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Spare the firs, spoil the garden?

At the request of the Ashland Parks & Recreation Commission and after a one-person “Save the Trees” campaign by former Parks Commissioner JoAnne Eggers, the city Tree Commission called a special meeting Monday in Lithia Park to review a proposal to remove a pair of trees as part of a revision and expansion of the Japanese Garden in Lithia Park. The Tree Commission, which typically offers advice to the Planning Commission and City Council, then voted to spare two 95-year old firs.

Garden designer Toru Tanaka led city officials and the public on a two-hour tour of the park to explain his redesign, made possible by a $1.3 million gift, but attention was riveted on the firs, part of a 12-tree grove planted by the Boy Scouts about 1924, when the park was being created.

In their 20-minute standing discussion, Tree Commissioners were told by Tanaka that two of the dozen firs should come down to make way for a bamboo grove and wall facing Winburn Way. Tanaka noted what he estimated as a 15-degree lean toward the planned garden and the messiness of firs. Parks Superintendent Michael Oxendine said the root systems of fir groups are connected and exchanged nutrients, so if you remove one, it affects all.

Trees get blown down and if that happened, it would create “a big mess” in the Japanese Garden, said Kathryn Thalden, who supported removal. “It’s not that big a loss when you consider 200 trees will be added with the Japanese Garden.”

Many said the trees show no sign of poor health, with Parks & Recreation Commissioner Jim Lewis saying, “Anyone who loves trees, hates to see one removed.” At that moment, the crowd gasped as a red-shouldered hawk flew out of the grove.

Tanaka, who was trained in Japan and was director of Portland’s Japanese Garden, told the crowd, “Everyone thinks the trees are healthy, but in my opinion, they are not healthy.” They lean and pulls on roots, he said, adding they are “damaged.”

Parks & Recreation Director Michael Black said it’s not his job to have an opinion on removal, but pointed out that in the rest of the garden revision plans, not including the Douglas firs, “only those with no chance of survival will be moved.”

At a Parks Commission study session Monday evening, Landt said he recognizes Tanaka is foremost nationally in the field of Japanese Garden design but added he is not an arborist — and the city should have gotten an evaluation of the firs before the garden planning process, so as to head off a zero-sum situation, where the choice might be “cut the trees or no garden.”

Commissioner Landt added, “I want both the trees and the garden.”

Black told Parks Commissioners he has lots of anecdotal opinions that the towering trees are sound and still growing, but he will get a professional arborist to sign an evaluation and put his license number on it.

The decision will be made by Parks Commissioners after a public hearing Jan. 28. That meeting will start at 7 p.m. in the council chamber. A garden map is at amandaglass.myportfolio.com/japanese-garden-designs.

The authentic Japanese garden will be built where the present “Japanese style garden” stands. It will take 20 months, during which the project will be fenced off. A permanent fence will keep deer out.

It’s due to open for fall of 2021 but could be delayed if it has to be redesigned around the firs, said Jeff Mangin, a board member of the Ashland Parks Foundation and a donor of the $1.3 million, in a guest editorial to the Tidings. He wrote that sick trees in the garden will be removed, others will be transplanted and the two firs will be replaced by 15 timber bamboo clumps, which grow to 30-50 feet high.

Manchin says the firs shade the proposed bamboo and its roots will crowd the bamboo and other plants — and the proposed wall would require cutting fir roots, damaging longterm viability of the firs, if they were left standing. Wood from the firs will be used for gates, tea house and other items in the garden, he wrote. The foundation voted for fir tree removal.

In a letter to Parks Commissioners, Eggers said, “Definitely keep my old friends, the two doug firs they have given me (and anyone who wants) their gifts of shade, scent, and sights of red shouldered hawks, as well as their quiet stately presence These trees are native beautiful specimens and, to my mind, are worth a whole Japanese Garden imposed in the area where they are now healthy, sheltering, inspiringTheirs is one of the finest small spaces in Lithia Park. We humans need such places near us.”

Eggers chrocheted “necklaces” to put around the trees, with signs begging to be spared.

John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

Jan. 16: Numerous revisions made to story. to wit: adding that meeting was called at request of the Parks & Recreation Commission; it was Tanaka, not Tree Commissioners, who noted the estimated lean of the firs proposed for removal; correcting identification of Jim Lewis as a Parks, not Planning, Commissioner; clarifying that Michael Black was referring to other plants and trees proposed for removal in the garden revision plans, not the Douglas firs; correcting attribution of quotes in paragraphs 8 and 9 to Rick Landt, not Jim Lewis; correcting the date of the Parks Commission meeting when a decision is expected to Jan. 28, not Feb. 28; correcting the spelling of Jeff Mangin's name; and correcting Mangin's positionon the AshlandParks Foundation to board member, not chairman.

Garden designer Toru Tanaka talks to attendees at a Tree Commission meeting Monay. He proposes the two Douglas firs at center near the Japanese Garden entrance be replaced by bamboo. Photo by John Darling
Garden designer Toru Tanaka, parks Director Michael Black and parks Commissioner Mike Gardiner at Monday's Tree Commission meeting. Photo by John Darling