A day after making an impassioned — and ultimately futile — defense of a cottonwood tree that shut down a work site, brought in police and nearly landed him in jail, Steve Thomas continued to stand his ground.
Saving trees, Thomas said, is his life’s purpose.
“I feel that’s what God created me for. I feel peace and fulfillment more than in anything else when I help save trees,” he said.
In what can only be described as a purely Santa Fe story, Thomas went on a one-man rescue mission Wednesday, risking life and, well, limb, to stand beneath the stately, decades-old Sena Plaza cottonwood as it was being felled by a work crew.
The incident stopped the chain saws for a time but also led Santa Fe police to charge Thomas on two counts — criminal trespass and assault — after he was accused of striking one of the workers.
Thomas, 67, denied hitting anyone and maintained Wednesday he wouldn’t have done anything differently.
The owner of Tree Doctors 911, Thomas said he was about to depart Tuesday morning for a meeting in Albuquerque when he received a phone call from a friend notifying him the beloved Sena Plaza tree — which had provided shade and comfort since at least the 1930s — was being cut down.
“I told my secretary, ‘Put all of my appointments on hold,’ ” and then immediately headed to Sena Plaza, he said.
Thomas disputed police reports that said he jumped over a barricade, tied himself to a tree and pulled on ropes that workers from Southwest Fire Defense and Tree Services were tied to.
Thomas claimed he simply pulled up a netting barrier, entered the construction area and stood still — engaging only in a verbal argument with men who confronted him for being there.
“I was just standing under [the tree],” he said.
When one of the contractors threatened to call the police, Thomas said he told the man, “Go ahead.”
“I have that cowboy mentality: When you see something happening, you stand up and do something,” he said.
After officers arrived, Thomas was detained but, for medical reasons, not jailed, according to police reports. Thomas said he has prostate cancer.
“I’m sick. I didn’t feel like doing this, but if I didn’t do something, no one would have,” he said. “Even if I don’t feel good, I’ve gotta take a stand.”
Standing with trees is something Thomas said he was born to do. He started learning about them at a young age from his father, Ollie Thomas, who owned a Clovis-based nursery.
When he was 8 years old, Thomas observed his father inject quinine, a drug commonly used to treat malaria, into a peach tree to stop insects from harvesting in the tree’s bark. Watching the tree come back to life, he said, triggered a lifelong mission.
Throughout his teens and into his adulthood, Thomas had a number of nature-related jobs across Eastern New Mexico. He worked at a farm and a feeding company, and he spent a great amount of time helping his dad at the nursery.
In 2000, he bought an Albuquerque-based tree nursery and eventually transformed the business into what is now Tree Doctors 911, which does business in far-off locales.
Since the business’s inception, Thomas said, his team has saved hundreds of thousands of trees worldwide — from a more than 100-year-old kapok tree in Costa Rica that was threatened by a highway project to an unknown 200-year-old species in Brazil, as well as some 2,500 piñons across Santa Fe and Albuquerque last summer during a severe drought.
He said all but five were revived.
Thomas called Southwest Asset Management’s decision to remove the 65-foot Sena Plaza cottonwood a “tragedy.”
Furthermore, he said, it was ironic: Despite concerns the aging tree’s limbs could fall and pose a threat to Sena Plaza customers — Southwest Asset Management said two had dropped since 2015 — Thomas said the big cottonwood was “the healthiest tree out there.”
Meandering through Cathedral Park on Wednesday afternoon, Thomas pointed to Siberian elms, Douglas firs, ash trees and blue spruces — almost all of which he said have some sort of parasite or fungus.
It was clear those problems pained him. But Thomas said all of them could be saved.
Most trees, he said, can be revived from injecting natural remedies, such as stem cells and humate soil conditioners, and by spraying pesticides to kill burrowing insects.
Liliana Sandoval, a close friend of Thomas’ who works alongside him at Tree Doctors 911, said Thomas’ passion “might not make sense to other people, but it makes sense to us.
“It’s a mission. It’s in his heart,” she added.
Thomas said he understood he could have been hurt by standing beneath the cottonwood Tuesday.
But dying for a tree, he said, is a worthy cause.
“Without trees, we’re done for. … They’re the greatest thing mankind has, no doubt about it,” Thomas said.
“They’re silent warriors,” he added. “We have to protect trees, like they protect us.”