The trees have it

The trees have it
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By David Rogers. November 27, 2017. BLOWING ROCK, NC – A lot of discussion lately centered around Memorial Park’s dying trees. Public outcries even protested what folks had heard were plans for clear-cutting the park, rumors that turned out to be misguided interpretations of what has actually been said, even if many feel the reported corrective measures are best termed, “drastic.”

Blowing Rock News coverage of Blowing Rock Town Government is made possible by a sponsorship from Blowing Rock Medical Park and PLUS Urgent Care, divisions of UNC-Caldwell Health Care System

Are plans to remove dying trees that have become a liability and replace them with young healthy trees really that drastic, especially if plans are implemented to protect and extend the lives of the new trees?  For whatever reason there has been significant, even uninformed procrastination about dealing with the problems associated with what have been professionally documented as diseased and dying trees.

But before we get to the trees, let’s look at this from a little different perspective

My Toothache

When I was a freshman in high school, I got a toothache, but didn’t tell anyone. I didn’t want to add to my parents’ concern about money and, in my naivete, thought that in time the tooth would heal itself. The problem would just go away, or so I thought.

There were quite a few clues that we were, to be kind, “economically disadvantaged.” Put another way, we suffered from insufficient and scarce financial resources to take care of our everyday needs.

We just have to listen to them, not ignore them.

To help out, I worked in the school cafeteria’s dishroom so that I could eat lunch for free before going to my next class. A fellow named “Oscar” was the only other person working with me. Oscar and his older brother, Roy, were the only African American students among our enrollment of about 2,000. I am not sure how Roy escaped working in the dishroom for meals like his brother, but maybe it was because at 6 ft. 8 in. he was the star center on the basketball team.

Oscar was older than me, so I only got a chance to work with him for two years before he graduated. For the last two years, I worked in the dishroom by myself. I guess everybody else in school was providing for their daily nutrition in some other way.

Another clue that we were “poor”, of course, was that I could always hear my folks arguing about money. Mom wanted to get a job as a bookkeeper. Dad always said, “No” — even though a second income to the household was a quick remedy to the family “problem” of scarce resources.

This was a time and culture where stay-at-home moms were the rule, rather than the exception. Plus, male pride that the man of the house is supposed to be the one “bringing home the bacon” was especially well ensconced in the attitudes of low income, Dust Bowl and Great Depression survivors.

As my toothache worsened, I stayed real skinny. Dad thought that I was doing real well in P.E. I didn’t tell him that I was only eating soup and drinking milk or other liquids because I couldn’t eat solid foods. I looked forward to Mom serving up some mashed potatoes and gravy at dinner.

Eventually, though, they found out about my tooth decay when they had to rush me to the hospital emergency room. My untreated cavity became an abscess, a cornucopia of infection. I was running a high fever, alternating with cold chills.

Although I thought I was saving my parents money by not telling them about the toothache, I ended up costing them more money than they would like to have imagined. That tooth had to be surgically removed and I recall getting root canals in two others almost at the same time. I could not give you a scientific explanation for any of it, but can still remember the pain once the Novacain wore off – and my parents’ distress about the money I had cost them.

Blowing Rock Has A “Tree Ache”

So what does this have to do with Blowing Rock?

One Commissioner told Blowing Rock News that he never heard about the tree problem until late last spring when the clear-cutting rumor started, but members of Blowing Rock Appearance Advisory Commission (BRAAC) and Town staffers told us that the problems have been reported and discussed for a few years now.

We haven’t been able to determine if an earlier study was done, but a professional for the North Carolina Forestry Service (NCFS) published a report of the tree conditions in March 2016. Little was made of it at the time, at least by Town Council.

But the issue resurfaced this past spring.  When the problem and its controversy reached fever pitch in the early summer of this year, at their mid-year retreat Town Council asked Parks and Recreation Director Jennifer Brown to get an updated report from the NCFS.

Similar to the 2016 report, Nancy Stairs, the Director of Urban Forestry for NCFS, advised the members of Town Council in her most recent report (published publicly for the November Town Council meeting) that most of the big red maples in Memorial Park that fronted Main Street were dying and needed to be removed and replaced.  She added that they pose significant liability to the Town in the event a tree falls, either in whole or in part, and inflicts personal injury or property damage.

Like Cancer, a Silent Killer

It is easy for someone who is not a professional arborist to look at a tree with seemingly healthy leaves sprouting from its branches and conclude that the tree is healthy. Allowing those individuals to make decisions about the trees’ actual health is dangerous.  Just like my parents didn’t know that I had a toothache that would develop into near-tragedy (and cost them more money), the signs of physical failure in living things is not always readily apparent.   I have known people who were living with cancer and no one knew until the last weeks before their death or they were finally admitted to the hospital for chemotherapy or radiation, or both.

Compounding the problem of course is that those trees grew to be a treasured part of town central’s ambience. For decades, kids have played under them. Visitors and residents alike have bought ice cream cones at Kilwin’s or downstairs from Sunset Tees and walked across Main Street to lick and slurp while sitting on a park bench, protected from the sun under the big red maples. Yes, those trees in the park are Rockwellian Americana at its grandest.

