Thursday, March 15, 2018

Murder in the Grove

Flora Wonder Arboretum

I have mixed feelings about the rights of property owners. But I am always right, though. I plant trees in the Flora Wonder Arboretum, and I cut them down when I feel like it without consulting anyone. When a tree isn't prospering, or when two trees are vying for limited space, that's when we sharpen the axe. It's my land and my trees and I pay a lot in property taxes so the government bureaucrats can be ladled with lofty retirement pensions, so nobody is going to tell me what to do.

I was disgusted to read in the local newspaper – which I take mainly for the obituary – that one of Forest Grove, Oregon's 140 year old Sequoiadendron (one of about 20) was being cut down on 18th Avenue and Elm Street. I knew instantly the tree in question because I grew up just six blocks away, and I was blessed to live under two of Forest Grove's historic trees myself. My whole life, since I was just about eight, I have marveled at the stupidity of the property owner who originally built a house just a few feet away from a giant redwood.

I drove to the location and was shocked to see all of the side branches removed, and the only thing left was a single trunk, and now that has been removed as well. I can cut down a tree if I want, but I was puzzled that the city allowed a historic tree to be removed with no civic discussion. The house in question is a beater home and the only sensible thing to do was tear it down and save the tree. The redwoods of Forest Grove are among the oldest and largest in the world outside of their native stands, in spite of contending with streets and houses for root space.

The section of the paper that alerted me to the murder is called Citizen's View, and two local historians – the Bilderbacks – told the story of how the redwoods came to the Grove in the first place. I will paraphrase their history lesson so the local fish wrap won't sue me for libel. One Johnny Porter arrived in the Forest Grove area via the Oregon Trail in 1847. Like other knuckleheads at the time he was lured to the California gold fields in 1849. He came home without gold, “but armed with tales of magnificent coniferous trees that grew to seemingly unimaginable heights along California's coast. He returned to the California coast at least twice more until the early 1880's, bringing home bags of cones.... Over the decades most have fallen to disease, development, or disregarded.... The 18th Avenue example is the latest victim.... It's a victim of having been planted 140 or so years ago in an untenable place, too close to houses, streets and utility lines blah blah blah...”

Woah! That's too much. I fired off a letter to the editor immediately which was published the following week:

In Citizens View, February, 28, 2018 the local Bilderback historians told the story of Johnny Porter, a Gold Rush "Forty-Niner," who brought back redwood cones to the Forest Grove area.

Sequoia sempervirens
While I applaud any mention of Forest Grove's wonderful trees, we should get the facts straight. Porter did not collect cones of conifers of "unimaginable heights along California's coast." The tallest trees on earth do indeed occur on the California (and southern Oregon) coast and they are Sequoia sempervirens, commonly called the "coast redwoods." Specimens can reach up to 379 feet and can live up to 1,200-1,800 years.

The road to Johnny Porter's home

The redwood cones that Porter collected were the giant redwoods, Sequoiadendron giganteum, from the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada. They are not as tall as their coastal cousins, but they are more massive in volume. The giants can reach 311 feet tall with a trunk diameter at chest height of 27 feet.

Although San Francisco prospered from the Gold Rush, it did not occur along the coast. Coloma, California is famous for being the site where James W. Marshall found gold in the Sierra Nevada foothills at Sutter's Mill on January 24, 1848. The town is 36 miles northeast of Sacramento.

A botanical error isn't my main purpose for this letter, rather it's the Bilderback's statement concerning the recently murdered redwood at 18th Ave. and Elm St. : "It's a victim of having been planted 140 or so years ago in an untenable place, too close to houses, streets and utility lines." What a backward comment. The tree predates the beater house that it is ruining. The street and utility lines weren't an issue, as other giant redwoods in town are near them too.

I was initially irate to see the tree denuded of all of its branches, and I assume the entire removal will be soon. I called city hall to discuss the process of getting permission to remove a historic tree. Dan Riordan of city planning responded that the tree wasn't "historic" in a technical sense because the property owners hadn't volunteered to have their tree so designated (kind of like with houses). I learned further that a certified arborist had determined a few years before that the tree had disease issues.

Nelis Kools from The Netherlands, owner of the greatest number of redwood cultivars

Talon Buchholz with Mr. & Mrs. Van Hoey Smith, owners of the Arboretum Trompenburg

Todd Forrest oversees all aspects of the management and development of the New York Botanical Garden

I first thought that the tree had more rights than the property owner, and tear down the house instead. Now I understand that the best course was to remove the tree. But make no mistake: the behemoth will be missed. I am owner of the Flora Wonder Arboretum and I grew up in Forest Grove in a yard with two of the giant redwoods (16th and Main). I have toured with many of the greatest plantspeople in the world to see Forest Grove's Sequoiadendrons, and everyone's favorite was the spectacle of tree versus house on 18th Avenue.

Now I retract my conclusion that the “diseased” tree needed to go because once it lay horizontal in pieces I could see that it was perfectly sound, and believe me – I am an expert on tree problems, probably more so than any “certified” arborist from Forest Grove. I asked this “city planner,” Riordan, if another (deranged) property owner wanted to remove another historic tree, say to eliminate the raking of fallen needles, cones and branchlets, or to make way for a new garage for example, then there was nothing to prevent it from happening. He didn't sound worried because the cost “would be prohibitive.” Well, the cost didn't prevent the 18th Avenue owner from saving his house over the tree. The Forest Grove scuttlebutt is that General Tree Service charged $36,000 for the removal. So, take out a new mortgage and look at it kind of like a kitchen/bathroom remodel. Maybe they purchased the house at a discount price because of its “problem,” and the costly need to address it.

