March 22, 2019

Outrage Turns to Constructive Community Action at TCC



Outrage Turns to Constructive Community Action at TCC

Ben Allanoff, left, president of the Topanga Creek Watershed Committee, addresses the TCC Board, from left at table, Gary Jensen, Kelly Rockwell and president Mark Nygard, about the use of herbicides on Ailanthus trees on the TCC property.

Outrage by some Topanga residents who learned that the Topanga Community Club (TCC) Board of Directors voted to use herbicides to eradicate invasive ailanthus trees (Tree of Heaven) on the property, brought about 40 people to the general meeting on August 14.

“I wish this many people would show up at all our meetings,” TCC Board president Mark Nygard said before calling the meeting to order.

In light of last year’s success by the TCB Roadside Committee that convinced Caltrans not to spray herbicides along the Boulevard, the resulting call for a toxin-free Topanga by Topanga Creek Watershed Committee (TCWC) president Ben Allanoff, efforts by the Topanga Chamber of Commerce (TCoC) to make State Route 27 a designated scenic highway and ongoing coverage by the Messenger, it seemed ironic that the TCC Board made the decision to use herbicides without, what many attending the meeting felt, fully informing not only the TCC membership but the community at large.

Anticipating that emotions were running high, Nygard asked for a list of people who wanted to present their case and admonished them to proceed in a civil manner. A limit of five minutes was given to each speaker. Following officer reports by the Board, Gary Jensen introduced Bill Neill, who has been an herbicide applicator for 35 years. Jensen explained the reasons for the TCC decision. “Since this is designated as an emergency Community Safety Refuge (CSR) by T-CEP, we had a lot of trees removed up here. Regarding the ailanthus, as soon as you cut one tree down, the roots take over and send up shoots. We tried for three years and it made the situation worse. The old pavement was being destroyed by their roots. With the new pavement and underground utilities that were recently put in, we are at the point where we need to take care of the tree roots before they destroy those as well.”

While ailanthus trees do produce seeds, they propagate mostly by a long, lateral root system that throws up suckers that become trees. The more they are cut the more suckers they produce. Unlike suckers, seedlings can be easily pulled out by hand. For Neill’s presentation the meeting was moved out to the parking lot where the trees growing on the steep slope around the parking lot had been treated with the first application of the herbicides. Neill, explained the products used, Imazapyr and Triclopyr, and the process that he began on July 15.

“Ailanthus trees are considered a noxious weed in California. They are hard to control,” he said. “Following the first application, we can see some results now but it’s a slow-acting process. We worked only on the trees around the perimeter of the parking lot.”

Neill demonstrated a long-handled applicator that uses bullet-like shells half filled with herbicide mixed with wax that are pushed into bark around the circumference of the tree. “We start with a basal bark treatment,” he explained. “I used an axe to make vertical cuts into the tree at the base to facilitate penetration into the tree where the herbicide works systemically. There is no exposure to the environment; everything stays in the plant. It moves through the long root system and the suckers that grow off them. There’s a whole bunch of little sprouts now,” he said. “Let them grow because I need them to work with. After rain next year there will be more, but a year from now there won’t be much left.”

Asked if the Triclopyr migrates into the soil after the root dies, Neill said it stays within the tree system and fully degrades in about a year.

Neill is scheduled to make another application in the fall and one more in spring.


Following Neill’s presentation, the meeting moved back inside where Ben Allanoff made his case for non-toxic management, laying out a cost/benefit/risk analysis based upon his research of the chemicals involved.

“Informed decision making typically consists of understanding and evaluating the risks, costs and benefits of various choices before you,” he began. “Cost is predictable and quantifiable. Risk is a cost that may or may not happen, and which may or may not ever be quantifiable.”

Allanoff suggested there were three choices:

Option 1, Do Nothing—The cost of doing nothing is more destruction of the new pavement and less room for oaks. The benefits are shade and no expense of time or money. No risk.

Option 2, Herbicides—According to the Plant Conservation Alliance retreatments are needed for a number of years. The U.S.D.A. Forest Service estimates 1-5 years.

