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Outcry delays city plan to cut trees at Barton Springs

Monday, April 20, 2009 by Bill McCann

There are two sure-fire ways to upset local community activists: mess with beloved Barton Springs or cut into the canopy of Austin’s trees. And last week, the city unveiled a plan to cut trees AT Barton Springs. Ouch.

Parks and Recreation Department officials last Wednesday announced plans to remove 30 aged or unhealthy trees in and around the Barton Springs pool because the trees – some more than a century old – pose a safety risk to the public. While the trees may look healthy on the outside, many have decaying wood or damaged roots and could fail without warning, according to city staff. The announcement followed a detailed scientific study of trees in the area of the pool as part of the Barton Springs Master Plan.

No sooner had the news of the impending demise of the Barton Springs trees hit the media than activists began demanding a delay until the public could review and comment on the tree-cutting plan.

E-mails sailed in to City Council and some groups sent out alerts to constituents. 

“While we recognize the City must maintain public safety at Barton Springs, these trees have lived for decades, and some for centuries, without hurting anyone,” said an alert sent out Thursday by the Save Our Springs Alliance. “Other trees in the area have broken and caused severe injury, so the public safety concern is real. However, the likelihood of injury over a few short weeks of review is minimal. There is no ‘tree emergency’ that would warrant short-circuiting a public review process in which City staff is actually open to considering other options.”

Meanwhile, Council Member Lee Leffingwell, embroiled in a tough mayoral race, posted a message Thursday on his blog saying, “I do not believe that ANY trees should be removed from Barton Springs Pool until every interested party has had a chance to understand the details of the analysis that’s been done and the proposal that’s been made, and to give their input.” He suggested that the full Parks and Environmental boards – and possibly even the City Council – review the issue before any trees are removed.

As a result of the outcry, the issue is now on the April and May agendas of three city advisory boards as well as the City Council, effectively putting a hold on any tree cutting for at least a month.

The public’s first opportunity to hear the details of the Barton Springs tree plan and to comment on it will come tonight at a meeting of the Parks and Recreation Board and Environmental Board Joint Subcommittee at 6:15pm at the Mexican-American Cultural Center, 600 River St. Initially, that meeting was to be held at the small boardroom at the Parks and Recreation Department, but was quickly reset for the larger MACC auditorium to make room for the anticipated crowd.

Meanwhile, after a flurry of activity by city staff late in the week, the tree-removal plan also is scheduled to be on the agenda at the Parks and Recreation Board on April 28; the Environmental Board on May 20, and at the Urban Forestry Board.  Also, the parks staff will brief City Council this Thursday at 2pm.

Sitting in the hot seat over the issue is Sara Hensley, the new director of the Austin Parks and Recreation Department. Hensley and Walter Passmore, the parks department’s urban forestry program manager, spoke at a news conference on the tree assessment report on April 15 in front of the Barton Springs bathhouse, where two old trees are slated to be among those removed.

Hensley and Passmore stressed the need to remove the trees for public safety. Passmore described a technical study by a consultant, Davey Resource Group. The study included an analysis of the foliage, soil, and root condition of 46 trees and included the use of radar to scan for decay in the wood. The study began in November and ended in January, with a report delivered to the City in mid March. That report recommended removal of 23 trees. City staff later added seven others for removal after completing its own analysis. 

Trees on the chopping block are primarily pecans, but cottonwoods, elms and walnuts also are on the list, according to Passmore.

Bill Bunch, executive director of the Save Our Springs Alliance, said the city’s decision in recent days to take the issue to the public is a good start. “It definitely gives some breathing room,” he said, “But it is still not clear how dug in the staff is on the plan of action or whether they are going to listen with an open mind.” 

Bunch said the tree issue is the first major challenge for Hensley, who took over as director of the Parks and Recreation Department late last year. She came in with a long list of credentials, and was previously parks director in Phoenix. 

 “People are attached to these heritage trees, but so far the department has been a bit cavalier on how it has handled the issue,” Bunch said. “She (Hensley) has a good reputation, but this will be a challenge for her and the community will be watching closely to see how she handles it.”

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