Park elms executed by chainsaw

Downtown Plaza Park, before

Downtown Plaza Park, before

Photo By Tom Angel

Downtown shoppers, workers and passersby watched with mixed emotions last week as one by one, every elm tree in City Plaza Park was felled by a crew of chainsaw-wielding workers. As the rotting trees were sawed apart, they gave forth a putrid stench that hung over the downtown area like a hot fart. By the weekend, all that was left of the thick, green canopy were a few decayed stumps and holes in the ground.

But there was almost no outcry in this tree-loving town over the death of the 21 elm trees—planted when the park was laid out about 130 years ago—as the city appears to have made its case that the elms had become dangerously rotten and needed to be taken out immediately. In fact, the trees had already been identified as being weak and were scheduled to be felled anyway when, on March 18, one of them fell in a windstorm, partially taking out another tree and injuring a park visitor.

City Manager Tom Lando said the city had done three studies over the last decade indicating that the trees were becoming dangerous, but after the March incident, it became apparent that the time had come for the trees to come down.

and after

Photo By Tom Angel

“It was real clear that there was a liability there,” he said. “Virtually every one of [the trees] had major problems.”

Those problems apparently stemmed all the way back to a 1900 decision to raise the level of the park with fill dirt, which led to the decay of the elms’ roots. The trees were then topped several times in the last century, which seems to have hastened their demise. As far as Lando could recall, the city has never been sued as a result of trees in the park causing injuries, but it has been sued over oak tree accidents in Bidwell Park.

Lando also noted that the city saved about $25,000 by felling the trees all at once as opposed to stringing the operation out until 2012, as had been the plan. The savings was realized because the contractor, North Valley Tree Service, had to mobilize once instead of several times and was allowed to keep the logs, which it was reportedly selling. Some of the wood from the trees that fell in May was saved by the city, which hopes to use it for a public art project or plaque.

Still, the park looks positively barren without the elms. Whether it is a psychological effect or not, the park seems several degrees hotter, and with the columns of stately trunks that once lined the park’s pathways gone, the plaza’s attractiveness to visitors is undoubtedly diminished. City urban forester Chris Boza, whose job it is to manage city trees, said he couldn’t help but feel a tinge of melancholy as he watched the trees fall.

“It was definitely a sad event,” he said. “I tried my best to look at it from a pragmatic standpoint.”

Boza said the trees are slated to be replaced with an unspecified number of 10-to-20-foot Burr oaks, which will be planted as part of a recently approved park remodel. The layout of the new park will probably not be affected, Boza said. If anything, the trees’ removal could mean that Chicoans will have a newly spruced-up park by the end of next year, instead of five years from now, as had been the plan.