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Save the old oak tree?

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 man who used to work for Oak Harbor’s parks department and is considered a local expert on Garry oak trees says the landmark oak at the post office doesn’t need to be cut down.

At least, Jack Marion says, the trees deserves another opinion.

City officials, on the other hand, say a half dozen experts have already inspected the tree and they all agree the giant must be slayed to protect the public.

Oak Harbor City Council voted earlier this year to chop the 80-foot tree after the city’s consulting arborist, Robert Williams, said the tree the tree has a high potential to fail — or fall down — because of a fungal disease this has infested the roots. City officials were concerned that the tree or pieces of it could fall and hurt someone.

No drop-dead deadline has been set for the tree felling because city officials are trying to decide what to do with the oak lumber and a proposed pocket park where the tree now stands. Several artists, furniture-makers and a local architect have suggested ideas for making things out of the wood.

The planning department is currently working on creating guidelines for public art and a selection committee, which will be instrumental in the process of deciding what to do with the wood.

Yet Marion and others in the city, including local historian Dorothy Neil, say the city should and can do more to save the tree. Marion claims the granddaddy of all Garry oak trees in town could probably stand for decades longer. Although Marion is not a certified arborist, he is considered to be a local expert on Garry oak trees by Washington State University’s Island County Extension Office. Since leaving the city in the mid-1970s, Marion started a tree care business and has been involved in several Garry oak-related controversies.

Marion said there are many trees — oaks and others — in the city in far worse shape that have been standing firm for years and years. He points to an oak tree next to the police station, which has big cavities and had limbs sawed away. There’s also a big, troubled oak across from Smith Park that a resident wanted to chop down years ago, but the city wouldn’t allow it. Marion said nobody is rushing to cut these trees down.

“The tree deserves a second opinion,” he said. “You can find an arborist with the same credentials who’ll say you can save the tree.”

City officials, however, say a litany of experts have already looked at the tree and the report. They have all concluded that Williams is correct and the tree is doomed. Hank Nydam, city parks manager, said the city got a second opinion from a certified arborist out of Port Angeles who looked at the roots when they were uncovered for inspection. Also, a forester with the Department of Natural Resources and at least two other arborists studied the tree and Williams’ report.

“We’ve pretty much covered it...” Nydam said. “If it was sitting in the middle of a field somewhere and there was no one around, we would probably just let it die a natural death. Unfortunately, it’s in a high traffic area.”

While Marion concedes the tree does have a decay problem which is apparent from nodules on the outside of the bark, he said the tree will “handle the problem on its own by compartmentalizing” the decay. He said trees only need one inch of good wood for every six inches of rot.

“I’m sure it has that,” he said. “Oak trees live through far worse than this. In 10 years the tree will probably look exactly the same.”

Marion suggests that the city “reduce the targets” — and the city’s liability — around the tree by roping off the area and detouring traffic from underneath it. He said oak tree wood is so heavy that a branch would fall straight down even in the highest winds.

In his report, Williams also said the city could “limit the time people and vehicles are within striking distance,” as well as reduce the potential of the tree falling by crown reduction. Yet he writes that these actions would only add a maximum 10 years to the life of the tree.

Tina Cohen, a certified arborist and a board member of Seattle-based Plant Amnesty, agrees that city officials need to follow the recommendation of their arborists. She said Williams is a very thorough, well-respected arborist.

Cohen said she hopes the community learns a lesson from the experience: Oak Harbor needs to protect its trees better.

Williams said the city should remove the blacktop from around the tree, which may have caused the problem in the first place. He writes that the decay “may have been initiated by wounding from the impact of vehicles.” Marion also suspects that construction work near the tree caused the decay problem.

While Oak Harbor does have a ordinance protect Garry oak trees, Cohen said it’s either not complete or the city didn’t follow its own rules when paving around the tree. Garry oak trees are especially sensitive to construction damage, she said, which is the biggest killer of the species.

“It’s a very sad thing,” she said. “City planners or whoever allowed the blacktop around the trunk should be spanked. ... The lesson learned is that trees need to be protected from construction.”

The city has replaced the blacktop with bricks, but the arborists say it’s too late.

The post office giant is considered to be the third biggest and one of the oldest Garry oaks in the state. While Williams estimated the tree’s age at around 150 years, Marion puts the age at between 340 to 370 years based on the 68-inch trunk diameter.

Nydam said Williams recently completed “an exciting report” on the city’s new $5,800 Garry Oak Tree Heritage Tree Program. The report shows, Nydam said, that some of the trees in Smith Park “are much older than we expected.”

In fact, Nydam said it’s possible that the post office monster may not be the oldest tree in the city.

You can reach News-Times reporter Jessie Stensland at jstensland@whidbeynewstimes.com or call 675-6611.

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