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Guest Opinion: What would a Tree City do?

The Mail Tribune recently reprinted a 1916 story headlined "Historical Huge Elderberry Tree Cut For Firewood." The article stated the century-old tree “has been ruthlessly cut down and destroyed.” The landmark tree had sheltered Jacksonville pioneers, and the reporter wondered “why this historic tree was made the victim of the ax.”

Fast forward a century and you’re thinking: "We’re a Tree City USA, that can’t happen here."

Or could it? Because we face the possibility that the huge, beloved Fremont cottonwood on Clay, Ashland’s 2013 Tree of the Year, may meet that same fate.

Although Ashland flies the Tree City flag, recent controversial tree actions raise questions about the support our public and private sectors have for what that flag represents. It’s one thing to meet Arbor Day Foundation requirements to receive Tree City designation. But to us, just meeting requirements is not enough. If we are a Tree City and truly respect trees, our policies should consistently protect them.

So let’s look at our public sector’s recent actions concerning trees. At the Plaza, a rushed remodel resulted in removal of healthy, mature trees the city said were hazardous. Yet photos of cut rounds showed the trees were perfectly sound from bark to heartwood. Then we learned that negligence or incompetence during the remodel caused the untimely death of the sweet, red sunset maple. Removing and losing shade-providing trees at the heart of our city doesn’t seem like what a Tree City would do.

In another example, it was recently decided to use taxpayer dollars to "beautify" Ashland. Many of us thought the city was already beautiful. So to "beautify" the Pioneer parking lot, the initial plan presented to council (and thankfully modified by them) proposed removing a majority of trees. The city planted these trees to shade the lot about 15 years ago, paying for irrigation and maintenance since. Removing trees to "beautify" landscapes doesn’t seem like what a Tree City would do.

Regrettably, we witness equally questionable tree deeds from the private sector. Businesses lobbied the Transportation Commission to remove more trees on the Plaza to create a parking bay for delivery trucks. A Plaza restaurant owner had two public street trees topped so his patrons "would have a better view." To make decisions that prioritize trucks and views over trees doesn’t seem like what a Tree City would do.

That leaves us citizens. How are we doing? Caring for a tree requires knowing what it needs to live, and many are learning to be good stewards. Other folks think they "own" trees and can do with them as they please. In the last year a big sequoia on Park and five mature trees in the Railroad District were said to be unsafe and removed. Tree City residents, to us, would always seek alternatives that preserve trees.

Moving forward, we have another opportunity to demonstrate how a Tree City acts. Last March, the council voted to seek a tree removal permit for the Fremont cottonwood so the Clay street property could be sold for affordable housing. Hearing passionate citizen testimony for the tree, however, councilors challenged us to find a way to save it.

We’ve answered that challenge every day since. We met with many stakeholders and decision-makers and gathered 1,000 signatures on our petition. Some have invested hours designing an alternative plan that saves the Tree of Hope, has room for affordable housing and adds a community garden. Throughout, we have kept our message positive and have only sought allies.

Other stakeholders have decided. The Tree Commission unanimously denied the tree removal permit and the Planning Commission voted no. The clock is ticking on the final decision. Whether the headline will be like that for the elderberry, we don’t know. The councilors will decide, so we urge everyone who loves this tree to ask them to find a win/win outcome. We are ready to help in any way, including fiscally.

Working together to preserve our environment and its trees while achieving other important city objectives — that’s what we believe a Tree City would do.

Gregg Trunnell, lead petitioner, lives on Clay Street in Ashland. Bryan Holley is former chair of the Ashland Tree Commission.