January 2, 2022
Picea sitchensis. Sitka spruce.You know, the trees at the coast. The ones with the thin, scaley bark that occupy a narrow band of ecological niche running from coastal Alaska, down through the Inside Passage, all of the Washington and Oregon coastlines and into California. They are to the Pacific Northwest Coast what Subaru is to Portland: ubiquitous. These are the same trees at Sitka Center for Art and Ecology. One of those Sitka spruce at Sitka Center is in trouble. Not the “Go to your room” kind of trouble, but the end-of-life kind of trouble. It is sad. It is hard. Because from the ground, everything looks normal. But normal it is not.
When Sitka Center built Gray House and McKee House back in 2009, the lower branches and the roots of this tree were in the way. While we did modify the Gray House foundation in the interest of tree preservation, we still removed some roots and then the lower branches up to 50 feet. Around that time, we also had an arborist thin the crown and install cables to support the codominant stems. Now what we know is that those cables were installed too low in the canopy and they were installed with inappropriate and undersized hardware. We also know that the crown thinning, intended to reduce wind resistance, has proven excessive for the tree’s future.
In 2019 the tree presented a conk, a large fruiting body about ten feet above the ground that prompted professional advice. We consulted with an arborist certified in Tree Risk Assessment (TRA), who concluded that the tree should be removed. Sitka Center presented that information to the Cascade Head Ranch community in Spring of 2020. To make sure we were not being hasty, Sitka Center decided to seek a second opinion—another arborist and another TRA. More thorough, this second TRA showed us the difficulties we faced.
Both TRAs consider Gray House and McKee House and the people who may be in those houses. If you think of physics, this tree gives us two points of concern: one is the codominant stem union starting about 25 feet above the ground, the other is the roots at the base of the tree. At 134-feet tall, the tree is its own lever arm putting significant torque on both of these fulcrums during a wind storm. In order to reduce potential tree failure at the roots or at the codominant union, we would need to reduce the canopy of this tree by approximately 30 feet and install a new and appropriate cabling system.
With a canopy reduction of 30 feet from the top down and a previous canopy reduction of 50 feet from the bottom up, the tree’s remaining canopy would be roughly 42 percent of its original self. The future viability of the tree would be threatened by this diminished capacity to produce energy. Any normal day of fighting off decay and disease would also need to deal with the new cuts made to reduce its crown.
With these factors and more, we have to ask the question, Is this tree safe? We have a tree that presents evidence of its demise. If we do nothing, then someday, the tree will fail. We can’t know when, nor—if left to its own devices—can we control how it will come down. In acting now to reduce this life-threatening risk, we gain control over how the tree comes down. This is a heart wrenching and necessary decision. Based on multiple professional arborist recommendations, and with thoughtful US Forest Service and Cascade Head Ranch management review, we have determined that the tree is unsafe and should be removed.
For all the people who have worked with this tree, been inspired beneath this tree or found their muse next to this tree, we thank you. Dendrophilia, though not a word, is real. The love we feel for this tree is what makes this decision so sad.
Sitka spruce. Picea sitchensis. Remember its name and it shall live on forever in our hearts.
Facilities and Ecology Manager
Chair, Safety and Emergency Preparedness Committee