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Communication breaks down between city and community over Sunken Garden tree removal

Monday, July 20, 2015 by Audrey McGlinchy, KUT

When the city of Austin’s Parks and Recreation Department decided to remove three trees from Sunken Garden, home to one of the three cardinal springs that feed Barton Springs, it did so before seeking community input — and now the feedback isn’t so favorable.

Michael Fossum of the Austin Heritage Tree Foundation said it was not necessarily the removal of the trees that upset him and others, but the lack of dialogue. Though the department is not required to notify the public in a case such as this one, it typically does so as a courtesy.

“We would like for the Parks folks to ask for feedback prior from removal being made,” he told the Austin Monitor. “It seems foolish to ask for someone’s feedback if you’ve already made a decision.”

Assistant Parks Director Kimberly McNeeley said her department acknowledged the miscommunication.

“The department readily admits that this particular notification process did not go as it normally does,” McNeeley told the Monitor. “There was a breakdown in communication due to an individual being on vacation.”

According to emails shared with the Monitor, Lara Schuman, program manager with the city’s Urban Forestry Program, emailed Zoila Vega of the Austin Heritage Tree Foundation on July 10, letting her know that the department planned to remove three Sunken Garden trees (two pecans, one cottonwood) because of damage caused by the Memorial Day flooding.

City employees stressed the danger that these damaged trees posed to people and the historic site, citing limbs that have fallen in past months and noting the possibility that more could fall, hurting the stone structures in Sunken Garden.

In emails, several Parks Department employees confirmed that these trees had been removed by July 16, though it is not clear exactly which day they were taken down.

A slew of emailed protests from members of Austin Heritage Tree Foundation, Save our Springs Alliance and other community members to various members of involved city departments, including Parks Director Sara Hensley and Watershed Protection Department manager Chris Herrington, followed.

“I am always saddened when we have to remove old, mature trees like these,” Schuman wrote in an email to Bill Bunch of Save Our Springs. “We would really rather not have to do this, but unfortunately these particular trees have reached a point in their life where they are no longer structurally sound.”

Four days after she was originally notified of the tree removal, Vega wrote to Schuman urging that the trees remain, arguing that they provide necessary shade and food for the protected Austin Blind Salamander. According to the city’s Sunken Garden Improvement Plan, the spring is a federally protected habitat and home to the largest population of the salamander.

According to Vega, these same trees were slotted for removal in 2009 but were preserved because of the salamanders.

Schuman assured concerned citizens that the city had worked with a biologist from the Watershed Protection Department throughout the removal process.

“They have assured us that removing the trees will not be detrimental to the salamanders, and have been on site to oversee the work,” Schuman wrote in an email to Peter Steinhardt, a local business owner who was active in the Barton Springs Master Plan process. “In addition, they are planning a riparian restoration project for this site in the next few years, and will included [sic] native tree plantings as part of this project.”

Picture of Barton Springs By Wordandgesture (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

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