Biologist is charged with clearing non-native plants |

Biologist is charged with clearing non-native plants

Noaki Schwartz

LOS ANGELES (AP) – To local prosecutors, Robert “Roy” van de Hoek is a plant xenophobe wielding a vendetta and large pruning shears. To supporters of native California shrubs and trees, he’s a martyr.

Once again, he’s in court.

The Los Angeles city attorney’s office says the former park supervisor stalked one of the largest coastal wetlands in Southern California, targeting non-native plants. The slain: a ficus tree and myoporum shrubs, a hearty plant with waxy green leaves.

Now van de Hoek is facing six misdemeanor charges that include cutting down the plants and violating a city code that bans injuring vegetation without permission. Each count could carry jail time and thousands of dollars in fines.

The group van de Hoek advises, the Sierra Club Ballona Wetlands Restoration Committee, can remove myoporum shrubs. Van de Hoek may not, said Frank Mateljan of the city attorney’s office.

“Trimming and landscaping isn’t done without authorization from government agencies,” Mateljan said.

For decades, many Californians saw native flora as dry, brown shrubs and grasses better suited to kindling than a garden. Recently, however, landscape designers both professional and amateur have favored native species, which require minimal water or polluting fertilizer.

Few people get in trouble for their support of native species.

Van de Hoek arrived for an arraignment last week looking ill at ease in a borrowed navy blazer that hung limp on his gangly frame. He also brought attorney Thomas Mesereau Jr. – famous for defending Michael Jackson against molestation charges brought by what he cast as overzealous prosecutors.

After the case was postponed, Mesereau would only say that his client would plead not guilty.

Van de Hoek’s supporters say Los Angeles officials long have perceived him as a troublemaker.

“This is an attempt to intimidate the environmentalists,” said friend Denny Schneider, wearing a “Free Roy” T-shirt with a picture of van de Hoek strolling around the Ballona Wetlands in Playa del Rey.

For more than a dozen years, van de Hoek has fought to keep development from encroaching on the 628 acres of grassy marshes that are home to rare birds and plants. A former Sierra Club chairman on Ballona issues, he led tours around the site until a judge recently banned him. His cell phone voicemail explains that he’s out “exploring nature.”

Van de Hoek said he has dedicated his life to “working for nature,” not against it.

Nonnative species can be guilty of working against delicate indigenous ecosystems. One of his alleged victims, myoporum shrubs, can crowd out less vigorous native plants that are home to various animals.

“I love the wetlands and I care about the endangered species that live there, the plants and animals…” van de Hoek said, his voice trailing off with emotion.

Van de Hoek has a documented disdain for nonnative species.

In 1997, he was arrested in eastern San Luis Obispo County. For 14 months, someone had been sneaking around the 250,000-acre Carrizo Plain National Monument, cutting and killing an Australian invader, the eucalyptus tree. Van de Hoek, who had worked as a Carrizo wildlife biologist for the Bureau of Land Management, had been a vocal opponent of some policies that allowed tree planting and fence building.

According to Mother Jones magazine, which named van de Hoek its June 1997 “hellraiser,” the bureau prepared a 100-plus-page case file that included a crime lab’s analysis of his wire cutters and photos of his tire tracks.

Van de Hoek was convicted of vandalism and sentenced to three years’ probation, according to John Dearing, a land management spokesman. Van de Hoek would not comment.

Nearly 10 years later, he is in a similar tangle.

Outside court last Wednesday, after a judge rescheduled his arraignment for Oct. 12, van de Hoek held hands in a circle with his friends and famous attorney.

After reaffirming a commitment to nature, van de Hoek broke out in song, borrowing a refrain from his favorite singer, John Denver.

“I am the eagle and I live in the high country and rocky cathedrals that reach to the sky,” he crooned. “All those who see me and all who believe in me share in my freedom I feel when I fly.”

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