Hug Those Trees

Why clear-cutting near North Idaho College is a bad idea.

As many as 500 trees growing along scenic Rosenberry Dike Road in Coeur d’Alene are on the chopping block. This threat sends shivers up and down the spines of the city’s residents. Everyone, including the mayor and members of the City Council, hates the idea.

The dike forms a crescent rim around North Idaho College. The trees provide a graceful curtain of shade between the campus grounds and Lake Coeur d’Alene, just as the current turns lake water into river water and heads downstream toward Spokane.

A few of the candidates for tree slaughter are over 100 feet tall and older than most folks alive today. Such giants are priceless and irreplaceable. We would mourn their loss for years to come.

The messenger with the bad news is the Army Corps of Engineers, directed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to oversee the health of the nation’s dikes. Stop for a moment and consider the Corps’ murky record of protecting the nation’s waterways. Think Katrina and groan.

After years of receiving a passing grade for safety from the Army Corps, our local dike was examined by an independent contractor who found over 100 flaws in the dikes’s structure and then recommended the city should remove all the trees.

It’s another Alice in Wonderland moment. First the verdict, and then the trial. The trees must go, but the Army Corps admits there is no scientific evidence to suggest our trees are destabilizing the dike. That’s yet to be determined.

Let me be clear. The real, everyday issue is not flood prevention but the prevention of high floodinsurance rates.

A major flood has not come in the 58 years that my husband, Scott, and I have lived in Coeur d’Alene, and it may not come within our lifetimes. But certification of the dike’s ability to hold fast in the advent of an extreme flood year is necessary for flood insurance to be affordable for the city, North Idaho College and Fort Grounds residents.

This issue impacts all city and county taxpayers as well as residents of the Fort Grounds that the dike protects.

At the same time, the trees that grace the dike offer pleasure and value every day and should not be sacrificed for insurance rates or for that once-ina-century flood.

…the Army Corps admits there is no scientific evidence to suggest our trees are destabilizing the dike.

If the trees were to be removed, the roots of the trees would have to be dug out. We are told that the roots of the tall Ponderosa trees that line Rosenberry Drive can grow as long as the tree is high.

Cutting the trees, then removing the massive roots, would result in a pile of chopped-up dirt. The dike as we know it would be virtually destroyed.

Local engineer Jim Meckel, who does contract work for FEMA and has seen lots of failed dikes, maintains that dikes usually fail because of lack of maintenance, not because of healthy trees. He sees no reason to cut the trees.

Meckel, along with other interested engineers and observers, proposes digging a two-foot-wide ditch running the entire length of the dike. Inserted into the ditch would be an impermeable wall made of bentonite clay or some comparable material. The dike would be strong, free from leaks, and ultimately certifiably safe.

Such a barrier would not be cheap, but as part of a long-range maintenance plan, it could be justified as a way to protect the Fort Grounds and NIC from that 1 percent chance of a hundred-year flood, and satisfy the demands of FEMA and the Army Corps.

Terry Harris, executive director of the Kootenai Environmental Alliance, maintains that the city would be wise to work directly with FEMA for certification of the dike’s safety.

Advice from the KEA blog urges the city to shelve the tree-removal activity until more information has been collected. Removing the trees “to accommodate out-of-town federal agencies acting only on fear and a hunch would be a shame,” the Alliance writes.

I’ve recruited 10 women willing to be chained to the trees in order to save the tree trunks from the ax. Admittedly, our passions were aroused with the help of a little wine and vivid conversation. Don’t call our bluff.

But feelings run wild and deep when it comes to trees. Our respect for the time it takes to grow a tree runs straight from the heart. In our parallel lives, we put down or pull up roots as individuals throughout our lifetimes.

The challenge to the city of Coeur d’Alene is to develop a systematic way to maintain the dike, earn certification, keep insurance rates down, and save the trees. A tall order, but they are up to it.

After all, Councilman Mike Kennedy has said: “Tell the Corps they can’t take our trees until they pry them from my cold dead hands.”

Mary Lou Reed lives in Coeur d’Alene. Her column appears here once a month.

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