I've been blogging about the City of Salem's War on Trees ever since City officials engaged in unethical backroom dealmaking so five gorgeous Japanese Zelkovas on downtown's State Street -- a.k.a. the U.S. Bank trees -- could be cut down for no good reason in 2013.
In 2014 I wrote:
Here's a dirty (or let's say, sawdusty) open secret: the City of Salem doesn't really care much about trees.
It allows beautiful healthy trees to be cut down when they don't need to, bowing to special interests rather than the broad public interest, often ignoring expert arborist advice in favor of making "political" tree removal decisions.
I've talked with several of Salem's outstanding arborists. They've been blunt with me about what a crappy job City officials do with this town's street trees. They're infuriated by the B.S. going on here.
It seems that who you are, and who you know, all too often determines whether a tree lives or dies, is saved or is removed.
This is a horrible way to manage Salem's urban forest.
Citizens should be able to have confidence that the care of this town's street trees is founded on what's best for the community, not what a particular business or property owner wants done with publicly-owned trees.
So when I heard that the large bigleaf maple on the corner of Liberty and Mission (just south of the Library) was going to be allowed to be removed by the City of Salem in the course of new construction on that lot, naturally I thought here we go again.
That thought was based on a conversation I had with an arborist who said the tree didn't need to be removed, but the City's Urban Forester, Jan Staszewski, was going to sign off on this anyway.
I happened to attend a South Central Association of Neighbors (SCAN) meeting where the issue of the bigleaf maple came up. Even though I was just a guest, I couldn't resist telling a representative of the contractor, "You need to get a second opinion about the tree, because the City of Salem is prone to allow trees to be cut down that don't need to be."
Fortunately, City Councilor Tom Andersen (who represents this part of town) apparently took the initiative to do just that, since today I got a copy of an email from a SCAN representative with the subject line "Thank you Councilor Andersen."
The email said that the application to remove the bigleaf maple had been withdrawn after a second opinion on the health of the tree was provided by an independent arborist from Lake Oswego. Here's the arborist's report:
Download 17-07-25 854 Liberty Street SE Tree Risk Assessment
The arborist, Suzie Spencer, found that the tree has problems and risks. But they can be mitigated.
What I found most irritating about Spencer's report were these two statements:
(1) "Excavation occurred approximately 11-feet from the tree’s trunk to the east running north to south; the structure is 14-feet 6-inches from the same point. On the west side of the tree, a new sidewalk has been constructed 5- feet and 5-inches from the west trunk surface. The sidewalk is curved to match the curvature of the tree’s root system. A construction company representative indicated the excavation was complete at the time of our visit. He recalled the tree had tree protection, the project arborist was on site during excavation, and that no major roots were encountered."
(2) "On the cut bank of the excavated area, east of the tree, three feet from the foundation is a large, 12-inch diameter severed major structural root, with several smaller cut roots around it. The root had some decay with 75-percent of the circumference intact with live wood (see Appendix 3, Figures 4, 5, and 6)."
So actually the tree was damaged during construction. Either City officials gave permission for this to happen, or City officials turned a blind eye to the cutting of a major 12-inch structural root. Here's some screenshots of photos from Spencer's report.
This tree was damaged on purpose, pretty clearly. The construction crew compacted the ground close to the tree. They cut a major 12-inch root. And City officials seemingly stood by, allowing this to happen.
I've heard stories from local arborists that this happens frequently. If a developer wants a healthy tree removed, construction equipment just happens to damage it to such an extent the City of Salem's Urban Forester then says, "This tree can't be saved; you can cut it down."
In this case, City Hall is just a block away from the construction site. And still the contractor felt free to compact the soil and cut a major root.
If Councilor Andersen hadn't stepped in and apparently pressured City officials to get a second opinion on the tree, it would be a goner by now. Like I said, there's plenty of evidence that the City of Salem bends over backwards to allow developers to remove trees that should be saved.
Hopefully lessons will be learned from this near-debacle.
A second opinion from an arborist outside of Salem always should be gotten when a significant tree is slated to be cut down after getting permission from City officials. Salem's Urban Forester simply can't be trusted to do the right thing, given the political pressure to cave in to developer demands.
And citizens need to be highly skeptical when they hear from City officials that a tree needs to be removed because it poses a risk. Sometimes this is true. Sometimes it isn't. The City of Salem has a poor track record when it comes to caring for this town's trees.
Until that changes, people who love their neighborhood's urban canopy need to demand solid evidence from an independent arborist that a tree truly needs to be cut down. That allowed this beautiful bigleaf maple to be saved. Other trees deserve the same chance to survive.