With unkind cuts, trees turn to mulch

Clearing: Volunteers and the city try to get to the root of a common problem: crews chopping up legally planted trees.

January 23, 2002|By Caitlin Francke | Caitlin Francke,SUN STAFF

The permit on file should have been the first alert. Then, perhaps, the lovingly placed mulch. Then, possibly, the operators of city lawnmowers should have noticed that what they were steaming toward was not grass but 325 young trees.

Nope. What was once the handiwork of city volunteers and environmental advocates from the Herring Run Watershed Association was shredded last summer.

The trees off the 4800 block of Denview Way in Northeast Baltimore were hardly the only casualties of city blades. Richard S. Hersey, executive director of the watershed association, a nonprofit environmental advocacy group, said city workers have destroyed nearly 15 percent of the 5,000 trees the group has planted in the past five years.

"It boggles one's imagination. It really does," Hersey said. "I think either we need better training, or take the blades off the mowers."

Officials at the Department of Recreation and Parks, which is charged with maintaining the city's parkland, acknowledge that mow-overs have been a longstanding problem.

With another planting season arriving soon, officials are working to put in place a universal flagging system - stakes or brightly colored tape - that would tell mowers which trees or bushes have been planted by community groups.

"The department was sorry about what happened, but at the end of the day we have to ensure that it doesn't happen" in the future, said Patricia Pyle, the park's forester, who works for Recreation and Parks. "The whole thing needs to be better managed and worked out."

Parks officials also want groups to plant bigger trees - instead of the twig-like saplings they say they see routinely - to help alert mowers. The industrial-size lawnmowers can easily take out small plantings, they say.

Advocates worry that a flagging system might lead to trees being stolen and say bright orange tape would not be attractive.

For every planting, groups get a permit from the parks department that includes a map of where the trees will be placed - which mowers apparently are not told about or do not pay attention to.

"For what purpose is the permit?" Hersey asked. "They could just make a black-and-white picture of [the permit] and post it in the room where the mowing guys will see it."

Questions about who is to blame for the mow-overs dissolve into a flurry of finger-pointing.

For example, parks officials initially said the Herring Run Watershed Association did not have permits to plant the trees that were mowed down, but later acknowledged that it did. Department district manager Thomas Jeannetta said maintenance officials did not receive a copy of the permits. Pyle said she told his department.

Then Pyle said officials weren't sure who mowed over some of the plantings and that Department of Public Works mowers could have been to blame in some of the recent cases.

The real problem, advocates say, is that city mowers are not environmentalists who care for park land out of love. They are laborers hired to cut grass - and that's what they are going to do.

The parks department must issue a clear mandate to prevent mow-overs and penalize workers who slay trees, advocates say.

"Some of it I like to chalk up to the fact that you put the male of this species behind one of these [lawnmowers] and they go berserk," said Walter S. Orlinsky, the former director of a statewide tree-planting program. "There is no question in my mind that once they get behind a Weedwacker or whatever, [they feel] `Go get 'em, tiger.' "

Orlinsky's program planted 6.5 million trees across the state between 1983 and 1995, and mow-overs were always a problem. Baltimore was the most flagrant violator, he said.

Once in the early '90s, he said, he had just finished planting about 200 trees near Lake Montebello in Northeast Baltimore when he heard the grumble of lawnmowers behind him. He ran toward the mowers, waving his arms, begging them not to hurt the saplings that so much sweat had just planted.

"I didn't stand a chance," Orlinsky recalled. "They just roared right through. It wasn't like it was easy to miss. You just want to sit down and cry."

A group that cares for Stoney Run Park took over mowing duties from the city and does the work with a donated tractor.

Last year, Herring Run Park lost nearly 500 trees and plants in three incidents.

In the spring, 100 trees planted near the 6200 block of Bowley's Lane were obliterated. Hersey provided a picture showing that some of the Bowley's Lane saplings stood about 5 feet high and that many stood about 3 feet high. A perimeter of steel posts was set up to protect them. Parks officials say the trees were much smaller - about 18 inches high - and mistakenly approved for planting on land that belongs to the Department of Public Works, which likely ran them down.

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