed by an emergency Santa Monica Tree Savers planning and action public meeting at 7 p.m. in the Third Floor Community Room in Santa Monica Place.

“After seeing the energy of the people, I’m certain no one’s going to give up on the tree saving efforts because what we’re asking for is very reasonable and very important,” Rubin said. “What we’re asking for minimally is that the city halt the tree removal aspect of the larger street improvement plan.”

Councilman Kevin McKeown, who was the lone vote against the streetscape improvement project calling for the removal of the trees, showed up for a tree savers meeting earlier this month.

“My opposition remains to the removal of healthy mature shade trees using public money, particularly now as the community is increasingly indicating a desire to keep these trees right where they are,” McKeown said.

McKeown explained that, to keep the trees where they’re at, the process would be for the public to ask for the decision to be reversed, which he called a “difficult path.”

“It would require one of the councilmembers on the prevailing side to reverse her or his vote and ask for reconsideration, then

it would take four votes out of the full seven to change the decision,” McKeown said.

Some activists are still confident that this decision can be overturned and that the ficus trees can be saved.

“Sometimes the right decision comes at the last minute,” says Paine.

Hartley agrees.

“I think that basically the City Council wants to do the right thing, that they didn’t realize the sentiment toward these trees, and I’m hopeful that they will reconsider and change their position on these trees — that they will save the trees,” Hartley said. “Should that not happen, there are legal avenues [we can take] to try to save the trees.”

The tree savers group is now working with attorney Tom Nitti, who has volunteered his services.

“I cannot stress enough that people are emotional about trees, that they love trees,” says Hartley. “It’s fantastic and it adds to their determination and fervor to save these trees.”

Hartley and Rubin say that, if it comes down to the city removing the trees, there will be “civil disobedience.”

Both — along with several others — plan on chaining themselves to trees, Rubin says.

“But the way I feel about it, we have other things that we’d rather be doing than taking the last resort to chain ourselves to trees,” Rubin said. “We don’t want to do that.”

Hartley thinks there’s an easy solution to the problem.

“Instead of relocating trees, the city should just be planting new trees,” she said. “Why spend all this money to relocate mature trees that have 100 more years to live, possibly harming them, so they won’t live their natural life span? Why not just spend the money planting new trees? This is insanity.

“Santa Monica needs to stop its plan of mass tree destruction and plant more trees, not destroy healthy, mature trees because of ‘design factors’. Our city is better than that. We need to stop the chainsaw massacre.”