Is Lake Oswego's tree canopy in danger? It depends on who you ask
On the morning of the first Lake Oswego Tree Summit Oct. 5, a heavy fog was pierced only by the tallest trees.
By late morning the fog had burned off, and through an open door at the Lake Oswego Methodist Church — where the Tree Summit was held — fall sunlight flickered across the leaves in their varying shades of red, yellow, orange and green.
Summit attendees departed around noon, sliding into their cars under the towering canopy along South Shore Boulevard. Later that day, some of those same residents might have found themselves at the Lake Oswego Wine Walk, darting between downtown businesses and sipping wine along streets that were lined with trees showing off their best fall colors.
Trees are a defining feature of Lake Oswego — part of what makes it a special place to so many — and that was one of the overarching messages of the Tree Summit, which was organized by the Oswego Lake Watershed Council, the Lake Oswego Sustainability Network, the Mountain Park Homeowners' Association and 14 other neighborhood associations. But the presenters and organizers at the summit also emphasized a more ominous point: Trees cannot be taken for granted.
"There's a lack of education among a lot of people on the value of the trees," said Suzanne Meckel, a longtime Lake Oswego resident who attended the summit. "One thing I heard today is 'We're all about trees,' but really I look at it as we're about saving what makes the city so (special). It's not just a tree, it's the whole ambiance of the city of Lake Oswego. That's really what it's all about."
The summit, which was described as a way to "enhance your arboreal knowledge and discover ways to connect with and enhance the ecological health of our beloved community, Tree City, USA," was broken into three presentations covering "Benefits of Trees," "Stewardship of Urban Forests" and "Taking Action at Home and in the Community." Sitting at tables of six, attendees were frequently asked to break out into discussions and then share their ideas with the larger group.
Stephanie Wagner, president of the Oswego Lake Watershed Council, kicked her "Benefits of Trees" presentation off by asking everyone to share a story about their personal favorite tree. From there, Wagner asked residents to consider the value trees provide in their world — starting with the individual home, expanding to a neighborhood and finally looking at the city as a whole. Answers ranged from the obvious — aesthetic value, wildlife habitat, climate mitigation — to more esoteric examples like street preservation, crime reduction and an increase in property value.
Following Wagner's discussion, Mountain Park Homeowners' Association Grounds Superintendent Zsolt Lehoczky shared details about the HOA's ambitious urban forest stewardship program. The neighborhood — one of the largest in Lake Oswego — contains 185 acres of common space, and Lehoczky is in charge of efforts to care for the trees and other wildlife in that space.
Those actions, according to Lehoczky, include everything from preventative pruning to planting native species, removing invasive species, moving away from the use of synthetic chemicals and educating community members about the natural world around them. In 2018, an HOA task force completed a master plan for the care and maintenance of Mountain Park's common space. The HOA also completed an inventory of its trees in 2014.
"I thought inventorying the trees in their common areas was interesting — labor intensive but very interesting," said City Councilor Jackie Manz, who attended the summit. "I applaud Mountain Park for being proactive in their HOA and allocating funding to do that."
The summit concluded with the "Taking Action" discussion led by Dan Vizzini. Points of emphasis included ivy and invasive species removal, fighting against tree removal permits, creating "backyard habitats," replenishing segments of the tree population that have been lost and engaging city institutions about a possible tree inventory or management plan.
"One big takeaway I had from this is the impact from invasives such as ivy on our trees," Manz said. "Although we've made a lot of headway through our Friends groups and neighborhood associations, (and) our parks and recreation departments, we still have a long way to go. I think education about ivy and getting more folks out there working with our friends groups to eradicate ivy — if ever we could do that — is extremely important."
City Councilor Skip O'Neill, meanwhile, said there was "good information" presented at the summit but he also felt that the state of the city's trees was not as dire as some made it out to be.
"I don't know if I agree with anyone in that group ... that you should be an alarmist, that someone is going to come and mow down all the trees in Lake Oswego," O'Neill said. "I don't know where that (thought) process comes from, why people think we would allow that."
O'Neill said the most important action for the City moving forward is improving its data.
"We already have data that says how many (trees) were cut down by owners, how many for residential development, but I think we need to take it to a level of, 'OK, how many of those were invasive species and removed for that? How many were removed because they were dead, how many were removed because they were encroaching on someone's foundation?'" O'Neill said. "Those are important pieces to the puzzle, because I don't think we would ever want to jeopardize the removal of those."
Sue Haines doesn't see herself as an alarmist. The longtime Lake Oswego resident is currently fighting to save several trees on a property she recently sold to a developer.
"When I sold it, I expressed my concern for the trees," Haines said. "(The developers) told me they would only cut what they needed to build the house they need, which is not at all what they did."
Haines said she was thrilled to discover a group of residents who valued trees the way she always had.
"Environment is so important, and I love the trees, I love the plants, I love the wildlife," Haines said. "They're all such important parts of the atmosphere I want to live in, and it breaks my heart that other people don't think they have value."
City Councilor and 2020 mayoral candidate Theresa Kohlhoff, who also attended the summit, is not one of those people, and she disagreed with O'Neill's assertion that the Lake Oswego Tree Code — which was updated in 2016 — is working effectively. Specifically, Kohlhoff noted that the code does not apply to the City's development code.
"The tree code is a standalone regulation, which I believe is contributing to (the problem)," Kohlhoff said in an email. "Tree regulation is a land use decision and therefore the tree code should be in the development code, regardless of whether it would lead to a LUBA (Land Use Board of Appeals) decision or not."
Concluding her thoughts, Kohlhoff emphasized the perspective that brought dozens of residents to the summit: Lake Oswego is special because of its trees.
"I am told there is no place on earth like Cascadia with its largest, longest lived western red cedar and Doug firs in the world," she said. "Our canopy can last, at least, to the end of this century. So saving these big trees to help our grandchildren and their grandchildren survive climate chaos is the most important incentive I can possibly imagine."
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