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Activists argue it’s possible to save Barton Springs’ trees

Tuesday, April 21, 2009 by Jacob Cottingham

A full and occasionally outspoken-to-the-point-of-rudeness house packed the Mexican American Cultural Center on Monday night to weigh in on a recently announced presentation to the subcommittees of the Environmental Board and the Parks and Recreation Board regarding the removal of 30 trees around Barton Springs. 


The meeting began with someone shouting out, “Are you afraid of us?” when Parks Board Chair Linda Guerrero announced that three minor items would precede discussion of the Tree Assessment Report and Action Plan. The shouter perhaps failed to hear Guerrero announce the board would hear citizen comments, despite that not being a regular part of their joint sub-committee’s agenda.


And the citizens did comment. More than 35 people got up to vent their frustration about the Barton Springs Master Plan, proclaim a love of trees, or tell inconsequential stories about their personal history and previous homes. Some offered thoughtful advice, reasonable caution and concern for their beloved springs. Other people spoke out of turn, laughed dramatically at others’ statements and apparently felt comfortable shouting out questions whenever they wanted.


The crowd had several complaints about the assessment. Some criticized the Risk Rating system – which seemed to automatically place trees in “high traffic” areas, such as the park, at risk. Others pointed out that the poor condition of the old trees was a direct result of decades of mismanagement. Others questioned the danger inherent in the trees and suggested that the city’s fear of liability was motivating the decision. Several speakers suggested that pool visitors sign a waiver.


A few of the speakers were worried about the effects of removing the trees. Dave Crow pointed out, “When I visited my dermatologist, she didn’t tell me look out for falling limbs, she said ‘stay out of the sun.” Another woman wondered about increased erosion with the loss of the trees. A few speakers even ominously warned that Tibetan monks who had recently blessed the springs had told them if any of the trees were cut down it would destroy the springs.


Tom Hayes, science director for the Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance (who has a PhD in tree biology) told the assembled he had, “looked at the trees, and I think many of those, the vast majority of them ,could be saved.” Several other speakers and professional arborists told of specific techniques that could improve the health of the existing trees.


Parks Department Director Sara Hensley, only four months on the job, seemed surprised at the amount of suspicion directed toward her department. Hensley attempted to assuage the audience’s concerns telling them that “we are not going to go out there and start arbitrarily removing trees.” She said the process would take at least 60-90 days, and involve several other meetings and public forums. Additionally, the city would have to grant a permit to cut down each tree possessing a 19-inch diameter or greater.


The city’s Urban Forestry Program Manager Walter Passmore gave a presentation that covered each tree Davey Resource Group or the PARD had determined should be cut down. The city had hired Davey at a cost of $250,000, though only $56,000 of that had been spent so far, with 194,000 to be used for replanting. Davey was the only company that responded to an RFQ the city had sent out for national firms to do the assessment.


Save Our Springs Alliance Executive Director Bill Bunch had some advice for the new director telling her that “I think the whole framing was wrong. It was ‘what do we do about this,’ rather than ‘how do we save these and reduce the risk.’” While he allowed that some trees could certainly pose a danger, he agreed with many prior speakers who had advocated more drastic preservation measures such as cabling, whenever possible.


City Council will hear a report on the trees Thursday.

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