The maples face an emotional buzz saw

By David Curtis

Trees are making the news again in Haywood County as two commissioners are debating the sugar maples in front of the historical courthouse. To cut or not to cut is the question, but, as usual, the answer is not always black or white, chainsaw or shovel, tree hugger or developer.


As work continues to restore the historic courthouse, a local landscape architectural firm has been hired to design a plan that will tie the courthouse to the adjoining justice center with a common landscape. The landscape design may, or may not, include the maples growing across the front of the courthouse. The firm will actually produce two plans, one that preserves the trees into the new landscape and one without the trees.

And this is where the battle lines have been drawn — those that want to keep the trees at any cost, and those that may support the removal of the trees to implement the new landscape. Notice I say, may, because the landscape design has not even been drawn, presented, or for that matter, even discussed amongst the commissioners at this time.

I find this ironic because here are our local politicians debating a local issue –—nothing says issue on the local level more than dogs, kids and trees — and they are acting a lot like their counterparts, their big brothers and big sisters in Washington, deciding on national and world issues.

The comparisons can easily be made between the two; in one camp are the “stay the course” diehards. Do not cut the trees at any cost regardless of what intelligence, or lack of intelligence tells you. Be stubborn in your belief, don’t waver, say it enough times and it will become true. Mission accomplished, trees saved, damn the future, lets save democracy ... I mean trees in that adjoining country ... I mean property.

In the other camp we have those that want a plan for the early withdrawal of the courthouse trees. Maybe they all have to go, maybe some have to go, whatever the case, lets have a plan and a timetable for their removal so we can achieve a unified front across both properties. This camp is often referred to as the “cut and run” camp by the other side.

As the great tree debate plays out in the local media, sides are being taken, letters are being written and other parties are jumping into the water not knowing how deep, how cold and how snapping turtle infested the water could actually be. OK, a little clarification — the snapping turtle reference is to the things that could come back and bite you if you’re not careful.

Now, the next part is important so I’m going to go slow just in case some of the involved parties are reading. Trees and kids and dogs are all emotional issues and decisions that are made concerning these issues are best made when emotions are set aside and decisions are then made using accurate facts, knowledge of the subject and advice from unbiased experts.

So here we have a commissioner who, before there is a landscape plan, before all the options have been laid out, before any discussion has taken place, has drawn a line in the sand and will basically veto any proposal that requires the withdrawal of the trees. “Hell no the trees WON’T go,” is the message to the other commissioners.

The trees in question are primarily the six sugar maples that were planted in front of the courthouse in the early to mid 1970s. In the early 1990s the maples were approaching 25 feet tall and starting to shade the courthouse lawn, thinning the grass. Someone in charge, possibly the county chairman or county manager at that time — whoever it was had little knowledge in arboriculture (tree care) — gave the order to top the trees to help the grass and open up a better view of the courthouse.

When trees are topped it ruins the natural form of the tree, leads to weak branching structure and predisposes the tree to insect and disease attack. On the day that the trees were being topped the workers got four of the six trees cut back before a woman who worked inside the courthouse ran outside and yelled at them to stop killing the trees.

She accused them, rightly so, of not knowing what they were doing and that they should call someone for advice before they destroyed them all — and so they called me. At that time I was the horticulture agent for the Cooperative Extension Service and one of my areas of expertise was in public education of tree care and maintenance.

The topping was stopped, and over the course of the next four years I climbed the trees each summer and pruned out the damage done from the topping. The crowns were thinned to allow more light to reach the ground to re-establish the lawn, diseased limbs that resulted from the topping were removed and the trees were limbed up, raising the canopy to allow more light, air circulation and visibility. Since then little has been done to the trees, and if you look today you can still see the damage done from the topping of 15 years ago.

There are five more maples growing at the courthouse that are far older and more historic than the six maples getting all of the attention, three are growing along Depot Street and two growing between the courthouse and the justice center. These trees are closer to 80 years old, are much larger, much more neglected and are in much poorer condition than those being debated.

The other irony of this whole senseless debate is that the largest maple on the property that is growing between the courthouse and the justice center is being damaged by the current construction and restoration activities at the courthouse. Soil compaction is occurring from construction traffic and pallets of concrete blocks that are stacked under the tree; all this leads to root damage resulting in decline and eventual death of the tree.

Where’s the concern, the debate, the uproar? To answer my own question, there isn’t any, because those involved are unaware that there is a problem. They lack the knowledge to take action, or to make a decision, or to even understand the consequences of their lack of action until it is too late.

So here’s my advice to the commissioners about the trees at the courthouse and to the public who is weighing in on the matter. Educate yourself. Don’t make an emotional decision without first knowing all of the facts. Look at the landscape plan that you are paying good money for (at one time the estimated amount that should be budgeted for landscape design and installation was at 10 percent of the project budget, considering the cost of the justice center and the restoration of the courthouse you’re getting by cheap at $2,900), listen to the landscape architects who are the experts, consult with a certified arborist on the health and cost to correctively prune and maintain the trees if they are going to be preserved, and keep the public informed.

Spend more time thinking about the future and less time dwelling in the past. That’s not to say forget the past, but honor it, not use it as an excuse not to move forward. And always, keep a sharp eye out for snapping turtles.

(David Curtis teaches middle school in Haywood County and has in the past had the opportunity to hug several of the courthouse maples. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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