I love trees. We all love trees. If we don’t, we should.
We live in shrub-steppe desert. We built our towns and cities on sand and rock washed out of the hills beyond over the eons, baked in the sun. A year with 12 inches of precipitation we think of as wet. This place would be almost uninhabitable without trees, planted and nurtured by human caretakers, watered from our rivers, completely unnatural but essential to our habitat. The cool, the shade, the green make such a difference.
There is a panoramic photo of Wenatchee taken sometime around 1890, striking for its barren landscape. It is a sage-and-sand alluvial plain with a smattering of small wooden buildings. You can almost feel the heat and grit. In the late 1970s I interviewed a gentlemen well over a century old, who came to Wenatchee at that time. With some enthusiasm, I asked him what the town was like. He looked me straight in the eye with a serious grimace. “It was a hell hole,” he said. It is a hell hole no longer. The big difference — trees.
So full sympathies go to the people of Fancher Heights who would do almost anything and suffer greatly to keep the beautiful oaks that line Fancher Heights Boulevard. Douglas County, in consultation with the Fancher Heights Homeowners Association, has determined that the 60 oaks in the boulevard’s narrow parking strip are causing too many problems and should be removed. At first glance that seems drastic. The trees, planted 20 years ago, add such character. You sympathize especially with the people who make their homes on that street, who know the trees’ effect first hand, who want to find some other solution.
But, sorry. The alternatives are difficult. The trees are small now compared with what they will be. They grow, unstoppable. Not so the little strip between sidewalk and curb where they live. The sidewalks already heaving will heave again. Streets will buckle. Utilities underground may be rooted. The damage caused by the trees will mount. Arboricide may be unavoidable.
So it goes with many urban trees, said Randy Kile, college-trained and certified arborist, operator of Kile Tree Service in Wenatchee, and an admitted tree hugger. He has not consulted on the Fancher situation, but knows the area. He loves the trees, probably pin oaks, but they will grow, he said. Eventually they could reach 100 feet in height with 4-foot diameter trunks. Oaks are huge. They have aggressive roots. He recommends they be planted with 15 feet of soil in any direction, a 30-foot circle. The Fancher strip is a fraction of that. “They’ll never stop growing,” said Kile. “A lot of people would like trees to stop at some point, but they have to keep growing to thrive.”
“The right tree in the right place,” is a valuable motto, Kile said, but rarely followed. Finding the ideal urban tree is a constant quest across the country, and every choice is a compromise. “There is really no perfect street tree. There is no one single tree that will work perfectly in on-street tree planting,” said Kile. “It’s an agonizing process to come up with trees that work well in an urban setting.” That’s why urban trees die young, average lifespan 25 to 30 years.
When you choose a tree, and choose a site to plant it, imagine how big it will be, said Kile. Don’t be swayed by the sapling, don’t go by the tag in the nursery. “We have idealistic thoughts about what we think trees will do,” Kile said. “We think they will grow 25 feet and stop. They never do.”
The solution at Fancher Heights — remove the trees, grind the stumps, and plant smaller and slower-growing trees to put off eventual trouble. Or wait until the oaks are larger, cause more damage, and are more expensive to remove.
Or, if we love trees so much, we can just live with wreckage and the fruits of our mistakes. Love trees, but think of their future.
Tracy Warner’s column appears Thursdays and Fridays. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 665-1163.