Out on a Limb
Attention, shoppers: You can forget about parking in the shade, at least when you're headed for Metrocenter. Despite Karen Bauernschmidt's best efforts, the west-side mall recently axed more than 300 trees (most of them eucalyptus) growing in its expansive parking lot, a move that Bauernschmidt, a radical environmentalist, tried to block by posting herself in the biggest tree in the lot. Although she was eventually ejected for trespassing -- make that tree-spassing -- Bauernschmidt hasn't given up the fight. She's launched a campaign to educate all of us about the importance of fossil fuel and how trees can save the lives of homeless people. But don't fear Karen Bauernschmidt. Her bark is worse than her bite.
New Times: So you climbed up into a tree to protest Metrocenter's parking lot expansion. I just have to ask: Does Metrocenter need a parking lot expansion? I mean, do people still go to Metrocenter?
Karen Bauernschmidt: I don't know, but the parking lot is in bad shape and needs repaving. But in no way does repaving need to kill 340 trees. Mature, largely healthy trees -- there were very few sick trees. Their claim is that the trees were dead, dying and diseased. Now, they let landscapers put trees in a place where they wouldn't get the water and nutrients they required -- a parking lot. What they did was abuse the trees and kill them.
NT: What were you doing up in a tree?
Bauernschmidt: I went to the mall to buy something, and I saw them cutting down these trees. There were dozens of trees down, and I looked closer and there were big X's on all the trees. I went home and ranted and raved: I called the TV stations, the newspapers, my friends. The next morning I went back to sit under one of the trees, a really big, gorgeous one, and I was going to sit there and keep them from chopping it down. I got there at 8 a.m. and it was too late. It was already felled and they'd removed all evidence of 75 other trees from that quadrant.
Bauernschmidt: While I was there, security guards came, and I said, "I'm not going; I'm a citizen." They called the police, and the police came and told me I was trespassing, and I said, "Thirty people died from exposure to heat in Phoenix last month. If they'd been in these 340 trees, they would be alive."
NT: Homeless people in trees! But do we have homeless people on the west side? I thought they were all downtown, where the shelters and the good drugs are.
Bauernschmidt: They are. But the point is that Arizona has the smallest municipal park area per capita of any state in the country. The developers own this town. They have acquired the right to kill our environment for the sake of making money.
NT: Who's doing this? Is there a committee of tree killers?
Bauernschmidt: [Metrocenter owner] Westcor claims they hired a tree specialist. Now, my guess is that the tree specialist is one who was going to make a hefty sum for chopping down those trees. To take down a tree is big bucks.
NT: It's a conspiracy!
Bauernschmidt: Well, Westcor says they're refurbishing. That they took down 340 trees but they're going to put 400 new trees up. But there's no comparison in bio-mass between a 30-year-old tree and the sapling of a native tree here. It's the equivalent of taking down a Christmas tree and putting up a toothpick. And all of the tree islands they had in the parking lot, they've wiped away.
NT: But how happy is a tree in a parking lot, anyway?
Bauernschmidt: Happier than a tree that's been cut down, I'll tell you that.
NT: Good point. But maybe they could have just moved the trees into your front yard?
Bauernschmidt: You can't transplant a tree that weighs, I don't know, seven or eight tons. And I live in an apartment. That first day, I just took pictures. And the police said, "If you come here again, we'll arrest you." And I said, "I'll be back."
NT: So Schwarzenegger.
Bauernschmidt: The next morning I came back and climbed up in a tree, and after a while one of the security guards spotted me.
NT: Go, Tree Lady! And what were your demands?
Bauernschmidt: I wanted to send a message; actually, a question: What is the tree requirement per capita in the U.S. to offset fossil fuel emissions?
Bauernschmidt: Fossil fuel is something that takes millions of years to make -- gas, oil, coal, vegetation that has been compressed in the earth for millions of years until it becomes something we can burn. Right now, the U.S., in fueling its energy addiction, produces one ton of carbon dioxide per human being on the planet.
NT: This is all too much for me. Can you explain what this has to do with tearing down trees in a parking lot?
Bauernschmidt: When [one] plants a tree, you dig channels and fill it with all kinds of compost and seeds and stake it and water it, so that as it grows, its roots get nourishment every way they grow. You fill the bed with humus --
NT: Hummus? You mean like a dip made from garbanzo beans?
Bauernschmidt: No. It's what happens to the ground when dead stuff falls on it. It's another word for fertile soil.
NT: Okay. So you were up in the tree --
Bauernschmidt: The security guards called the police, and a police car pulls up and a man gets out and says to me, "Ma'am, what would it take to get you down from there?" And I said, "If you can tell me the tree requirement per capita in the U.S. to offset fossil fuel emissions, I'll come down all by myself."
NT: You were trading the life of the tree you'd climbed for the answer to a riddle?
Bauernschmidt: What I wanted to do was educate the community about the value of vegetation, particularly in Arizona, where people die from heat exposure.
NT: Okay. So you're up a tree, and you're throwing down environmental riddles.
Bauernschmidt: Yes. And after a time, they start spreading out these wooden workhorses around the base of the tree. And I said, "What are you doing?" And they said, "Well, if you fall down from there and get run over, it will make us look real bad." Hours went by, and I napped a little.
NT: Wait. How do you nap in a tree?
Bauernschmidt: I was resting. Meditating. Then another police car comes up with a ladder in it. A gentleman comes up the ladder and identifies himself. He says, "Karen, our goal is to get you down out of that tree. If you don't, we'll have to bring in the fire department and get you out by force."
NT: How does one eject someone from a tree? With a great big hook?
Bauernschmidt: These people are well trained at extricating people from every situation. The next thing he said was, "I called the U.S. Forestry Office, and they don't know the answer to your question." Now, I was surprised that they had actually taken my request seriously. I was honored by that detective taking the time to try to get an answer.
NT: You're sure he wasn't bluffing?
Bauernschmidt: Yeah. He was so affable. It was to the point where I felt I'd made my point. He said, "The [Forestry] office doesn't open 'til Monday morning, it's Saturday morning, we don't want you up in that tree for that long." I said, "Well, I like you, so I'll come down for you. But are you going to arrest me?" He said he wasn't, but that I could never step foot on the property again --
NT: Wait! You can't ever shop at Metrocenter again?
Bauernschmidt: No. I'm banned for life.
NT: What are you going to do?
Bauernschmidt: Go back. I mean, who there knows my face? Who there cares? I could dye my hair.
NT: I don't know. You might be shopping at Thom McAn one day and someone will grab you and drag your ass out of there.
Bauernschmidt: That would be patently absurd.
NT: I guess you could shop at Christown.
Bauernschmidt: I don't even know where that is. So, anyway, I came down from my tree, and the police detective offered me a ride home. And he was driving a compressed-natural-gas car. So you see? The situation turned out perfectly.
NT: Except for one thing: You mentioned before about how trees provide oxygen. Now that they've torn all those trees down, will the kids at Castles-n-Coasters start passing out?
Bauernschmidt: [The oxygen is] not that dramatically low. But I'll tell you this: During the whole time they were trying to get me out of the tree, the police officers, the reporters, the security guards -- they were all standing in the shade. That's the shade of 340 trees that were about to be murdered, trees that would provide these people shade no longer.
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