Elderly Aptos couples envision preserving their giant redwoods

by Betsy Herbert

published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel 6/15/2012

The only way to get to Dan and Pat Miller’s house in Aptos is to walk across a 3-ft wide wooden bridge spanning the steep canyon above Mangels Creek. As I cross the bridge, I feel like I’m walking back in time into a fairy tale. The Millers’ house, built in 1931, is dwarfed by the five giant old redwood trees that encircle it.

The Millers, now in their 80s, bought their 1.7 acre property 50 years ago. Since then, they’ve spent much of their life protecting the forest around them, including a 100-acre parcel adjacent to theirs known as Happy Valley, which is graced by 866 old-growth redwoods.

When Happy Valley—part of the old Mangels Ranch—was slated for logging in 1990s, the couple rallied the local community and pleaded with land trusts and State Parks in hopes of gaining support for their quest to include the property as part of Nisene Marks State Park.

Dan Miller, a retired marine biologist from the California Department of Fish and Game, used his scientific expertise to document the Happy Valley redwoods. His work made very clear the public trust value of the property. As a result, the Trust for Public Land eventually negotiated a deal with the owners, and Happy Valley became part of Nisene Marks State Park in 1999.

Given all of their work to protect redwoods, I ask the Millers how they plan to preserve the five old-growth redwoods on their own land. Pat Miller answered, “This property is staying in the family, and our kids feel the same way we do about the trees.”

Just blocks away from the Millers, another elderly couple—who wish to remain nameless—are also considering ways to preserve the old-growth trees on their property. He is an 87 year-old retired engineer who inherited his 5 ½ acre property 27 years ago from his parents. When he speaks about the nine ancient redwood trees on his land, his eyes sparkle with the enthusiasm of a young boy. “I wish I knew how tall they are . . . they must be some of the tallest in the county.”

We hike down to the trees, which rise about 250 feet from the bottom of a canyon below the couple’s house. We measure the distance around the trunk of the largest tree at 28.5 feet. He explains, “I’d like to dedicate these trees to my father, who knew about cared for all types of trees.”

He and his wife worry that after they sell the property or leave it to their children, the trees may be at risk sometime down the line. The couple has reason to worry. Unlike the cities of Santa Cruz or Capitola, which have heritage tree ordinances that protect trees 14 inches or more in diameter, the county’s heritage tree ordinance which applies to unincorporated areas like Aptos, can’t protect trees from state-permitted logging.

While County zoning ordinances currently do not allow redwoods to be logged on residential properties, such zoning is always subject to change.

So, this couple is now considering two options to preserve the trees, pending the advice of a real estate attorney. One way would be to find a land trust to purchase or accept a conservation easement, which would be crafted to protect the trees on the property, and which would apply to all future owners. Another way would be to place a deed restriction on the property.

“We’ve become very connected to these trees,” his wife explains. “We would hate to think that some road or subdivision would one day take them out.”