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The Decision To Remove The West Third Street ‘Cathedral’ Oaks

I want to share with the residents of Jamestown and surrounding communities the thinking behind the decision to remove the “cathedral” oak trees of West Third Street.

First, my history with the oak trees on West Third STreet, personal and professional views and experiences. I grew up on the west side during my Fairmount Elementary school days and I walked to school under the canopy of these great oak trees. I swear they were as big in the early 1970s as they are now. Thirty years later, I’m back on the westside walking my kids under this same canopy to Lincoln School and I walk my dog there almost daily.

Fifteen years ago, I was hired as a “tree trimmer” for the Parks Department. One of my first jobs was to trim these iconic, legendary, historical oak trees. Over my 35-year career of doing tree work I have worked before, after and during ice storms, blackouts, wind storms and hurricanes, but honestly, was never as nervous as I was when I was sent to trim these trees for my first time. The feeling was not due to size of the trees, obstacles involved or that I was the new guy, but because I knew firsthand what these trees stand for, represent and mean to not only the residents of the city of Jamestown, but also to anyone who has driven or walked down West Third Street. The way I see it, 40-plus years prior, these trees started my love of and appreciation for trees and inspired in me what I was going to do for the rest of my life.

For the last 12 years, it has been my responsibility to look after the trees in the city and the hardest part of my job is deciding which tree(s) need to be removed. I make decisions based on two factors: health of the tree and public safety. This task I do not take lightly on any tree or location. I also try to put myself in that resident’s situation. How would I feel if that was my house or over my kid’s bedroom?

Since 2012, we had been on a cycle to trim the oaks about every three years for mostly small deadwood. There really was not a lot of bigger wood work required to maintain these trees. For the past seven or eight years we have been up there trimming almost every tree at least once a year, more frequently on some. That alone is a clear indication of the decline of these trees.

In 1985, when our street tree inventory was first conducted, there were 72 oak trees, 37 on the north side and 35 on the south side. Today, there are 43, 26 on the north side and 17 on the south side. Most are red oak, only a few pin oaks. In January 2019, I had planned to remove four of the trees due to their declining health. We ended up removing seven due to their condition.

We have tried many different things over the years to maintain the health of these trees and prolong their existence. We have used chemical tree injections, given them more water during dryer times, utilized different watering and fertilizer techniques. We have tried “Crown Reduction” pruning techniques; we found that dieback just continued deeper into the tree. Making large pruning wounds on these trees has shown us that they do not have the ability to complete wound closure leaving them more vulnerable to rot, fungus, insects and disease. The new growth has less leaves that are smaller in size and lacking in color. We have been painting pruning cuts with a special paint to help with wound closure. We disinfect our saws between cuts and trees to help from spreading the fungal spores and disease from tree to tree. We try to perform work on these trees in the winter months for fear of oak wilt disease. Unfortunately, none of these efforts seem to help.

We have removed trees for different health/structural reasons. The one that was across from Lind’s Funeral Home was completely full of fungus, so we removed it to keep it from spreading spores to other trees. At Lind’s parking lot there was a large tree that had too much damage/rot/hollow at the base of the tree to leave it any longer. Farther down the street one had lost to much of its canopy, over years of pruning and decay, to produce enough leaves to sustain itself. Another on the north side of the street had two big leaders break and split apart. The south side has declined more rapidly than the north side. The last five or six years they are losing their leaves earlier and earlier every year. I have been hoping that they put out new leaves the next spring. The trees are continuously having large deadwood in their tops year after year, because of that we cannot expect them to continue to survive under these conditions. These are 100-year-old trees that are overly stressed and trying to recover from pruning wounds is just not happening.

When I give a seminar/hold a class, the first questions are regarding the West Third Street oaks. I have been doing tree work/care for 35 years. I’ve been an ISA, International Society of Arboriculture, certified arborist for almost 20 years now. This is by far the hardest decision that I have had to make in my career. I have always known in the back of my mind, given my position, that more than likely I would have to be the one to make this decision. I just wished it would have happened much later on rather than now. I have reached out now and over the years to many well respected, knowledgeable people in the tree care industry regarding our oak trees. This decision is not just based on what has unfortunately happened in the most recent storm on Nov. 15, it definitely is a factor in it, but not the only one taken into consideration. This is the third tree in the last four years that has completely uprooted and fallen over. The first one happened on a calm early evening in June a few years ago. What I am seeing is a definite pattern that I would be foolish to ignore and negligent not to act on. The trees that failed have all looked the same. There is not enough large, supporting roots to hold these trees in place. They have been cut or rotted away and have not grown back to their full or needed size. Because of this I have to believe that the other trees are in this same condition now or will be soon. Even the healthy trees now pose a risk to fail in the same way. All of the trees have had their root systems disturbed in one way or another over the years.

Another concern is due to removals we have already done, this changes how the remaining trees are affected by the elements. These trees are 100 years old and when you take away one or two that have been blocking the wind for them, and now that tree is fully exposed to those winds, it makes a difference on how they can/will react. I can help the trees to grow new leaves, but I cannot make 100-year-old oak trees grow roots big enough to make them safe again.

I am talking with many people about how to best repurpose the wood from the “cathedral” oaks. Lumber mills, chainsaw carvers, woodworkers, artists and photographers want to be involved to help the cathedral oaks live on longer. The Chautauqua Region Community Foundation has offered financial support for replacement plantings of the tree and also in other aspects of the project. There is not a final planting plan set in place yet, but will have one. This project, as far as the replanting and repurposing of the wood, needs not to be rushed, but rather needs to be a well thought. We will utilize as much of the wood as possible & we will plant new trees on West Third Street. I just want to make sure that we do the best job that we can. If there is anyone who may be interested in using the wood and/or their artistic abilities that want to be involved in this project please contact me. I am open to any and all suggestions.

Removal of the trees this will begin Monday, Dec. 14. The plan is to have all 43 trees removed by spring. The stumps will be removed in the spring, with planting to follow later in the year. This will cause some traffic delays and/or changes in traffic patterns as it may be necessary to shut down portions of the street during the day to perform the work.

I want to assure you all that this is not a decision I have taken lightly and is definitely one that I did not want to make, but I feel extremely confident in telling you that this is the right decision. If I knew we could take a different course of action and keep these trees on West Third Street, we would be doing that instead.

Jamestown has been a Tree City USA for the 39 years and I have every intention to keep that going for many years to come. A part of being a TCUSA is to maintain our urban forest. Unfortunately, tree removal is a part of this process. I, we, the city of Jamestown, are fortunate to have a staff of knowledgeable, talented tree trimmers and workers to maintain our street trees. Their input and hard work has been and is vital for us to continue having a healthy urban forest. Another part of being a Tree City USA is tree planting, and thanks to our civic leaders, past and present — including the mayor, City Council, Parks Commission along with organizations like the Chautauqua Region Community Foundation — we have a bright future of tree-lined streets. This will be evident this spring with the planting of over 400 street and park trees.

This is not a decision that I, we, the City of Jamestown wants to make, but unfortunately the one that needs to be made.

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