Congressmen defend the elm

Tree: Two Republicans urge House colleagues to save a venerable English elm in front of the Capitol from being chopped down for construction, parking.

July 03, 2002|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- For months, Reps. Charles Bass and Rodney Frelinghuysen watched with anguish as the East Lawn of the Capitol was systematically stripped of its century-old trees to make way for the building of an underground visitors center.

Every time the Republican congressmen returned from their districts in New Hampshire and New Jersey, they found more bald spaces in Frederick Law Olmsted's once elegant landscape.

But when they heard of plans to topple a 175-year-old rare English elm -- because it was in the way of construction workers and more space was needed for House members to park -- the two decided to make a stand.

In a challenge to the House and Senate leaders who oversee the construction that's being managed by Alan M. Hantman, the architect of the Capitol, the two Republican backbenchers began a crusade to save the tree, believed to be the oldest on the Capitol grounds.

"To think that someone would just cut this tree down makes my blood boil," Frelinghuysen said. "If we hadn't raised the alarm, we would have disappeared for the weekend, and they would have cut the damn tree down. Then, they would just wring their hands, saying, `Oh, I'm so sorry.'"

Bass and Frelinghuysen rescued the tree from a hasty execution by making an impassioned appeal on the House floor last month, alerting their colleagues to the plot afoot and urging them to join the fight.

That unusual public airing of legislative dirty laundry brought an immediate response from Rep. Bob Ney, an Ohio Republican, who, as chairman of the House Administration Committee, promised to seek a reprieve for the tree.

Yet its champions say their fears remain unallayed.

The old English elm, which was rated last year as healthy by the Davey Tree Co. and safely out of the path of bulldozers, was recently determined by Davey to be so sick that it poses a danger to construction workers who could be hit by a fallen limb.

"It's a very old tree, and it's very sick," said Tom Fontana, a spokesman for the visitors center. "From a purely technical standpoint, you would take it down. But because we are sensitive to its historical significance, we will do everything we can to save it."

That, Bass and Frelinghuysen say, sounds like a cover story.

"All of a sudden, the tree is sick," Bass said. "This tree is not in that bad condition. To say that it's dangerous is preposterous."

In fact, a second opinion by a local specialist, Keith C. Pitchford, after the congressmen raised their protest, rated the tree in "fair condition." Still, Pitchford found it to be in a state of decline and perhaps in need of protective cabling.

"This is not an exact science," said Bruce Milhans, a spokesman for Hantman. "It's really a judgment call."

The architect, Bass said, has made no promises to avoid excavating near the tree's vast root system, which could cause it to succumb anyway.

"Rodney and I are watching that tree every day," he said. "We are worried about what's going to happen to it over the July Fourth break."

To some degree, the fight to save the elm tree, which has been endorsed by at least two dozen House members, represents a last-ditch protest against the visitors center itself. Bass calls it a "billion-dollar boondoggle."

Plans for the sprawling project, a five-story structure about three-fourths the size of the Capitol to be built underground in front of it, have been on the drawing boards for years.

Financing for the center sped through Congress without debate last fall in the rush of homeland security legislation enacted after Sept. 11.

Construction, after months of preparation, is scheduled to formally begin Monday, when lawmakers will return from their recess to find access to the East Front of the building -- where legislators, aides and reporters have for many years enjoyed premium parking spaces -- almost completely cut off.

The impending loss of those parking spaces has been lamented, in particular, by House members.

They generally keep their cars nearby but often have drivers drop them off for votes. Or they leave their cars parked just outside the House so they can leave quickly after late-night sessions.

To accommodate them, House leaders directed construction crews to pave over a grassy knoll known as the Triangle, where House members hold outdoor news conferences. That way, lawmakers would have a spot near the House steps to leave their cars.

The spark that set Bass and Frelinghuysen off on their tree campaign was a comment by Hantman at a private breakfast meeting that suggested the tree was being sacrificed for the sake of parking spaces.

Explaining that there had been a recommendation from contractors to cut down the elm, Hantman observed "that he was under a lot of pressure to provide temporary parking for House members," Frelinghuysen said.

The New Jersey Republican interpreted that remark as an effort to blame lawmakers for the contractors' desire to "clear cut" the property.

His New Hampshire pal took Hantman at his word: "The triangle isn't big enough to handle all the parking they need," he said. "Where else are they going to go? That's the obvious place."

Milhans, the spokesman for Hantman, said he could not explain the architect's remark at the breakfast meeting.

In any case, the old elm, best known in recent years as a backdrop for television crews filming interviews on the Capitol grounds, remains in jeopardy.

"We can't make any promises," Fontana said.

"It could die of natural causes within three or four years regardless of the construction project."

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