Tree lovers’ voices are heard

Public outcry led to the preservation of hackberry trees at Colonial Lake as the lake and surrounding park undergo major renovations. (Wade Spees/Staff)

The hackberry isn’t generally considered one of the glories of the tree world. Often it is described as a “trash” tree, one that ought to be uprooted as it sprouts.

In contrast, the hackberry on Colonial Lake might be described as a grand example of a negligible species. Give credit to city arborists who kept it nicely trimmed as a handsome shade tree.

So when the city declared that the hackberry was going under the axe to make way for grander and more decorative trees as part of the Colonial Lake remake, the public response was loud and negative.

The city has now recognized public sentiment and spared the tree, even as the lakeside project advances.

It’s a good lesson: The public shouldn’t be shy about expressing its opinion on tree preservation. Trees on public land belong to the public. Tree codes are meant to protect the public benefits they provide, even on private land. Every month scores of grand trees are slated for removal to make way for development in local jurisdictions. Many are noted on public agendas of the Charleston Board of Zoning Appeals-Site Review.

Residents can stay informed by keeping up with the agendas of those boards that can grant variances for tree removal.

Sometimes a public outcry can make a difference.

Consider the trees in the I-26 median. The median was slated to have virtually all of the trees removed for what was described as a safety project. There have been a number of fatalities along portions of the highway from Summerville to I-95, often when cars run off the road into trees.

But public opinion was strongly against the clear-cutting plan, with tree advocates pointing out that excessive speed, inattention, drinking and recklessness were more to blame. Following legislative action instigated by Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Berkeley, the matter was taken out of the hands of the Department of Transportation and turned over to a committee of the local Council of Governments.

That group reached a compromise by which about half the trees would be saved. That was counted a victory by those who viewed the DOT plan as preliminary to a road widening that would pave the median, using a concrete wall to separate east- and west-bound lanes. But the result has been less than satisfactory.

Numerous letters to the editor have complained that the tree cutting project must have included more of the median than planned. Not so, says a spokesman for the DOT. There’s a lesson in the I-26 experience, too. A compromise can’t always be counted as a victory. Indeed, you could say that the I-26 scenic corridor has been badly compromised.

But the comparison between those areas where the trees remain and those where the trees have been removed serves as a warning for future interstate projects.

There will be renewed efforts to do road widening on the cheap on I-26 and I-95 by cutting trees and paving the median. Almost assuredly the public will provide the only real barrier to tree removal along the public roads, just as it does for development plans that require variances from local tree preservation ordinances.

Want to keep your scenic highways and shaded sidewalks? Tell the people on the public payroll, elected and appointed, about it. Don’t be steamrolled by progress, or what frequently passes for it.

And pause occasionally to admire the hackberries of the world. Even a so-called trash tree can be beautiful.