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Downtown trees quite a draw

Arthur Lee Jacobson discusses an apple tree in Winslow parking lot. - Douglas Crist/Staff Photo
Arthur Lee Jacobson discusses an apple tree in Winslow parking lot.
— image credit: Douglas Crist/Staff Photo

Now, advocates say, if islanders could just save more of them.

Long before a slew of condominiums began to rise along Winslow Way, the ancestors of the timber with which they’re built started their own ascent toward the heavens.

Today, a few senior specimens still stretch leafy appendages across eves and sidewalks.

But development threatens scores of historic and champion trees that, in absence of public awareness and stringent removal guidelines, conservationists say may become casualties.

“We need buildings,” said Seattle plant expert Arthur Lee Jacobson. “But we also need to preserve trees. Every tree has a story behind it, but some deserve special protection.

“Some are worth saving because they’re likely to survive surrounding construction – others aren’t. It’s important to find a balance.”

Jacobson, an author and consultant, led a group of about 35 tree enthusiasts on a tour of Winslow trees Wednesday.

The event, organized by island plant pathologist Olaf Ribeiro and paid for by the city, was the first of what Ribeiro hopes will be many such tours designed to educate people about the perils facing local trees. Ribeiro got the idea during a visit to Walla Walla, where a similar tour in that city became a tourist draw.

“I was told that people come from all over to take the tour,” he said. “I thought why not do that here?”

Wednesday’s turnout, he said, was encouraging.

“One woman came from Redmond,” he said. “I was surprised someone would come so far, but she said she was always willing to travel to places where people were working to protect trees.”

Highlights of the tour included a century-old red oak with a 110-foot canopy spread next to the historical museum and downtown’s tallest tree, a 158-foot Douglas fir in the ravine near the ferry terminal.

Ribeiro hopes future tours will bring recognition and, more importantly, protection to the city’s historic trees. Another tour, probably this summer, is in the works.

Ribeiro said the city’s current ordinance doesn’t offer trees enough protection.

While he thinks a new ordinance would help, he is more concerned about education.

“It would be best to have a better ordinance just in case,” he said. “But any time you tell people not to do something it doesn’t work. The best thing we can do is make them aware of important trees. Since we have the technology to move trees, there’s no reason to cut them down.”

The city created a Heritage Tree Program earlier this year to designate and protect especially significant trees from being removed.

City Planner Marja Preston, who helped organize the event, said three trees have been nominated for the program so far.

Selected trees will receive a plaque from the city explaining their significance.

Meanwhile, development continues with the hope that builders will respect the history of the trees on their property.

Ribeiro said many new developments have been receptive to his pleas for the trees by incorporating them into their designs rather than cutting them down.

Cass Turnbull, president of PlantAmnesty, a nonprofit committed to good pruning practices, said overly restrictive tree ordinances force property owners to keep hazard trees, but that a lot of Pacific Northwest ordinances are too lax, causing many precious trees to be fallen or mutilated by supercilious saws.

Like Jacobson, she favors balance, but said part of the problem is hardwired into the opposing constituencies.

“Tree lovers tend to be peaceful and compromising,” she said. “Whereas view-mongers and those who want to cut trees down tend to be well-organized and more disposed to bullying.”

Jacobson advised islanders to avoid hasty decisions in favor of thoughtful planning.

“There are two sides to the story,” he said. “A lot of people tend to lean toward private property rights instead of the public good. But people don’t live that long, and even if they do, most of them move around like a fly on a window.”

“The community at large will long outlast any individual – I believe we should err on the side of public good.”

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