The headline of a May 28 story in the Mammoth Times read, “When a tree falls in the woods, does anybody care?” Good question. Depends on whose tree it is, where it falls and who’s there to care about it. Sounds like a case for … PROJECT CITIZEN! Right? Well, maybe … maybe not.
On the surface, “Project Citizen” sounds good … a local part of a nationwide program that brings students into the process of making and ratifying laws. Get 20 or so Mammoth Middle 3rd-5th grade Gifted and Talented Education and 8th Grade history students to go before the Mono County Board of Supervisors and present an issue. Give them a chance to experience first-hand what the public process is like.
During its May 18 regular meeting, the Mono County Board of Supervisors heard a presentation from the “Project Citizen” students on preventing people from “being able to cut down large trees in Mono County without a permit.” They even had visual examples of such trees.
Apparently Mammoth Middle School teacher Stephanie Larson, who teaches the afterschool program, returned from a trip last year to find that her neighbors, the Chases, had cut down four large trees, which she said “horrified” her. Larson said she assumed it was against the law to cut down such trees without a permit, but found out that is only the case within the Mammoth Lakes town limits. No such permits are required in the rest of Mono County.
The Project Citizen presentation lacked a staff report due to being sponsored as a late-addition information item by Board Chair Byng Hunt. The Chases were not present for the item. They are, however, certain that the “neighbor” mentioned in the Times story is in fact them, and some of the pictures used in the presentation were reportedly of their property.
While the students’ presentation talked about “the benefits of trees” and the merits of requiring permits for tree cutting in the county, the Chases are concerned that such permit requirements infringe on what they consider private property rights, and that their side of the issue may not have been properly presented to the Board.
According to the Chases, the trees were felled as part of renovation being done on their water and septic system. One of the four was reportedly deemed “dead” by the fire department, which advised it be taken down, as the tree was in danger of falling over and potentially causing serious damage to a water hydrant. The Chases say they deliberated for some time before selecting the trees to cut down.
As is quite evident in the Times story, Larson apparently disclosed what was really behind the “tree cutting” issue to her students. But were they duped? Was it, as has been suggested, part of a personal agenda stemming from a dispute with her neighbors? According to Larson, absolutely not.
Sheet: Did you use your students to advance a personal agenda you had in a dispute with your neighbor?
Larson: “On the contrary, I used the situation to promote student learning. Not long before my neighbor cut down the old growth trees, I attended a workshop on Project Citizen (see description of program below). This project is aligned with the California standards and was a unique opportunity for students to learn about the way our local government is run.
The class project addresses the following state standards: Understand the foundation of the American political system and the ways in which citizens participate in it, describe the basic law-making process and how the Constitution provides numerous opportunities for citizens to participate in the political process and to monitor and influence government, and understand the functions and responsibilities of a free press.
My class was looking for a local topic and this was one they felt passionate about. We brainstormed ideas. Other options discussed were Town Cleanup (already addressed by the Town), recycling (already being done on-campus), allowing bikes at the skate park (the class decided not to pursue this for safety reasons).”
Sheet: Were they directed to study the issue from other angles before making their presentation to the Board?
Larson: “The students presented all sides of the issue. In Project Citizen the students follow a set procedure answering and researching questions such as, ‘Identify the advantages of this proposed policy. Identify the disadvantages of this proposed policy. Identify individuals or groups in the community that are likely to support this policy. Identify individuals or groups in the community that are likely to oppose this policy.’ The policy they wanted to promote in Mono County is similar to the policy already in place in Mammoth Lakes.
The class … felt community members should look at other alternatives to cutting down old growth trees. Their ideas included installing solar panels on hillsides or alternative locations so old growth trees could be preserved. Students observed that, in my situation, the old growth trees were only blocking sunlight three months out of the year due to the path of the sun, thus cutting them down was not highly productive in producing solar energy.
They felt that by simply having another party look at the situation, an alternate solution might have been possible. The students are aware that at times old growth trees need to be cut down, but feel, as do I, that many community members act quickly without thinking the situation through when removing trees from their property. Laws against removing trees indiscriminately were put into place in Mammoth Lakes to prevent this exact situation; hasty decision making that isn’t thoroughly investigated. It is totally appropriate to have the same laws on the books for Mono County as in Mammoth, to prevent hasty solutions without proper investigation or approval from an outside, unbiased source. Had my neighbor (or any Mono County resident for that matter) needed a permit from the county, the trees might have been saved and my neighbor might have had more efficient solar panels.”
That may be, but in any case, this doesn’t equate to clear cutting the rainforest. I’m pretty sure the Chases, who describe themselves as environmentally friendly, didn’t just get drunk one night and say, “Hey, let’s fire up the chainsaw!”
Getting students involved in the civic process is a GREAT thing. Students should get as much exposure and hands-on experience as possible. One day they’ll be able to vote, emerge as civic leaders, and serve on county board, city councils and other decision- and policy-making bodies. (Even the Chases agree on this point.)
“It was an awesome project that my kids did,” Larson said. “I’m bummed about the trees, but ultimately I’m a teacher and it’s about the kids. They’re stoked about it and I don’t want them to think they were being ‘used.’ I would NEVER do that.”
Indeed, the students should be applauded. They exercised their rights and acquitted themselves admirably. As should the Board, which was equally professional, and kept the experience positive for the Project Citizen students.
At the end of the day, what’s permitted in Mammoth Lakes as opposed to Mono County are often two different things, and I’m sure county residents will have their say about any future agenda item concerning tree cutting permits.
Meanwhile, perhaps the point of Project Citizen can be taken beyond the Board chambers.Discord between neighbors happens. Hatfields and McCoys, etc. But that’s part of living in a rural community, and in the interest of civility, both parties should be willing to do whatever they can to meet each other halfway outside of public process. Put the pitchforks down.
Having said that, and this is a general observation not directed specifically at Larson, our students shouldn’t be manipulated for our own purposes. The sad truth is they’ll be exposed to enough manipulation and duplicity in the real world.
Project Citizen is a sound idea, and should be allowed to continue, albeit perhaps with some additional oversight to prevent personal agendas from being disguised as bona fide issues.
Let’s keep our kids involved in the public process, and personal agendas to ourselves. Neighborhood tussles or afterschool programs, we should leave manipulation and duplicity where they belong, with career politicians and bureaucrats, and the pitchforks where they belong, in the barn.