Trees must be cut, moved away from new wings

Soil over underground structures will be too shallow for large plants

Idaho StatesmanMarch 20, 2007 

The storage closet under the Statehouse steps illustrates the impermanence of all gardens.

The space contains remnants from the maple tree Theodore Roosevelt planted on the grounds in 1903. Nearby is a plaque that marked a Douglas fir grown from a seedling that traveled to the moon with Apollo 11 in 1969. The marker is there, but the fir is long gone.

The coming expansion will further change the Statehouse grounds. More than 40 trees, some historically significant, will be affected. Once underground wings are built, the soil over them will be only one foot deep, too shallow to support tree roots.

Most of the trees are small enough that they can be transplanted, but 11 are either too sickly or too large and will be removed. The Capitol Restoration and Expansion design team is starting the transplanting in the next few days. The process has the best chance of success if trees are still in a state of winter dormancy. Tree removal will come later.

"We don't like to see trees go. We're not eager to take them down. That's why we're attempting to save as many as possible," said Tim Mason, administrator at the Department of Public Works.

When the Legislature approved the wings, he said, it was a given that there would be no trees over their footprint. "You just can't have it both ways," he said.

"Loss of any mature trees on a historical site, particularly around the Capitol, is a big deal," said Brian Jorgenson, forestry specialist with the community foresty unit of Boise Parks and Recreation.

Excavation and the heavy equipment used to remodel the cement steps and porticos on each side of the building will compress the soil and also might affect additional trees that grow outside the outline of the wings, said Gary Daniel of the Idaho Capitol Commission.

Destined for transplant

All the trees being transplanted will find new homes on the Capitol Mall, an area bounded on the north, south, east, west by Washington, Jefferson, 3rd and 8th streets, respectively.

One famous transplant is the Tree of Guernica. As trees go, the small oak already has led a dramatic life.

In the early 1980s, Boise's Basque community received three seedlings grown from a famous oak in Guernica in the Basque Country, where lawmakers used to meet. The tree survived Nazi bombings in World War II and came to represent freedom and democracy, said retired Secretary of State Pete Cenarrusa, whose parents were born in Guernica, Boise's sister city.

Representatives from the community planted one of the seedlings on the Statehouse grounds on St. Ignatius Day with much fanfare. That night, said Cenarrusa, a vandal dug up the seedling and replaced it with a twig.

Luckily, two more seedlings existed. Cenarrusa and others quietly replaced the lost tree on the Statehouse grounds. They planted the other tree on the Basque Block, where it still stands.

Cenarrusa has taken a special interest in the Statehouse tree and was concerned when he found out it would be moved, he said. Last week he learned that it will be replanted at the building named for him, the Pete T. Cenarrusa Building.

"That means a great deal, knowing what the tree is and what it symbolizes," he said.

Other notable trees destined for travel include the red oak planted by Gov. Dirk Kempthorne a year after the attacks of 9/11 and a maple planted as a replacement for the troubled water oak planted by President Benjamin Harrison in 1891. The latter will take up residence next to the parking garage on 6th Street.

Gary Daniel hasn't heard from any of the groups that have dedicated trees and plaques slated to be moved or cut down. If a group did request a replacement tree, they would get one, but it would take a long time, Daniel said. Because of construction work, heavy equipment and watering issues, new trees cannot be planted on the Statehouse grounds until the spring of 2010.

giants laid to rest

The largest of the 11 trees that will be lost is an American elm tree that grows on the west lawn. Landscape maintenance supervisor Mike Garcia estimates that it's more than a century old. It's been flagging for the last two years but is essentially healthy, he said. Two other trees slated for removal are a good-sized sycamore that Garcia planted himself 10 years ago and an oak that he estimates is around 40 years old. He calls the oak, whose dark limbs are smooth and symmetrical, "a specimen."

"You can't find one better," he added.

On the east lawn, the Northern red oak planted in 1971 by the Sons and Daughters of Idaho Pioneers also is too large or too expensive to transplant, Garcia said, so it will be cut down.

Transplanting trees involves cutting a huge fan of dirt and bagging as many roots as possible. Moving a two-story tree like the red oak would take six people working for five days and cost around $30,000, he said.

If there's a bright side to tree removal, all of the wood from the trees that must come down will be salvaged, Daniel said. Local woodworkers have already said they're interested in building furniture with the wood, including desks and benches for the new wings. The wood will remain, in some form at least, on Statehouse grounds.

The most famous tree of all may be the water oak planted by President Benjamin Harrison, one year after he signed Idaho into Statehood in 1890. The tree has been the subject of valiant and unsuccessful life-saving attempts, including a new water source to replace the natural, but salty geothermal water on the grounds and an infusion of nutrients from Zamzow's in 2000.

The tree is not on the official removal list, but Daniel and Garcia agreed that it almost certainly will come down during the building project. For this tree, though, there may be a genuine bright light. Boise State horticulture students recently took close to 30 live tissue samples, each the size of a pinkie finger, from high in the tree's crown where there's still live growth.

In the next couple of weeks, the students, led by instructor Gary Moen, will attempt to graft the live wood to new oak seedlings.

Grafting is an uncertain process, Moen said, hence the large number of tissue samples. But if it works, he'll have at least one tree, a clone of the Harrison oak, to replant on the grounds when the building project is done. Moen will know if he has a successful graft by the end of May.

"It's the knowledge of having the same, exact tissue as the original," said Moen. "The tree was planted in the 1890s, planted by a president. That in itself for some people is sufficient to keep it going."

Contact reporter Anna Webb at awebb@idahostatesman.com or 377-6431.

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