Giant oak will fall to axe

Nothing can be done to halt decay in the roots and trunk of the Garry oak that towers over the parking lot at Oak Harbor’s post office. - Jim Larsen
Nothing can be done to halt decay in the roots and trunk of the Garry oak that towers over the parking lot at Oak Harbor’s post office.
— image credit: Jim Larsen

The landmark Garry oak tree next to the Oak Harbor post office is going to be euthanized, so to speak.

Members of the Oak Harbor City Council reluctantly voted Tuesday night to cut down the giant, 150-year-old tree. The tree is suffering from a decay problem that is slowly killing it and causing it to become a safety hazard.

A 20-foot, $1,100 Garry oak tree from Oregon will likely be planted in its place, creating a tiny pocket park on the corner of Barrington Drive and City Beach Street.

Mayor Patty Cohen wants to “celebrate the tree, not mourn it” by throwing a party. “Everyone can come out to say goodbye to the old Garry oak tree and hello to the new tree,” she said at a workshop before the regular city council meeting Tuesday.

Also, city council members voted to fund a $5,800 Garry Oak Tree Heritage Tree Program. Robert Williams, the city’s consulting arborist, recommended the program as a way to spark interest in the trees, establish them as historic landmarks and even promote them as a tourist attraction. He will identity significant trees on city rights-of-way, evaluate the trees and map them.

But for the old matriarch oak at the post office, time is running out. Dorothy Neil, the self-made city historian, is one of the many people who will be upset to see the tree fall. She said she remembers back before the post office or any of the surrounding buildings were there and the oak stood beside Keister slough.

“I hate to see that big, beautiful tree go down,” she said.

City leaders first became concerned about the tree in 1997 and hired Williams, who found decay in the north quadrant of the tree.

Last August, Williams inspected the tree using a resistograph at the base and in the canopy. Finding the decay had spread, Williams decided to investigate the root crown. The city removed the asphalt and concrete around the tree, together with three feet of soil, so that Williams could test the roots.

Unfortunately, Williams said that he found the tree is not compartmentalizing the decay effectively, which is affecting a third of the root system. It’s so bad that the tree has a high risk of “failure” — or falling down — that poses a significant safety risk. He said there’s no treatment for the problem.

Cathy Rosen, public works superintendent, told the council that the city could “modify” traffic and pedestrian access around the oak to reduce the hazard, but that would only “add a maximum of 10 years to the life of the tree.”

While reducing the tree’s weight would decrease stress on the decayed trunk and roots, Williams said any pruning would “mutilate and disfigure the tree and favor advance of the decay.”

In the end, the council members unanimously (Sheilah Crider was absent) voted to remove the tree, which will cost an estimated $7,000. “I don’t think the hazard of the tree is worth the time, effort and money if it’s eventually going to fail anyway,” Councilman Bob Morrison said.

“The city stands a tremendous risk of liability if that tree falls,” Councilwoman Nora O’Connell-Balda said.

Yet the actual hacking and cutting won’t occur for at least a couple of weeks. There’s a question of what to do with all that valuable oak wood. The council members asked the city Parks Board to investigate and come up with ideas, then report back to the council.

Mayor Patty Cohen suggested that an outdoor bench could be made with the wood. Neil suggested that an artist could make a sculpture. Councilman Paul Brewer proposed making plaques from the wood, displaying a cross-section of the tree and possibly selling the rest.

“A lot of people love that tree,” he said, ”and will hate to see it go.”

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