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Parks, Environmental boards discuss dying trees at Barton Springs

Tuesday, September 22, 2009 by Laurel Chesky

What Austin Parks and Recreation Department staff viewed as a request for decisive action seemed to others as a bad case of déjà vu. “Are we really talking about cutting down trees at Barton Springs again?” asked one frustrated citizen.


At the joint committee meeting of the Austin Parks and Recreation and Environmental boards Monday night, Walter Passmore, the city’s Urban Forestry Program manager, sought board direction on how to proceed with three ailing trees at Barton Springs Pool. The trees – an American elm, a cottonwood and a walnut – all suffer from various forms of root disease and are in danger of falling. The elm and the cottonwood will “fail” within one to three years, Passmore predicted. The walnut, he said, could begin dropping limbs at any time.


The city had originally planned to chop down 29 sick and dying trees, but, after public outcry, only three have been felled so far, in June.


In lieu of cutting down the sick trees, Passmore said that the trees could be pruned to remove drooping limbs that are at risk of falling and causing injury to pool goers. However, pruning would involve removing half of the leafy canopy, which would contribute to the trees’ decline.


“(Pruning) is not healthy for the tree,” Passmore said. “It’s going to accelerate the rot further.” The trees eventually need to be removed, he said.


Committee Chair Linda Guerrero appeared mystified about why the subject was coming up again. The boards had previously approved a plan for the three trees, she said, and that plan did not involve axes or chainsaws. Without discussion or a vote, she directed Passmore to continue with that plan.


After last night’s meeting, Passmore said that he had brought the issue before the board again because the committee had never given him clear direction on the trees. And now? “I think what they want us to do is continue monitoring the elm, prune the cottonwood, and prune and fence off the walnut and continue root treatment,” Passmore said. “At least that’s what I took away from it.”


Passmore also reported to the committee about dead and dying trees at Zilker Park, where 49 trees have been identified for removal. The trees have suffered damage beyond repair due to the drought. The 49 will be removed over the next two to three months, he said, but others may have to go later on.


“We tried to be very, very cautious in identification (of dead trees),” Passmore said. “We didn’t want to identify any trees that might possibly put on new, green leaves in the spring.”


When asked if the trees could have been saved by watering, Passmore said, “You’re talking about putting down hundreds of thousands of gallons of water every week, and we don’t really have the capability to do that right now.”


Passmore also presented the committee with a preliminary plan for planting new trees at Barton Springs. Guerrero set a public meeting to discuss the plan. The meeting is scheduled to take place at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 29, at the PARD office, 200 S. Lamar.

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