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Fame comes calling for tree advocate Ribeiro

Island plant pathologist Olaf Ribeiro (center) is interviewed by Today show correspondent Bob Dotson (left) earlier this month at the island’s historical museum.  - DOUGLAS CRIST/Staff Photo
Island plant pathologist Olaf Ribeiro (center) is interviewed by Today show correspondent Bob Dotson (left) earlier this month at the island’s historical museum.
— image credit: DOUGLAS CRIST/Staff Photo

The island plant pathologist will be featured nationally on the ‘Today’ show.

With TV cameras rolling, Olaf Ribeiro knelt down amid a tangle of roots to show the nation how some of the world’s oldest trees are saved.

“I don’t believe you can put an age limit on trees,” the bearded and grinning plant pathologist said to Today show correspondent Bob Dotson.

Like a surgeon with his scalpel, Ribeiro sliced through a web of exposed roots spreading from the red oak’s main underground artery.

“How long a tree lives depends on how you treat it,” Ribeiro said, slipping a few root samples in a plastic bag.

Word of the island’s jovial tree doctor has spread far and wide. He was recently featured in a prominent Wall Street Journal article. The Seattle Times profiled him. Now NBC has come calling.

“I think he’s a fabulous person,” said Today show producer Laurie Singer. “He travels the world to help historic trees but he’ll also do the trees of your next door neighbor.”

The Today show interviewed Ribeiro earlier this month as part of a segment celebrating National Arbor Day. While no air date is firmly set, Singer expects Ribeiro to grace TV sets across America this Friday morning or before the end of the month at the latest.

Ribeiro put the national spotlight on a 150-year old red oak outside the Bainbridge Island Historical Museum on Ericksen Avenue. Brought to the island as seedling from the royal Kew Gardens near London by one of Winslow’s pioneering families, the tree now exhibits early signs of root rot.

Many tree health problems are human-caused, Ribeiro said. Roots are often compacted and starved of oxygen by car and foot traffic. Green lawns are another common culprit, as grass contains pathogens harmful to many types of tree roots.

“I’ll take these roots back to my lab and look for lesions or die-back.” Ribeiro told the TV crew. He kept working and talking even after the crew shrugged the TV equipment off their shoulders.

“Wait a minute, Olaf, until the cameraman gets the tape changed,” said Dotson.

Ribeiro looked a little baffled. He stared down at the exposed roots.

“That’s not good,” he said. “This is going to cost me big-time.”

But soon enough, Dotson was again flashing his pearly whites as the cameras rolled.

“So, Olaf, how do you get to the root of the problem?” Dotson asked.

“With a little bit of detective work,” Ribeiro answered, outlining a series of tests he’ll conduct at his lab. If fungal growth is the issue, he may introduce certain bacterial strains.

“I try to tip the balance in favor of the good guys to overwhelm the bad guys,” he said, putting complex mycology and plant biology in simple terms.

While many arborists look up – often in the branches and leaves – to ascertain a tree’s ailment, Ribeiro has pioneered techniques that seek answers below.

His skills are now in high demand, drawing him to other continents to solve the health problems of the world’s most venerable trees. He’s assisted with the recovery of the “Doomsday Tree,” under which England’s Magna Carta was signed, and the many trees adorning the Capitol Campus in Olympia. He provides ongoing care for Britain’s “Tortworth Chestnut,” a 23-inch diameter tree said to have sprung up in 800 A.D.

“It’s an amazing tree,” said Ribeiro. “It seems to continually resurrects itself and keeps going.

The Tortworth Chestnut is what Ribeiro calls a “phoenix tree.” It and others like it appear to die and come back to life, he said. Phoenix trees provide a hint for Ribeiro that some species can live forever if properly cared for.

Some on Bainbridge look to Ribeiro for similar tree preservation miracles, especially those who have witnessed old downtown trees fall as the island’s population grows.

“Crimes against humanity are happening here on Bainbridge,” said Carol Ann Barrows, who watched the Today show crew film Ribeiro. She carried a photo of trees cut during a recent redevelopment project on Wyatt Way. “These are our elders. Their value to the ecosystem is immense but (developers) come here and just...” – Barrows makes a hacking motion with her hand – “I cry when I see that. We can’t live without trees.”

Ribeiro has led efforts to preserve two old trees at the Harbor Square condominium development on Winslow Way. He has recently spoken out against an expansion of Bainbridge High School that would remove 70-year-old cherry trees planted by a Japanese-American community group.

On Saturday, Ribeiro will give tours of downtown’s historical and rare trees as part of Arbor Day celebrations organized by the island’s historical society. While he credits the holiday for raising awareness about trees, Ribeiro hopes to shift some focus from planting new ones to preserving the specimens already rooted in urban areas.

Rapid growth in the Puget Sound region reduced tree canopy coverage by almost 40 percent between 1974 and 1996, says American Forests, a nonprofit group based in Washington D.C. Urban development continues to swallow up forested areas, contributing to declining air quality and flooding problems, according to studies cited by the group.

Tree roots, said Ribeiro, are a necessary component for human survival. They hold soil in place and soak up excess water, while the rest of the plant absorbs carbon dioxide, a contributor to greenhouse gasses, he said.

Trees have some less quantifiable benefits as well, he said.

“There is something about trees, you know, that is intriguing to us and is exciting for us,” he said. “Irish monks from a long time ago talked about the spiritual connection to trees. The ancient books of Tibet talk about that connection.

And now, today, there are studies that show how people in big cities like Chicago feel more at peace and less stress when they are near trees. They calm us down and connect us to the earth and our surroundings.

“I have never met anyone who does not love trees.”

Ribeiro admitted he felt his stress level rise during the two days the Today show followed him around. Once his segment airs, he expects an even bigger flood of emails and phone calls than when the Wall Street Journal put his mug on the front page.

It’s all worth it, he said, if it means more trees thrive.

“How will the tree thank you?” Dotson asked Ribeiro under the old oak.

“By staying alive,” he answered.

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Tree walks

Island plant pathologist Olaf Ribeiro will give two walking tours of Winslow’s historic trees on Saturday as part of the Bainbridge Island Historical Society’s National Arbor Day celebrations. The tours are set for 11 a.m. and 12:45 p.m. The cost is $5 for adults and $2 for children. The celebration, which runs from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., includes short films, activities for children, demonstrations of old logging methods and discussions of how Native Americans used cedar bark. Call 842-2773 to reserve space on the walks.

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