Downtown elms condemned

DEAD TREES STANDING These elms, which have shaded the Downtown Plaza Park for the last century, are slated for removal by the end of the year.

DEAD TREES STANDING These elms, which have shaded the Downtown Plaza Park for the last century, are slated for removal by the end of the year.

Photo By Tom Angel

The last of the towering American elm trees that have stood in the Downtown Plaza Park for 130 years are coming down sooner than scheduled. This week the Bidwell Park and Playground Commission voted unanimously to remove the remaining 21 trees post-haste, accelerating the city staff recommendation that calls for the trees to be taken over the next two years.

The action was spurred because, on May 18, an elm toppled in high winds, taking a neighboring linden tree with it and injuring a park visitor. A second elm uprooted at the same time and was removed the next day. The fallen trees revealed that their interior deterioration, long suspected by city staff, was further advanced than thought.

There was a schedule, established by City Council in 1992, to remove the trees over a 20-year period. Twenty-two have been removed so far, replaced by oak burr trees. The idea was to replace one canopy for another over an extended period of time so the transformation would not be obvious.

Last year an arborist report suggested 10 of the trees be removed during the next five years and the remainder be re-evaluated before being cut down.

But, with the Park Commission vote, the trees are slated to be removed sometime this year.

“The commission said to take down the trees ‘now,’ which means as soon as practical,” said Park Director Dennis Beardsley.

He said time will be allowed for those who may want to appeal the removal, but the matter does not have to come before the City Council. The city manager, Beardsley said, has the authority “in emergency situations to make these calls.”

It is not clear how long it will take to remove the trees, and there will be no new events scheduled for the park in the indefinite future.

Beardsley said he is unsure at this point how the popular Friday-night summer concert series will be affected.

“We can’t just put up a cyclone fence and close off the downtown park,” he said, adding that efforts will be made not to disturb downtown life.

The Parks Department has about $51,000 in place to begin removing the elms. That amount, Beardsley said, could cover the removal of up to 10 trees.

“We’ve never taken down that many elms at once,” he added. “There may be a unit of scale at work here, and the cost could go down.”

The trees are suffering from root rot, which may have been triggered many years ago when 18 feet of fill dirt was added to raise the downtown. The added soil on the trees caused the elms to put out new root systems above the old ones. But the lower systems began to disintegrate and rot, a process that eventually worked its way up and into the rest of the trees.

The city has been very fortunate that more folks have not been injured by the park’s trees, the park director said.

“We’ve had gigantic limbs come down on Sunday morning instead of Saturday night [when there are many more people in the park]," Beardsley said.