Residents of the Animas City neighborhood gathered Wednesday in north Durango to hold a “funeral”/protest over the removal of a large cottonwood tree that was cut down Wednesday morning by the city.
“My tax dollars are going toward bringing this beautiful tree down right now, and that breaks my heart,” said Jules Harris, a resident of the Animas City neighborhood.
The tree, near the corner of 32nd Street and East Third Avenue, was removed to make way for the Animas River Trail underpass project.
Several residents advocated on behalf of keeping the tree. About 20 people showed up Wednesday morning, many wearing black and holding “R.I.P.” signs as it was cut down. Some protesters shed tears.
Protesters faulted the city of Durango for a perceived lack of communication and inaccuracies about why the tree needed to be cut down. The larger message, they said, is that people need to re-evaluate how they interact with nature.
“This is symbolic of the way we treat the Earth as humans,” said Animas City resident Emily Lloyd. “The tree has been here 45 years. The city had a plan to go around it. It was completely feasible. Yet we constantly put a price on trees and nature.”
“The city says that we are a green community, but what it means to be a green community does not match our practices,” resident Deb Buck said.
The city of Durango said it could have cost more than $1 million to delay the underpass project and draw up new plans aimed at saving the tree. The largest chunk of that cost, about $700,000, came from a Great Outdoors Colorado grant for the underpass.
The city said it has already received two delay approvals for the grant money, and it was concerned GOCO may not approve a third delay. But in an interview this week, GOCO said it frequently approves extensions on grants, and it probably wouldn’t have been a problem.
“I believe the cost to save the tree is what it was,” said Durango Parks and Recreation Director Ture Nycum. “We talked to our contractor who gave us a well-outlined cost implication of going with a new realignment, and the design cost as well. I feel like we did our due diligence. As far as the GOCO grant goes, it is funding that would be at risk. Although we did talk to them and it has been done in the past in terms of being granted a third extension.”
Still, the city said there were added expenses to saving the tree, and it wasn’t guaranteed the tree would remain healthy after construction near the root system. Also, the city said it is planting 40 new trees as part of the project.
Some of those fighting to save the tree were troubled to learn of a design proposal in February 2021 that would have rerouted the trail around the cottonwood. The reroute proposal surfaced at a Parks and Recreation Advisory Board meeting last week. At the time, a reroute would have cost the city $150,000.
An arborist was brought in to evaluate the health and value of the tree, as well as the likeliness it would survive construction taking place around it. The arborist found the tree was healthy and likely to survive construction, and could live about 25 more years.
Protesters said they hope the effort they put into saving the tree will help improve communications with Parks and Recreation.
“My hope is that because this is the second busiest street in Durango, and because this was such a beautiful healthy young tree, that something changes,” Harris said. “My hope is that this got the attention of people.”
Nycum said he’s not sure whether the policies of the Parks and Recreation Department will change, but he hopes to make his department more transparent in the future.
“I think moving forward what would help is making sure that the information we provide is clear in terms of the overall project,” Nycum said. “That includes identifying tree removal ... and maybe just having a little more clarity in the public process.”
Construction crews began cutting down the tree shortly after 6 a.m. Protesters said the early-morning start was purposeful to prevent protesters from trying to stop the removal by climbing the tree.
“I think they’re trying to get this done as fast as they can,” Harris said. “I know they can’t avoid rush hour in the morning, but they can avoid rush hour coming back. Maybe people will just forget that it was ever here.”
About six officers with the Durango Police Department were at the scene to keep the peace and help with traffic control.
“The people across the street are being super cool and doing everything right in exercising the rights that they have,” said Deputy Chief Brice Current, with the DPD.
Nycum said Parks and Recreation did what it could by halting the project to address public input about the tree. However, Nycum and the Parks and Recreation Advisory Board determined the cost of changing the plan was too high.
“We did a pretty good job of stepping back and pausing to evaluate, like we said we would,” he said. “We made an assessment and reviewed with the advisory board, and decided it was in the city’s best interest to continue with the project the way it is.”