Costs are fees to contractor, up to four times annually, until the job is done; labor to cut dead trees; disposal of cut material; costs for restoration of site.

Benefits are control of unwanted trees; elimination of danger to parking lot; contractor is responsible for execution and results.

Risks may be the loss of goodwill in the community; the herbicide leaving the targeted tree through its roots, and absorbed into roots of neighboring, non-target trees.

Option 3, Non-toxic Management—Allanoff’s presentation.


Allanoff’s research took issue with Neill’s statements about the safety of the herbicides. He sited the following concerns:

According to the Nature Conservancy both Imazapyr and Triclopyr have been shown to disrupt the normal growth and nutrient cycling properties of microorganisms, fungi, mosses and algae; all of which perform critical functions to maintain a healthy ecosystem. Since the chemicals work according to entirely different mechanisms, it is presumed that these effects arise from the presence of the inert ingredients, which are common to both.

Inerts are chemicals that are proprietary secrets of the chemical companies, which escape the scrutiny of the EPA, because they are described as merely carrying the active ingredients, although much research, like that cited above, that these ingredients are not without their hazards. In the case of triclopyr, these unidentified inerts have shown to be significantly more toxic to both humans and animals than the “active” ingredient. (Source: CATS, Moorman, T.B. 1989. Overview of the effects of pesticides on microorganisms and microbial processes related to soil fertility. Official Prod Agric. 2(1):. 14-23)

Both chemicals are shown to be toxic to honey bees with unknown chronic effects. A 2012 study showed both chemicals reduce the number of exposed butterflies that emerge from pupation by roughly one-third. No studies exist on effects on invertebrates found in the soil.

Imazapyr interferes with the synthesis of essential amino acids in plants and can be highly mobile in high pH soil. Persistence in soil is dependent upon soil composition, acidity, microbial activity and weather. The drier it is, the longer it persists in the soil. It lasts longer in low pH soil. Estimates of how long it stays in the soil range from two months to six years. The manufacturer says that in drought conditions it can stay in soil for over a year. Breakdown products can be toxic and it interferes with nutrient cycling in soil.

Triclopyr mimics plant hormones, is very mobile in soil (USEPA) and inhibits the growth of soil fungi. Estimates of persistence in soil ranges from 10 days to six months (USEPA).

The breakdown byproduct, TCP, is very mobile and more persistent than Triclopyr, is toxic to bacteria, disrupts normal growth of animal nervous systems, and accumulates in fetal brains when pregnant mothers are exposed. (Bulletin of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology).


Allanoff then suggested methods for non-toxic management, among them cutting down the trees that had been tried for three years by the TCC.

“Treat it more or less like all the other plants you don’t like,” he suggested. “Cut or remove them seasonally. Remove sprouts while they are young. Pull smaller specimens, if you can get the main root along with the trunk. Mow regularly, before resprouts can get big. Remove and safely dispose of cut portions, especially including leaves and seeds. Encourage the growth of desired species in their place. Don’t look for a quick or permanent solution. Understand that new seeds will inevitably be deposited by wind, birds and other animals. Cut in early summer and re-cut aggressively, especially through the summer, to drain the energy stored in the roots and prevent photosynthesis. More frequent re-cutting will result in quicker demise of the tree. Don’t waste time and energy pulling lateral roots. “

Costs for these methods would be paid or volunteer labor for cutting and disposal of cut material; weed pulling tools; and restoration of the site.

Benefits would be the elimination of damage to parking lot and infrastructure; restoration of site; enhanced connection to and reputation of TCC among TCC members and community; a positive example for others; community building (if it is an in-house, volunteer effort)

Risks would be failure; further damage to parking lot; injury to volunteers (If it is an in-house, volunteer effort).

In an e-mail to the Messenger following the meeting, Allanoff expanded on his brief presentation at the meeting.