We don’t get to choose our right answers.

I looked at a photo in the Postcards of Blowing Rock, Volume II, recently of the Watauga Hotel that formerly occupied the site that we now know as Memorial Park. I couldn’t be for certain, but one of the trees in the foreground looked very much like one of those red maples fronting Main Street.  If it is the same tree that stands there today, it is pretty old since the Watauga Hotel burned to the ground in 1926.

Where Are We Going From Here?

At its November meeting, you could argue that Town Council punted once again in the face of the evidence. Perhaps appropriately, rather than instruct Town staff to implement what at the time seemed only a “sketch” of an action plan, they asked Parks and Recreation Director Jennifer Brown to formalize a detailed plan, in concert with the North Carolina Forestry Service arborist who authored the earlier reports, and to involve BRAAC.

We were unable to attend last week’s BRAAC meeting in which the plan was presented and discussed. From our discussions with those who were able to attend, not much changed from the “sketch” of a plan that was presented to Town Council in November.

Like my tooth decay that I neglected for far too long for what really amounted to unrelated reasons, it is long past time to deal with our Memorial Park tree problem.  Here are the facts — and logic — as we see them:

  • A North Carolina Forest Service (NCSF) professional did a site visit and inspection of Memorial Park trees in March 2016, finding that nine of them (predominantly red maples) needed to be addressed.
  • In June 2017, after the tree issue re-surfaced before their mid-year retreat, the Board of Commissioners requested that NCSF come back and re-evaluate the trees and update the earlier study.
  • In September 2017, Nancy Stairs, Director of Urban Forestry with NCSF and a professional arborist certified by the International Society of Arboriculture and a tree risk assessor, revisited Blowing Rock, used her resistograph technology to evaluate each tree, and held four sessions with interested parties that included walkthroughs to explain the problems with each tree.
  • As a result of the second study, it was reported that three more trees (in addition to the nine previously identified) needed to be addressed. Further, it was recommended that at least nine of the 12 trees be removed and replaced immediately, but all 12 would eventually have to be removed.
  • We understand that a fungus is essentially eating the trees from the inside out and that there is no cure.  The human equivalent, of course, is cancer.
  • Trees are weakened in their ability to fight off such adversaries in urban settings by human interaction: foot traffic across roots whether by people walking or children playing; where park grass runs flush to the base of a tree, the use of weed-eaters and other mechanical instruments for park maintenance causing damage to roots and bark; improper pruning, leaving trees unbalanced; damage to root structure by digging ditches for electrical conduit serving holiday lights; and similar activities.
  • It is more cost efficient to remove and replace all of the affected trees at the same time, rather than have the work crews perform their tasks one at a time over a longer period.
  • For the health of the replacement trees, it is better to have all of the subject trees removed at once rather than have new trees subject to future events to remove additional trees with activities that are known to be disruptive to the earlier planted new trees.
  • In addition to removing and replacing trees, the action plan should also include steps to mitigate future problems by constructing walls and “beds” that discourage foot traffic
  • By utilizing rock walls or other structures, they can serve a dual purpose by facilitating electrical wiring and the transport of irrigation water without additional trenching (that otherwise can harm the health of a tree)
  • With the problems besetting the Memorial Park trees now well documented, the Town’s liability increases the more we procrastinate in addressing the problems.  In legal terms, if nothing is done, it is likely to be termed gross negligence on the part of the town in the event of personal injury or property damage because of a tree-related adverse event, because the Town knew about the problem and did nothing about it.

Nobody WANTS to cut down trees, but for much of human life’s activities there are unintended consequences. Nobody intended to hurt the trees by walking by or playing around them. Nobody intended for them to be attacked by an untreatable fungus. Nobody intended to hurt their ability to get life-giving nutrients or to impair their stability by trenching alongside them to accommodate electrical conduit serving holiday lights.

But hurt they are.  In addressing these problems, we don’t need to spend additional money on more outside opinions, either for an evaluation of the trees’ health or for design work. We have professional landscape architects on the Town staff who have done a marvelous job around town already.  We just have to listen to them, not ignore them.  Otherwise, what are we paying them for?

We also have the resources of a certified arborist and urban forestry professional at our disposal through NCFS.  If we are not going to pay attention to their insights, why is the state employing them and why did we ask them to evaluate and re-evaluate the Park trees in the first place? We don’t get to choose our right answers.

And then we have BRAAC, a volunteer board of residents genuinely interested in the beautification of Blowing Rock and devoted to their mission.  They have been selected from among other volunteer candidates presumably because of their qualifications, insights and judgment. If we are not going to listen to them, why even pretend to have the volunteer board?

Like my toothache or like cancer, the problems with our beloved Memorial Park trees are not going to go away. The problems will only worsen, and get more expensive in the long run.  It’s time to set aside our emotional ties to the problem trees and get on with solutions to the problem.

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  1. Jim Gobbel

    The old trees gave character to the beautiful park. Sad that they had to be removed. Replacement trees, as soon as possible, will help to cushion the naked look of the park’s landscape.
    Uven though your report covered a subject that is hard to address, you framed the story in a way that eased the pain of the unintended problem.
    Good article.


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