The plot thickens because my daughter is in the same 6th-grade class as the son of the resident parents. I don't know if any arborist declared it diseased, but it was bothering the family because the branches scraped against the bedroom window when the wind blew. Prune a few branches – problem easily solved. But the tree was lifting the house's foundation and the two couldn't co-exist indefinitely. Nobody gave me a chance to buy the property, or to help raise funds for its purchase. Suddenly the tree is gone, all when my back was turned.

Governor Withycombe tree

Another Sequoiadendron was saved about 15 years ago about 8 miles from Forest Grove. A natural-gas pipeline was proposed along Hwy 219 south of Hillsboro, Oregon, and the tree was “in the way.” It could have been one of Johnny Porter's trees but I'm not sure, but I've always admired its up-arm of peace – How!, like a Native American greeting me when I drive past. It was a few years younger than the 18th Avenue victim, but it was saved when a group got together to protest, me included. The simple answer – my proposal – was to install the pipeline on the other side of the highway. “Oh oh oh, but the engineers...” For crysakes, the engineers are intelligent people, but they are prone to acting stupid apparently. Anyway the tree was saved and the pipeline went along the other side, and the reason it happened was because someone knew that the tree was planted by the late Governor Withycombe* on his family farm on his wedding day, therefore it was declared a “heritage” tree.

Governor Withycombe

*James Withycombe was Oregon's governor from 1914 until his death in 1919. Born in Tavistock, England he came to Oregon with his parents in 1871 (when only 17).He purchased a farm south of Hillsboro and married Isabel Carpenter on June 5, 1875, and on that day he planted the redwood. The tree is only 120-130' in height, but its circumference was over 35' in 2002. It was dedicated as a "heritage tree" on July 27, 2002.

I seethed in the days that followed the redwood death on 18th Ave. Who was this arborist who deemed a perfectly-healthy tree to be “diseased,” and I'd sure like to see the report.

Araucaria araucana

My 12-year-old daughter and I drive from our country home into Forest Grove a few times each week. I tell her about the trees in the Grove, and I keep it simple and try not to make it preachy or boring. On Maple Street and 17th Avenue, not far from the horizontal Sequoiadendron, is (er...was) a “Monkey Puzzle” tree, a female with large voluptuous cones. Saya got to learn that the species is dioecious – and what that means, that male and female cones appear on separate trees. Usually. I explained that trees are like people...that, that...Saya waved her hand horizontally, shaking it in the manner of describing someone in the “other” category. God, the kids learn stuff so young these days.

Monkey Puzzle no longer

But to my horror, our Araucaria araucana, all 35' feet of it, all perfectly healthy, had been cut down. Saya knew that I was depressed about the Sequoiadendron, but now I had to deal with the death of our shared friend, the Monkey Puzzle. Why, why, why?

Still pissed about the redwood's death, I called the only arborist listed as “certified” in the Forest Grove area. There are at least 30 “tree specialists” listed on the internet, such as Edwardo's Tree Service and Bjorn's Tree Service, but I thought I would try the one certified arborist, whatever that means. When I asked him about the tree's “disease issues” he snapped back defensively that he didn't declare it diseased and that he had nothing to do with its removal. I pressed and asked who else might have declared it so, but he didn't know or didn't want to say. I thanked him for his time and was about to hang up, but I asked about the death of the Monkey Puzzle on 17th and Maple. He responded by saying that he didn't like the species because “it isn't native, and besides they die from overwatering.” I replied that the tree was perfectly healthy; not to argue, but just saying. He repeated that they're not native, that “they come from the Carolinas where they are harvested as timber trees.” I said thank you, thank you and hung up while he was still talking. Even Saya knows they are native to Chile and they are that country's National Tree, not the “Carolinas.” Certified arborist, indeed!

For many, March is the time for the NCAA men's and women's basketball tournament, and it is known as “March Madness.” Unfortunately a worse madness has engulfed a few Grovians this month, where property owners can cut down historic or significant trees and that there is no community restraint on them. The Sequoiadendron wasn't a victim of having been planted in an “untenable place,” but rather it was a victim of ignorance, and shame on Forest Grove's non-leaders for allowing it to happen.

16th Ave and Main St. where Buchholz grew up


  1. I can understand removing trees. I do it all the time. But only with good reason. And there are a couple rules I stick to that I think we, as a society, also need to keep in mind:

    1) Does the tree have historic or intrinsic value beyond that of the average tree in the area?
    2) Why am I removing it? Are there other compromises that don't kill the tree? (pruning, relocating, changing my plans/project, etc.)
    3) Does removing it impact my neighbors or my community?

    For a tree like the one on 18th Avenue, I believe none of these questions were asked by the homeowner. Such a shame to lose a giant to short-sighted people.

    P.S. And $36,000 to remove that?? Who spends that kind of money on removing a tree if they don't plan on tearing down the dumpy house too and rebuilding?

    P.P.S What's the value of the lumber for a tree of that age/size? Did the arborist make a killing on the lumber too?

  2. I would have kept the tree and installed root barrier. Although, I don't find stupidity in the original house owner. Their money, and no problems to begin with. Root barrier need not be installed for decades. It's needed when it's needed. Giant sequoia is my favorite landscape tree given the space, even more than coast redwoods, which I explore, but don't recommend.

    Cheers, MDV /