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Our View: Tree tales

Once upon a time in a small university town, a college president about the height of Napoleon and with a matching complex decided he wanted to build a parking lot on the site of a large park at the edge of the campus. The park was a green space of 2 acres or so with enormous old oak trees and a gazebo, and was a favorite student hangout, as well as a regular site for campus events.

Adjacent to the park were two stone churches founded in the 1800s situated catty-corner to each other and historic Victorian homes lined the nearby streets. An adviser to the president suggested that a parking lot might be opposed by the neighbors, and perhaps a community meeting should be held to discuss the situation. Napoleon started referring to the adviser as a “tree hugger” and shortly afterward eliminated the adviser’s job.

Soon workers came and cut down an enormous oak in the center of the park. Some said it was 150 years old. It took several days. Then the impossible task of removing its huge stump and roots began. For a week, tractors and diggers attempted to pull out the stubborn old tree’s remains, and a horrible sound could be heard by campus employees in the nearby administration building. It sounded as if the tree itself was groaning. Everyone who watched and heard the process was saddened. Was a parking lot so important? Couldn’t the trees be saved, the parking lot built around islands for them? Many different machines came and went as the workers struggled to finish the job.

Then one day, work on the parking lot suddenly ceased. The reason was soon forthcoming: the city had denied the university’s request, citing traffic concerns. Napoleon hadn’t bothered to get permission for his parking lot.

It was too late for the old oak, though other trees in the park were spared by the city’s decision.

Here in Durango, the future of the endangered cottonwood in the way of construction on the new pedestrian/cyclist underpass on 32nd Street deserves serious consideration. Community members who brought the potential removal of the tree to the attention of city officials, begging for its life, deserve credit for stopping the tree’s demise, at least temporarily.

The tree is probably a Frémont cottonwood, about 80 years old, and could live to be much older. It provides shade, and its hardy roots help prevent soil erosion. It offers food and shelter for birds, squirrels and other wildlife. This cottonwood, like all trees, plays a role in mitigating climate change; it constantly removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere naturally, through photosynthesis, and releases oxygen back into the air. Perhaps most important of all, it turns a spectacular gold in the fall and brings joy to all who see it.

The fate of the tree has been put on hold. The city’s new Parks and Recreation director, Ture Nycum, is talking with the design team and contractor to find out if there are options that won’t involve removing the tree but will not be unacceptably expensive.

Some will say, it’s just one tree. Yes, it’s a sacrifice, but it’s necessary. Plant another tree, for goodness’ sake.

And yet … isn’t that the way we’ve been operating, when it comes to our treatment of the natural environment? And isn’t that one of the reasons we’re in this mess of rapidly advancing climate change, wildfires, mega-storms, viruses and other threats to the survival of the planet and the human species?

What is a tree worth? $10,000? $50,000? Perhaps in the end this tree may have to be removed after all. But we should be making such decisions more carefully than we have been, remembering the words of that contemporary bard, Joni Mitchell, who sang in her “Big Yellow Taxi” 1970,

They took all the trees, and put ‘em in a tree museum

And they charged the people a dollar and a half to see them

No, no, no

Don't it always seem to go

That you don't know what you got 'til it's gone

They paved paradise, and put up a parking lot