PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Silverton, Oregon, prides itself on its historic oak trees to the point that it has an ordinance that specifically prohibits cutting them down.
Now one local resident is criticizing the removal of 40 white oaks at an elementary school in the wake of last month’s ice storms which badly damaged many trees in the city.
“I think this was pretty much criminal negligence,” said resident Tasha Huebner. “This is taxpayer money. This is our property. We pay a lot of money in property taxes in Silverton. And wanton disregard for these white oak trees, they’re like Oregon’s heritage trees.”
The removal happened in the second half of February when the city was overwhelmed with fallen and damaged trees, with felled trees blocking many roadways and damaging private property, less than one week after an historic ice storm rocked the city into a state of emergency.
Though there is normally a permit process for removing trees, this was temporarily exempted for trees that posed a danger to the public. It was during this period when the Silver Falls School District removed the many Oak trees from Mark Twain Elementary.
Neighbors in Silverton, like Huebner and others, believe some of the trees removed were healthy enough to stay in the grove.
“People who live near the oak grove, they were walking over there in the days afterwards cause they live right there and seen that a lot trees had fallen, they’re taking pictures, video, someone has drone footage. This oak grove is a pretty big deal in town,” explained Huebner.
She said neighbors took photos immediately after the ice storm hit on February 12-13. She said that when she examined some of those photos and compared it to how many trees were left after the school district removed some of the oak trees on February 24, she had seen some trees that appeared to still be standing and in good condition but have now been removed.
“They went in there and they used like heavy equipment and basically turned it into a huge mud pit. It’s a disaster,” she said.
Huebner is not a tree expert, but she said she has a white oak in her own yard and learned that there is a simple method to calculate their age using the circumference of the trunk. By comparing the circumference of her own white oak, which she said is about 300 years old, with the circumference of the stumps of the cut down trees at the grove, she roughly estimates some of the trees that were removed were about 100 to 300 years old.
Silver Falls School District said they only removed damaged trees that posed an imminent threat to people who might walk near them.
“Every tree that came down was very badly damaged, had lost a high percentage of its canopy or it had become unbalanced. It was pretty bad. I mean I saw a number of these trees myself, just around town,” explained Silver Falls spokesperson Derek McElfresh.
McElfresh said even in his own yard, branches from a redwood tree came down and totaled his car.
He said the district cut down about 40 trees, which made up about 45 percent of the upper area of the grove.
Huebner criticized the school district’s actions, saying the removals happened during a time when the school was closed and therefore the trees were at a low risk of causing harm to someone. She thinks many of the trees could’ve been taped off from public use instead of cut down.
However McElfresh said the oak grove is a popular spot that is practically the backyard for many neighbors. In addition, the district had been planning to reopen some of its schools in a matter of weeks at the time, after coronavirus pandemic-induced distance learning had shuttered its doors.
“That school is utilized as essentially a neighborhood backyard and play place,” McElfresh said. “You simply cannot have a school with an outdoor area that would be unsafe for children to be present, you just can’t.”
Huebner also criticized the fact that the district did not consult an arborist for the removals, but instead utilized the assistance of an excavation company. She thinks more of the trees could’ve been saved had there been an expert on hand to help determine whether an individual tree needed to be removed or not.
McElfresh acknowledged the school district had not consulted an arborist at first, but that they did try to contact some and they were unavailable.
“We had to sort of choose between do we wait for an arborist and potentially have branches continue to come down and hurt and maybe kill somebody. And so we made the decision to go ahead and begin the cleanup,” McElfresh said.
He said the school district did eventually get ahold of two arborists who are advising how the district proceeds.
“They’ve assessed the situation and we’ve taken information from them and, you know, have sort of changed some of the things that we’re doing and all work that’s ongoing related to the clean up and maintenance is being completed under arborist supervision,” McElfresh said.
Silver Falls Superintendent Scott Drue confirmed to KOIN 6 News that the initial stage of the tree removal process, before the arborists were consulted, involved district staff and a private company, Turney Excavating.
The Mayor of Silverton, Kyle Palmer, said he had been made aware of the tree removal activity at the school on February 24 when concerned citizens and a fellow City Council member contacted him about it.
“I contacted the superintendent, who I have a relationship with and the ability to text him, to let him know that there was ordinances in the town that governs work on white oak specifically and multiple trees at one time and that there had been some exemptions granted post-storm, for clean up,” Palmer said. “But it was really vital that they speak with city staff first thing in the morning and do no work until that conversation commenced, which did happen first thing the next day.”
Palmer said under any normal circumstance, the school district would’ve been out of line by proceeding with the tree removal work before contacting the city first. However since it was an emergency situation, with an exemption to tree permits in place, he doesn’t think the district was acting in bad faith during the situation.
“I haven’t seen any evidence to think it was malicious, just a big, big oversight. But to be clear, trees were down everywhere all through town. There wasn’t a single street in our town that didn’t have trees down, limbs down,” Palmer said.
Silverton was so inundated with the tree situation that they opened a debris drop off site at the Oregon Garden, which filled up in a matter of days, and they then opened another debris drop off area at Eugene Field, where perishable food waste disposal was also taking place, according to the city’s storm recovery update page. About a week later, the Eugene Field site also filled up with debris and the city had to direct residents to two transfer stations where they accepted it for free.
Many of the townspeople during the tree removals did not have power, the mayor said.
“As Mayor Palmer mentioned, this ice storm was very unusual – a historic, once in a generation event,” Drue said. “As with many of Silverton’s citizens, we were forced to act swiftly to mitigate dangerous situations on property over which we hold stewardship — in many cases while our workers were themselves without power, heat, and even mobile phone service.”
According to a city ordinance, any Oregon oak over 30 inches in diameter is generally prohibited without the use of a permit or special permission from the city. During the time of the tree removals by the district, the city temporarily exempted people from having to get a permit for cutting down trees that posed a danger.
However the recovery update page, according to a post on February 16, said people should still contact Public Works to let them know the location of the trees being removed.
In addition, on a February 25 post, the day after the school district’s initial tree removal process was halted by the mayor, the recovery update page stated those who do cut down trees without a permit must provide proof to the city that they posed a danger (the exception allowing people to cut down dangerous trees without a permit was lifted later that same day, due to a decline of emergency tree removal situations being reported).
“Residents who cut down a tree without a City permit when one is required will have the burden to prove that it was a dangerous tree. It is recommended that you take pictures of the risk posed by the tree, get an arborists report, or have other documentation of the reason it would be unsafe to wait for the issuance of a permit before you cut down the tree,” the post said.
When asked whether any documented proof of the trees’ danger was submitted to the city, Drue said: “We continue to work with the city and will be providing as much documentation as we can to ensure we’re working within their guidelines.”
McElfresh said the district also removed some non-oak trees at Scott Mills Elementary. Specifically, there was a memorial tree which was badly damaged and had to be removed in the back playground area as well as several trees in the front of the building. He added Scott Mills Elementary and Mark Twain Elementary are the only school district places where trees were removed, to his knowledge.
“We’re very saddened by that. We’re committed to restoring or refurbishing or kind of bringing that memorial area back to the place of beauty that it should be. And it’s unfortunate that those had to come down,” McElfresh said.
The memorial tree was planted in honor of Sarah Whitson, a woman who was murdered along with her three children by her estranged husband in the mid-90s, Huebner said.
She said she thinks the superintendent should be fired and the school district should be fined over removing trees unnecessarily.
“I don’t think it’s enough at this point to be like ‘oh well, let’s make sure this doesn’t happen in the future.’ No, you know, that’s not good enough.”