Published Date Written by David CarkhuffBy the time of the Civil War, Portland already enjoyed a well established reputation as the Forest City.
Today, the city's largest urban forest, located in one of the city's oldest cemeteries, Evergreen Cemetery, is showing its age. Anytime a storm blows through, cemetery managers and the city's six-member arborist staff can stroll through afterward and witness the damage.
"We'll have trees breaking, branches breaking, and quite often they're taking out monuments," said the city's parks and cemeteries director, Joe Dumais.
On Tuesday, May 15, at 5:30 p.m., the city is launching an effort to replenish the aging tree population at Evergreen Cemetery. The public is invited to gather at Wilde Memorial Chapel in Evergreen Cemetery, for an Arbor Day Celebration to be followed by the planting of a ceremonial tree in honor of the holiday. The event also kicks off Evergreen Cemetery's new tree memorial donation program through the Portland Tree Trust, called EverGreen.
While EverGreen aims to solicit donations of new trees, organizers of the campaign said they also hope to draw attention to Evergreen's faltering and falling forest.
"There's a big need at Evergreen with the trees," said Lisa Evans, community outreach coordinator with the Friends of Evergreen. "The tree population is aging out there. There's about a quarter of million dollars worth of hazard tree work that needs to be done immediately."
As those dead and dying trees come down, they will need to be replaced, and that's partly the goal of the new trust, Evans said.
"We're trying to bring attention to it and hopefully get people to donate trees to the cemetery," she said.
"Our objective is to replant the cemetery," Evans said.
The Friends group, a private, nonprofit advocacy organization, plans to donate memorial trees as part of the EverGreen campaign. The group also hopes to build on the work of Stanley T. Bennett II, chairman and CEO of Oakhurst Dairy, who died Feb. 23, 2011. Bennett was one of the key architects of the Portland Tree Trust. Evans said the Friends are trying to reinvigorate the trust by setting up a designation within it — the separate trust called EverGreen — devoted to planting trees in Evergreen Cemetery.
"Our hope is to shine a light on the need to maintain the cemetery tree population," Evans said.
The problem is, there's still the cost of removing hazard trees, which Dumais said far surpasses anything in the city budget.
"We have a real estimate of approximately a quarter of a million dollars worth of tree work that needs to be done, and that's just to remove hazardous trees and prune the hazardous, dead limbs and damaged limbs in the trees throughout the cemetery," Dumais said.
Last year's budget for tree work at Evergreen was $6,000, and $3,500 of that was spent on two trees, Dumais recalled.
"We had two giant pine trees that had been hit by lightning a couple of years ago, and they were in imminent danger of taking out a whole bunch of monuments," he said.
Historic cemeteries like Evergreen feature priceless headstones and numerous "targets," creating a challenging atmosphere for arborists. Last year's removal of pine trees required a crane.
Evergreen Cemetery, which itself predates the Civil War by more than a decade, is heavily populated with hazard trees, Dumais said.
"It's not a question of if but when they're going to fall," he said.
Asked the number of trees needing removal and replacement, Dumais said, "It's in the hundreds."
Taxpayers help pay for cemetery upkeep. When someone purchases a grave, half of the money goes into a perpetual care fund. The cemetery managers draw from the interest of that fund and from trusts, but maintenance costs typically exceed this revenue, so taxpayer money helps pay for cemetery maintenance, Dumais explained.
Dumais acknowledged that Evergreen competes with a host of city needs (the cemetery is getting a small increase in its budget next year, he said, although nowhere near the quarter-million-dollar figure, which has been presented to city management). Also, Dumais voiced appreciation for the efforts of the Friends group, noting the importance of bringing in new greenery.
"Without a doubt, a lot of these trees are well over 100 years old, and they're declining. They've reached maturity and now they're past maturity and they're declining. If we don't start to plant some new trees as these trees are going away, we're just going to have a lot less trees, and trees were always an integral part of the design of the cemetery," he said.
But the reality of how many trees pose a risk remains daunting. Dumais said cemetery managers use a triage approach.
"We focus on the trees with the highest potential to be a hazard first to the patrons and the monuments second. If I have a big tree in a high-traffic area, that's the tree that's going to get the attention," Dumais said.
Yet, hazard trees are seemingly within a stone's throw just about anywhere you walk in the cemetery, he said.
"I could walk in any direction 100 yards, and I could find enough work for a crew to spend my budget," Dumais said.