“I think it is important to recognize (a) that Bill Neill made a number of claims— especially in regard to the poison not leaving the treated tree —that are widely understood in the scientific community to be false and (b) that someone who makes his living by administering poison is not an unbiased source of information on the subject.

"It is shocking and irresponsible that it would not occur to him or the TCC to post signage in the treated areas in locations that are typically swarming with children and other members of the public.

"If the TCC is willing to spend money on poison, why is the burden of volunteerism placed upon the non-toxic approach? It seems like a clear case of a double standard.

"Finally, considering the interest in this issue, and the risks that have been outlined, why not put a hold on the use of poison until there is a greater consensus among the membership?

"I do agree in principal with Mark’s statement that people need to back up their opinions with meangingful action. Topangans will have to decide how much poison they want in their bodies and their environment. My work is to try to give them the best information I can find, so that they can at least make well-informed decisions.”

Following Allanoff’s presentation, the other speakers were invited to present their views.

Heather Widen loved the idea of removing the trees by hand. “There needs to be signage each time chemicals are used and there should be a general vote if it should happen again. This is an opportunity to keep the TCC property sustainably maintained. I don’t agree with the chemical treatment.”

“I voted against it to give more time to get the idea out to the membership but it was treated as an emergency,” Board member Jayni Shuman said. Asking Neill if his company provided signage, she suggested a motion that signs be made.

Nygard defended the Board’s decision and expressed his frustration at getting things done. “I saw that stuff wrapping around our pipes and infrastructure. It’s about the daily business of maintaining these grounds. You see all the improvements that have happened here over the last four years and you see the same faces getting the jobs done. For years and years, nothing was being done except talk.”

Carolyn Day, the creator of the Children’s OrganicGarden responded to Nygard's comments. “I want to thank the Board. I see you work very hard on things we don’t see. I got this crazy dream that there could be a children’s garden and convinced some surfer dudes to dig the pipes deep enough to bring water to the garden. There are no toxic chemicals and people can walk barefoot. The TCC gave me a lot of support. But [after the herbicide was applied] my kids played with some of the Ailanthus saplings, brought the leaves to me, then went to the garden and ate from it the day after they sprayed. We have more than 100 families working in the garden. I have access to volunteers who want to work with the TCC.” Day later volunteered to head the tree removal committee.

Acknowledging Day, Elaine Hansen remarked that “the garden was a wonderful surprise,” then shared her personal experience with ailanthus trees. “Twenty-four years ago we cut down one tree on the property where my husband’s family has lived for 50 years. On the piece by the house we cut them down five to seven times a year. They are coming up under the houses and bring the pavement with them. I understand Mark’s urgency about getting rid of them. I’ve been here with five people and volunteer off and on. You need to know what you’re getting into with these trees. Ours are on a slope, too. Getting it all down to the root system, when we invest that much in infrastructure for you here, I’m for this (herbicide use), as long as it’s limited, there is signage and it’s kept it away from the playground.”

Noting the larger-than-usual number of people attending the meeting, Gabrielle Lamirand put in a plug for membership in the TCC, saying, “I’d like to encourage you to be here more often,” then continued on the topic at hand. “It would be nice if we could solved the problem without herbicides. Bill [Neill] should be allowed to finish what he started. Ailanthus is killing an oak on the slope. I suggest that everyone here who is concerned to come, take a section of the trees we haven’t sprayed yet and get rid of them. Please come and help get rid of them where we can. Get out your shovels, tools and start digging.”

Before moving on to the remaining agenda items, Nygard wrapped up the discussion saying, “There’s a large [untreated] piece we left and, if you’d like, I would love for you to get involved. I’d like to give everyone the opportunity…” and singled out Allanoff who is not a TCC member. “Roots are coming up around all the pipes under the trailer and around structures. But don’t just come and dig it up and walk away,” he admonished. “This is ongoing. When you sign up, you sign up. Whatever it takes.”

Motions were made and seconded that the TCC would place signage around the affected areas but would allow Neill to complete the two additional applications in the area started.

Volunteers should contact Carolyn Day at (310) 467-4949; ­­