The large elm tree in front of Philomath Community Library appears to be on track to become the city’s first Heritage Tree. (File photo by Eric Niemann)

It’s been more than 15 years since the 105-foot giant sequoia at 19th and Main streets came down as work got started on the Oregon Department of Transportation’s couplet project. The sequoia had served as the community’s holiday tree for many years.

The thought of the majestic tree coming down still stings for a lot of old-timers in the community.

So with ODOT getting started next week on couplet improvements, the thought of the big elm tree in front of Philomath Community Library comes to mind. Is the tree safe?

Last spring during a City Council discussion about granting an easement to ODOT for the streets project, City Manager Chris Workman confirmed that the large tree would not be removed, based on information provided at the time by Murraysmith, the city’s contracted engineer.

Workman said in a report to the council that the tree might be trimmed if any part of its canopy hangs out over the right-of-way, but only if it’s over the driving lane, not the sidewalk.

The large elm has attracted a lot of attention over the past several months. At a December 2021 council meeting, Giana Bernardini talked about the idea of establishing a Heritage Tree program in Philomath. The suggestion became a reality the following July with the councilors’ approval of a resolution.

During that summer meeting, City Councilor Catherine Biscoe suggested that the library tree be the first to receive the recognition.

The following month, Chris Shonnard, who has a lifetime of experience in the nursery profession, wrote a letter to the mayor and council that he would like to see the elm tree “continue to thrive on the library grounds” amid fears that ODOT’s street construction could have an impact.

“We all remember the fiasco with the city Christmas tree when they built the couplet,” Shonnard said. “I don’t want to see that happen again.”

Jeff Lamb, a longtime community activist, has those same concerns and also mentioned the Christmas tree controversy during the couplet construction in a letter that he wrote last summer to the mayor and council.

“It is imperative that due to miscommunication or other unforeseen factors that ODOT understands the importance of that tree to our community and keeps their hands off it,” Lamb wrote.

Lamb, who was heavily involved with the library construction project in the 1990s, said the big elm was almost chainsawed to the ground, which had been the fate of other trees on the property at the time. He said an arborist was brought in to identify and date the tree’s age.

Said Lamb, “It was identified as an English elm approximately 120 years old in 1992.”

On a side note, Shonnard also said in August that the old elm had been submitted to the Oregon Heritage Tree program for consideration. If the tree has been or will be accepted, it would not impact its status with Philomath’s Heritage Tree program.

The Public Works Committee’s most recent discussion of the Heritage Tree program at an Oct. 6 meeting included what to include in a nomination form, welcoming someone from Philomath’s High forestry program to provide input and possibly engaging a certified forester to provide verification on nominated trees.

At its next meeting, currently scheduled for Dec. 8, the committee reportedly plans to look at designs for certificates and tree plaques/markers, while continuing discussions on other details of the process.

Brad Fuqua, Philomath News

Brad Fuqua has covered the Philomath area since 2014 as the editor of the now-closed Philomath Express and currently as publisher/editor of the Philomath News. He has worked as a professional journalist since 1988 at daily and weekly newspapers in Nebraska, Kansas, North Dakota, Arizona, Montana and Oregon.

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