Woo-hoo! My poignant photo of a citizen's flower memorial placed on a stump belonging to one of the U.S. Bank trees that were needlessly cut down in 2013 won the City of Salem's Tree City USA photo contest.
Well, let's say that I'm virtually sure that I won, given the announcement on a rather obscure Facebook page belonging to the City, City of Salem Public Works Water.
Since my photo was the largest, and my name was mentioned first, I'll accept a win on behalf of the five beautiful Japanese Zelkovas that were killed for no good reason by clueless City officials and the U.S. Bank president, Ryan Allbritton.
(Congratulations to Stephanie Smetana and Robert Duvernet for their top finishing photos. I readily admit that yours are more beautiful. Mine is more of a citizen activist statement, not a work of art, though beauty, as they say, is in the eye of the beholder.)
My fantasy was that I'd be able to make an acceptance speech for my Tree City USA Photo Contest win at a City Council meeting presided over by Mayor Chuck Bennett. I'd say something like the following.
Which wouldn't make Mayor Bennett happy, but in this case the truth is more important than a City official's feelings.
The needless destruction of the U.S. Bank trees was a sad moment for me and everybody else in Salem who values our leafy friends.
I spent $727 on public record requests to understand why these trees were killed even though expert arborists and the City of Salem's own Shade Tree Advisory Committee recommended that they be pruned, not removed, because they were healthy and weren't causing any problems with the sidewalk (or anything else).
I learned that the trees were removed because the Public Works Director, Peter Fernandez (who is still on the job), had made a backroom deal with U.S. Bank president Allbritton to cut the trees down several years before U.S. Bank applied for a tree removal permit.
The shameful details of this unethical episode are in my tell-all report, "Outrage: Salem's U.S. Bank Tree Killings." Subtitle: The true story of how City officials and the bank president cut down five large, healthy, beautiful downtown trees for no good reason, and misled citizens about why they did it.
I want to thank everybody who voted for my photo of a stump which was all that remained of a large, healthy, beautiful Japanese Zelkova that, along with its four sister trees, made this block of downtown's State Street a draw for both visitors to Salem and residents alike.
After they were killed needlessly, I vowed to never forget. Here's what I said at the end of my "Outrage" report.
City councilors sat on their hands while chain saws killed the entirely innocent trees. So did the Mayor and City Manager. This was a shameful, outrageous episode. Yet if it spurs reforms at City Hall, the trees will not have died in vain. On a personal note… I took this photo of the beautiful Japanese Zelkova at the corner of Commercial and State Streets after telling the tree, “I promise that I will do everything I can to save your life.”
I kept that promise. Yet the tree still was killed. I’m deeply sorry for that. Call me crazy — I’ve been called worse — but I felt a strong connection with that tree. I still do. It was a friend of mine. I know this, because I’ve got tears in my eyes as I write these final words, and I don’t cry very often. Usually just when someone or something I love touches me.
There were quite a few "good guys" in this saga who, along with me, did their best to save the U.S. Bank trees. But they were speaking truth to power, and in the end, power won.
Along with Public Works Director Peter Fernandez, Mayor Chuck Bennett is one of the City officials responsible for this needless tree killing who are still at City Hall. I described Bennett's part in the U.S. Bank tree debacle in "Chuck Bennett's shameful role in U.S. Bank tree killings."
This is how that post started out:
Chuck Bennett is running for Mayor of Salem. I'm sharing an email about Bennett that voters should read before they choose between him and Carole Smith, the other candidate for Mayor.
The email shows that Chuck Bennett was complicit in a shameful moment -- the needless killing in 2013 of the five large, beautiful, healthy Japanese Zelkova trees on downtown's State Street. At the time, as now, Bennett represented Ward 1, which includes the Historic District.
Yet Bennett not only did nothing to save the U.S. Bank trees from being cut down for no good reason, he actively participated in an unethical backroom deal between Peter Fernandez, the City of Salem Public Works Director, and Ryan Allbritton, the U.S. Bank president.
The whole story is in my tell-all 2014 report, "Outrage: Salem's U.S. Bank tree killings."
Now, some may feel that I entered the 2017 Tree City USA Photo Contest just to rekindle disturbing memories of the U.S. Bank tree killings. Well, all I can say is... you're right! This is exactly why I entered the photo of the stump.
Becoming a Tree City USA town is easy. The qualifications are minimal. The City of Salem takes way too much pride in the Tree City USA banner that hangs in the City Council chambers, because City officials haven't done a very good job of taking care of Salem's trees.
The U.S. Bank debacle is just one example.
I talk with arborists who are astounded at how the City of Salem allows street trees to be mangled by poor pruning. Many trees were cut down needlessly as part of the poorly-planned Salem Health development of the Howard Hall property. The North Campus of the State Hospital is losing many beautiful trees that some say could have been saved.
And even though the destruction of the U.S. Bank trees led to positive changes in the City's tree ordinance, a citizen recommendation for an Urban Tree Commission wasn't accepted by the City Council in 2015, despite pleadings by me and other tree lovers.
So Salem has a long way to go before it truly deserves its "Tree City USA" designation. Hopefully this town will improve the way it treats trees. I'm optimistic, given the fresh faces on the City Council. But until this happens, let's not forget the U.S. Bank trees.
They were killed needlessly. Yet if we remember why, and vow to never let that happen again, the trees won't have died in vain.