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City says thirty trees need to come down at Barton Springs

Thursday, April 16, 2009 by Bill McCann

When Austin Parks and Recreation Department officials held a news conference Wednesday at the Barton Springs pool, they came braced to face tough media questions about why they planned to cut down 30 trees in Zilker Park along and near the pool.


Instead, they got a flurry of tough media questions, not about why the trees should be cut down, but demanding to know how fast they can be removed to protect the public. 


Standing beside the pool entrance, Parks and Recreation Department Director Sara Hensley, and Urban Forestry Program Manager Walter Passmore briefed the media on a just-completed, city-sponsored, high-tech assessment of trees in the pool grounds.  Anticipating public concerns about the idea of removing trees from one of Austin’s favorite public attractions, Hensley repeatedly emphasized the need to remove the 30 “high-risk,” unhealthy trees, some of them more than 100 years old, for the safety of the pool and park visitors.


It was logical move on her part because a past public process on a master plan at Barton Springs pool sometimes got contentious when it came to talk of taking out trees. However, last summer a tree limb fell and badly injured someone near the pool, so many of the media questions centered on how quickly the trees could come down.


One reporter questioned why, if the trees were a danger to public safety, a month already has passed since the city received an assessment report from its consultant, the Davey Resource Group, which recommended removing 23 trees.


Passmore responded that city staff needed time to review the thick study report. “We didn’t want to make snap judgments, but thoroughly analyze it (the report) and make the best decisions,” Passmore said. (Staff ultimately recommended taking down a total of 30 trees, including 28 now and two others within the fence perimeter of Sunken Gardens later.)


In response to other questions, Hensley and Passmore declined to give specific dates for removal, saying only that it would be done as quickly as possible, with the trees in areas of highest public use getting top priority.


As part of the process of developing the Barton Springs Pool Master Plan, staff identified a number of trees as potential public safety risks because of their age and declining health, according to city staff. In September 2007, the City Council approved $250,000 for a tree assessment and for treating and replanting trees to replace those that had to be removed.  The city subsequently hired Davey, which last fall did what city staff terms a “technically advanced” assessment of 46 trees, including analyzing leaves, soil and roots, and even taking radar images of the wood.


Trees slated for removal include some at the pool bath house, the pool’s south lawn and the children’s playscape. The trees are primarily pecans, but cottonwoods, elms and walnuts also are on the list, Passmore said.  Many of the trees recommended for removal have root problems, so trimming them is not the answer, he said.  One of those slated for removal is the “iconic” tree that leans out over the Barton Springs pool as swimmers pass below, he said.


The city plans to plant replacement trees this fall when the next planting season begins, Passmore added.  Meanwhile, staff plans to work with various stakeholders on where the replacement trees will be planted.

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