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Two of Kalorama Park’s Oldest Oak Trees Cut Down by DC; Neighbors Agitated

By Anthony L. Harvey

[Note: Photographs accompanying this news story in the print edition can be viewed in the full PDF copy in the Current & Back Issues Archive.]

We know who cut them down, but who killed them? And were they completely dead? Dogs, drought, old age, impacted soil — together with intense community use of scarce recreational green space and 30 years of neglect by the DC Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR) — have claimed their latest victims.

Two of the oldest “special trees” in Kalorama Park — both once stately oaks — were cut down and removed on August 18th after having been found to be “hazardous” by two professional arborists on the staff of city’s Urban Forestry Administration (UFA). UFA, a division of the District’s transportation department, is the agency responsible for Washington’s street trees, and, since October 1, 2007, the agency is also responsible for those inside parks under DPR’s jurisdiction.

UFA acts as the Mayor’s agent on trees in public space and thus its designation of these two oaks as being hazardous and requiring immediate removal is, under current law, not reviewable. Nor are there in place any community notification requirements for such actions — not to the Advisory Neighborhood Commissions (ANCs) nor to “Friends of Parks” groups or to other recognized community civic associations.

And thus occurred the heated debate and discussion over the actions affecting these two Kalorama Park “special trees” at the Adams Morgan ANC’s September 2008 monthly meeting. John Cloud, the neighborhood’s volunteer version of famed naturalist John Muir, hotly contested the UFA’s determination that the two oak trees were even dead, and eloquently asserted that these two oaks would only have become hazards if in fact UFA arborists had first pruned and cut back the trees. He further bemoaned the loss of habitat for those birds burrowing into hollowed out tree cavities to create nests.

Cloud pleaded for the adoption of a woodland preserve approach to those charged with nurturing the District’s highly prized tree canopy, and repeated his oft-expressed outrage over the failure of either DPR or UFA to water newly planted trees — be they replacement street trees or 9/11 memorial groves, for example.

John Cloud’s exuberant and passionate intensity was offset, in contrast, by the calm and professional intensity of arborist John Thomas, Chief Urban Forrester and UFA Deputy Director. Noting his agency’s recent assignment this fiscal year of responsibility for DPR’s long-neglected tree population, Thomas corroborated the UFA’s hazardous tree findings of the two Kalorama Park oak trees in question and strongly asserted his agency’s responsibility to remove such trees as quickly as possible — once found hazardous — and thus preclude the possibility of accident or injury and the consequent liability to the District. Thomas conceded that there was no direct UFA notification of the ANC, friends of the park group, or neighborhood civic associations, but insisted that DPR was fully informed. According to Cloud and other members of park’s friends group, however, DPR — from the Director on down — claimed that it knew nothing in advance of the two trees imminent removal.

Ironically, both John Cloud and John Thomas are held in high esteem by the Adams Morgan ANC, this being evidenced by commissioners noting their observance of Cloud’s fine, faithful and continuing stewardship at the park and by such as ANC Commissioner Wilson Reynolds commending John Thomas’ capability, and of his direction of UFA as being of exceptional quality.

The ANC’s consideration of the UFA’s tree removals concluded with Cloud’s recommendation that biological and habitat diversity requirements be written into the District’s urban forestry law and that two resultant oak tree stumps be allowed to bio-degrade naturally. John Thomas reported that a 30-day hold was in place over further Kalorama tree removals while DPR and UFA officials and their neighborhood collaborators review their lists of planned tree removals. ANC commissioners pledged to discuss with Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham, who chairs UFA’s oversight committee, proposed cures to the community notification controversy.