High Drama Saves Centurion Tree

By Midge Pierce


High drama capped a 15-year-saga that saved a priceless, century-old tree.

Thunder clapped and the sky spit shards of ice as nearly two dozen arborists climbed branches of a 60-foot rare hybrid known as a Paradox Walnut.

Arborists at “tree-in”
Arborists at “tree-in”

They climbed to protest the proposed felling of the tree to make way for 14 row-houses on SE 50th at Mill St. The dramatic tree-in helped convince the developer to redesign his project and keep the ax from the tree.

The day after the climb, developer Steve Melkerson of JSM Equities received a standing ovation at a Save the Tree meeting as he signed paperwork to designate the walnut a Heritage Tree, the only legal protection for trees on private property.

Drawings he unveiled for the adjusted housing complex show 12 units with the Paradox standing tall in its southeast corner.

“I’m relieved we came to quick resolution and I can move forward with the buildings,” said Melkerson. Construction to begin this summer will include periodic checks of the tree’s structure and health.

The project may even bear the name Paradox Walnut Condos. “I’m pretty psyched about that,” commented Urban Forestry Commissioner Brian French.

French explained the lengthy Heritage Designation process to the meeting crowd. It includes input from neighbors adjacent to the tree. The final decision comes from Parks Commissioner Amanda Fritz. If the property is resold during processing, French warned, it would need to restart.

The tree has a steadfast guardian in arborist Kevin Hillery. The Whole Tree Works owner  coordinated the tree-in. “I only wish we could have done this 15 years ago.” A longtime member of Portland’s Heritage Tree Committee, he has helped save some 200 trees.

Hillery’s involvement with the Paradox walnut began in the 90s when he appealed to the former owner to have it designated a Heritage Tree. The then-property owner declined.

When the property sold and he learned of the tree’s imminent demise, Hillery sent a citywide clarion call to arborists soliciting pledges not to participate in removing the tree. In exchange, he provided an opportunity to climb it.

It was Earth Day as Hillery craned his neck to check fellow arborists’ ropes, safety lines, pulleys and back-up plans if lightning struck. “Rarely do you see a tree this age in such good shape. To consider cutting down such a magnificent, mature tree is insane.”

The staging area for access to the tree was Tissa Stein’s backyard. “Never underestimate the zeal of Portlanders for their trees,” said Stein, the owner of nearby Tabor Bread.

“The value of a huge deciduous tree like this is inestimable,” declared the Save the Tree  meeting organizer Brian Mitchell who is now spearheading a fund to help maintain the tree.

Mitchell is a board member of the Mt. Tabor Neighborhood Association which has endorsed a Tree Code developed by a citizen’s advisory group several years ago. At the time, the City lacked the money to enact code provisions for tree inspections, outreach and staff.

Urban Forestry volunteer Kris Day urged citizens to immediately contact the Mayor and City Council urging them to fully fund the code, known as Title 11. The City’s final public budget hearing is at 6:30 pm, May 15 at City Hall.

If the City had implemented the code, the Paradox tree situation could have been avoided according to activist Dawn Smallman. “Our tree canopy is Portland’s biggest asset.”

It’s an asset under attack. Big trees are coming down all over the City to make way for development.

Audubon Society Conservation Director Bob Sallinger said he’s seen entire neighborhoods stripped of mature trees replaced with “popsicle sticks”.

He believes the code could help protect the $6 billion value of Portland’s trees. “It’s not a guarantee to stop removal, but it would at least require review of trees with significant diameters.

“Developers tend to take the easiest path rather than thinking creatively. The goal of the new code is to work with property owners on creative approaches to building around trees.”

Saving the tree may have saved the neighborhood from a hazardous sinkhole. Armchair historian Michael Van Kleek checked an old USG map and believes there is an underground creekbed that has fed the tree for possibly 150 years. “Take out the tree and the water that pools under it would have no place to go. Homes in the area would have a huge problem.”

The history of the Mill St. property and its storied tree predate any of its current protectors.  It is one of only three such walnuts surviving from a period of plant experimentation by horticulturists like Luther Burbank who hybridized the Himalayan Blackberry. California boasts two Paradox walnuts. One is in Santa Rosa and the other is considered the pride and joy of Whittier, Ca. according to Van Kleek.

The Mill St. tree’s branches shade at least a half dozen homes. It sits smack in the middle of the original Perry Prettyman land grant stretching from 60th to 39th, SE Hawthorne to SE Division.

Van Kleek suspects the tree may date back to Prettyman’s plant experiments of the late 1840s. The nurseryman, who produced 2 lb apples from trees 16 inches in diameter, is mainly renowned for introducing dandelions to Oregon.

“Portland’s land is rich and its trees worth saving. Mt. Tabor especially has the best environment for growing. Trees can get huge here,” concluded Van Kleek.

“Let them.”

High Drama Saves Centurion Tree

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