Beacon Hill residents were surprised, and some of them dismayed, to find late last month that the Garden House at 2336 15th Avenue South had lost one of its prominent outdoor fixtures. The Blue Atlas Cedar, designated as a Seattle Heritage Tree, had been cut down by the Garden House, headquarters for the Washington State Federation of Garden Clubs.
According to Carolyn Nickerson, trustee and rental agent for the Garden House, the Blue Atlas Cedar had presented trouble going back to 2011, when “during some windy weather a large branch on the east side of the tree broke off and fell on the lawn. We didn’t think anything of it and had it chopped up and disposed.
“Then in 2012 without windy weather a huge (maybe 30′ long) [branch] broke off, fell to the west across the iron fence, sidewalk and to almost to the center line of traffic. Luckily it missed a parked car by a couple of feet, didn’t hurt any pedestrians or passing traffic. We called the city for help and they came, stretched out some yellow tape and told us they had no funds for trimming/cutting or removing the branch. We hired someone for approximately $600.00 to remove it.
“After the second branch fell,” Nickerson continues, “we hired an arborist to climb and inspect the entire tree to evaluate its health and possible remedies [for $400]. It was his opinion that the tree needed to be thinned, bolted, tied in various places to keep it from dropping other limbs. (I think that estimate was $1000, maybe less.) Before making a decision we had a second arborist inspect the tree and give his opinion and write a report [on] what he thought should be done. On a danger scale of 1-10 the tree was a 9. Part of the tree hung over the neighbors’ house, part over the sidewalk and street and part over our lawn area where children and adults gather for various occasions.”
“Apparently when a tree is very old,” she finishes, “it starts ‘sloughing’ its branches. This is not caused from wind or rain/snow but a natural way of a tree living its latter years. Since each of these branches weigh more than 500 lbs we had to consider the liability and danger it imposed on the community. Our neighbors to the south have asked that we trim all branches from hanging over their land. All in all we decided that we needed to consider cutting the tree down because our insurance wouldn’t cover damages that would be incurred by hurting someone or something through this process.
“After discussing our options and liabilities the board voted unanimously to pursue cutting down the tree.”
Local tree and plant expert Arthur Lee Jacobson first became aware of the Blue Atlas in 1999, when it was nominated as a Heritage Tree. He wrote the description for the commemorative plaque that went with it.
“It was not sick,” according to Jacobson, who adds, “Atlas cedar limbs break, on some specimens often; but their foliage is usually dense and healthy except if the spring is sopping wet and there is too much summer irrigation. Then they can present a gaunt, unhealthy look.”
Asked whether the tree should have been cut down, Jacobson replies, “No. The decision motives were not shared with me. But I did read e-mails from experienced, careful, arborists who looked at the cedar, who judged that with careful pruning it could remain a safe and valuable asset rather than a liability. If the Federation of Garden Clubs based its removal decision on grounds of insufficient money, then that could have been addressed via fundraising. If the decision to remove was based on a report written by an inexperienced arborist, that generated fear — while cooler, wiser counsel was ignored, then that is a pity.”
Beacon Hill neighbor Robert Hinrix isn’t happy about the Garden Club’s decision. “I put quite a few hours into trying to save the tree, having written to the head of the board of the Garden House offering to put together volunteer arborists to maintain it, and to do fundraisers to help them pay for it. They did not respond positively. I spoke with other arborists who contradicted what their hired arborists had said.
“I also spoke with Arthur Lee Jacobson who wrote the book on Heritage Trees, and Cass Turnbull from Plant Amnesty. The tree was not sick at all, but Blue Atlas Cedars do lose branches when mature and need ongoing maintenance. The Washington State Federation of Garden Clubs had little interest in the maintenance of Beacon Hill’s heritage tree, and was only concerned about insurance and financial issues. The easiest, simplest thing for them was to cut it down.
“For me,” continues Hinrix, “it is an allegory for how we’ve lost all control of an important resource in our community (the Garden House itself). Don’t expect them to plant another tree to take its place. I’m glad I was out of town when it happened.”
Hinrix adds, “There are complex issues associated with insurance, the neighbors, various camps of arborists, a somewhat dysfunctional city commission that is responsible for Heritage Trees in Seattle, and the misplaced priorities of the board of the Washington State Federation of Garden Clubs. I do believe it points to the need for the community to work hard to find a way to increase our control over the Garden House, to make it a better resource for our community. If we don’t, we could find it sold (or a portion of it, one of the lots) out from under us…”