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Central Point kids' tree project ends sadly

CENTRAL POINT — After planting 10 sweet gum trees near the playground and giving them names and birth certificates last November, Central Point Elementary students were shocked and dismayed Tuesday when they found three of them — Billy Bob Thornton and "twins" Cocoa and Crystal — cut down and covered with salt.

Officials believe the 6-foot trees, planted along Second Street on school grounds outside the fence, were cut sometime between the weekend and Tuesday, when the children discovered the dead trees during a morning jog around the school.

Student Jordan Kuikendall said it was hard to understand the need to "just chop someone's tree down!"

"I came across here, I was going to the 7-Eleven with my mom and realized all the trees were gone and I was really, really sad," she said.

"I was wondering why someone would do this. This is our school property and trees are important. They give us oxygen and help the planet."

Added third-grader Jocelyn Allen, "And it's illegal to just kill something for no reason. Why didn't they ask Mr. Rowley (Brock Rowley, the principal) to tell us to just dig them back up and move them?"

Each tree was adopted by a class at the school. The trio of dead trees, planted alongside the likes of Tater Tot, Theodor and Tokyo, were part of a project coordinated by fifth-grade teacher Mack Lewis.

Lewis said the tree plantings taught students lessons about vegetation, the environment and taking the necessary steps to properly plant the trees within city codes, property lines and without interfering with utilities.

"We went through every possible process to make sure we were doing it the right way," he said, noting he grew the trees for three years, from 2-foot saplings.

"After the fact, if somebody said that the trees didn't fit with their goals for the community, a simple phone call would have been nice. And they were nice trees. They could have been easily moved."

Haley Schmidt, a fifth-grader who helped plant Billy Bob Thornton, said she was "really sad because he took a long time to plant and we wanted to see him grow."

Lewis said he was on the playground Tuesday morning when the children told him of the cut trees.

"The kids were doing laps and came up and said, 'Mr. Lewis, Billy Bob Thornton is dead.' "

Adrien Birmingham, 8, whose third-grade class helped plant Crystal, said the tree planting was a "lot of work."

"The people who did it could have just came in our school and said, 'Hey move your trees,' instead of cutting them down and killing them!" she said.

Rowley said he contacted various utility companies and government agencies trying to discover who might have cut down the trees.

"Truly, we would have relocated the trees if they felt like they would have threatened the power lines eventually or root up the asphalt or cause any other problems," he said.

"But there was just no communication."

Contacted by the Mail Tribune, Central Point Public Works Director Bob Pierce promptly checked with public works and parks crews and said none were responsible for the trees' removal.

"We've had problems with vandals. We put trees on Ash Street and had some problems a few years ago," he said.

"We've had crews clearing brush in the right-of-way but we don't do that sort of thing."

Monte Mendenhall, a spokesman for Pacific Power, said crews who surveyed the site Wednesday said the way the trees were cut suggested vandalism. No crews had been working in that area recently, Mendenhall said, and they would not have cut down trees that large without contacting the property owner first.

Lewis said as planting and caring for the trees had been lessons for students, the loss of the trees would provide additional opportunities for learning.

A handful of students at the site Wednesday suggested posting signs, calling a detective and even asking neighbors for information. Lewis said students would make gravestones to place next to the metal posts that had been used to support the trees.

Lewis, a former Planning Commission member, said he resigned years ago after the City Council overturned the commission's denial of a developer's plan to remove a large Port Orford cedar.

For students' sake, Lewis said he would like to determine who removed the trees and allow students to write letters. As Lewis spoke, three students sat at a table eating their lunch.

One girl asked, "Are you sad?"

"Very much so," Lewis replied.

"I try not to be cynical but this kind of thing happens over and over and over," he added. "How can they not become cynics?"

Those who have information on who removed the trees are asked to call Rowley at 494-6500.

Buffy Pollock is a freelance writer living in Medford. E-mail her at buffypollock@juno.com.

Central Point Elementary School students peer through the fence at the dying roots of Billy Bob Thornton, one of three sweet gum trees the students had planted that were mysteriously removed earlier this week. - Bob Pennell