In the Eastmoreland neighborhood, just south of Reed College on Southeast Martin Street, three giant sequoias, each approximately 150 years old, had been slated for removal in June of this year. They stand on a property made of two lots that were bought for $650,000 by Vic Remmers of Everett Custom Homes. One of the lots had a home on it that they demolished due to it having been pushed over by tree roots. They had only paid the city $1,200 per tree, however, for permission to hack down the iconic giants that were at least 150 feet tall each and have a life span of 500-1000 years. The usual 35-day waiting period that allows the public to comment on such a project had been waived. Their plan was to build 2 huge new high-dollar homes on the land. These majestic trees were not intended to be re-used by the company for lumber or for anything at all, rather they were to be chopped up, pushed into a chipper, and dumped at the landfill.
Before long, neighbors had begun to gather and protest outside the lot, and awareness about the call to Save the Eastmoreland Redwoods spread. Shortly before the scheduled day of the cut-down in June, several community members from Eastmoreland convinced the developer to meet with them at a coffee shop. Remmers proposed that if they could pay him $900,000 cash within ten days, with $50,000 down that day, that they could have the land back (He was still determined to make a big profit). Everett Custom Homes was bombarded with letters and phone calls from the community expressing their outrage and their support for the trees. Flyers were made and distributed to inform the public and urge them to donate to save the three redwoods. Despite the fact that the community was unable to raise the huge sum of money on time, when the deadline had come, and passed, the giant sequoias remained standing.
The neighborhood continued to work on pooling together enough money to buy the property back, and a fundraising concert was put on in July to urge locals to donate as much as they could to the cause. A partnership was formed with Friends of Trees to give donors the benefit of a tax write-off, and a new proposal was made to Everett Custom Homes with the help of neighbor Arthur Bradford, Mayor Charlie Hales, and Neighborhood Association Chairman Robert McCullough. Strangely, on September 14th, shortly after the mayor’s office had announced that an agreement had been made to let the redwoods stay, police opened up the property to the developer’s tree cutting team along with all of their equipment. Protestors quickly formed a human fence to block their access to the giant sequoias. A kayaktivist known among friends as “Lorax Dave” also set up camp in one of the trees a couple days later, where he stayed for roughly 72 hours to ensure that the trees remained untouched. Vic Remmers contracted a fencing company to come and build a greater fence around the entire property, then put up “No Trespassing” signs and hired private security guards for the lot. Several protestors were arrested by a team of police on the following morning of September 17th. The tree cutting crew came back again that same day with their trucks and tree chopping equipment, hoping to sneak in and get the job done, but were blocked a second time by protestors.
A similar process has been happening at Southeast 41st Ave and Clinton St, also on a property recently bought by Everett Custom Homes. Five trees total have already been cut down, and there have been neighborhood protests to try and keep the remaining two on the edge of the plot from being torn down. Lewis and Clark professor Elizabeth Bennett climbed up and guarded one of the trees there as well. This could be part of a growing trend of Portland residents’ displeasure with the demolition/development craze happening in the city right now, to which we are losing a lot of old but healthy trees.
Back in Eastmoreland, the deal was reportedly finalized on October 1st to let the giant sequoias remain in the ground. As described on the Save the Portland Redwoods blog update after the first of the month: “We are all happy about saving the trees, but we also want to remind everyone that we have work to do in order to make the land a park for everyone to enjoy. A group of neighbors will pay Everett Homes $800k for the land. This price, while high, represents a “break even” amount for the developer when his permits and house demolition costs are factored in. Part of our payment is offset by the sale of the western lot to a responsible developer who will build a smaller home away from the trees. A group of neighbors have also contributed significantly to the fund. But we do still need to raise money to pay off loans taken out in order to complete this purchase.” Donations are still being accepted through Friends of Trees to guarantee that a small park can be made from the lot that the three giants stand on.
While it’s a relief to know that the trees will keep standing tall for now, the broader picture is that the life of these magnificent living beings has been reduced to a dollar value. We need a different calculation…if interests beyond profit motive had been involved in the decision-making process from the start, it wouldn’t have come to the point where the neighbors had to raise such an incredible sum of money. The developer only had to pay $3600 to kill these three trees, while the neighbors had to pay $800,000 to save them. Luckily, the three redwoods in Eastmoreland were in a wealthy neighborhood where the residents had the resources to make a financial deal with the developer.
The fact that the usual 35-day public comment period was waived when Vic Remmers bought the two plots in Eastmoreland highlights the unfortunate precedence of business over community interests and basic quality of life. On some level, the people who made the decision to waive that comment period must have known that the neighborhood would have been against cutting down those trees from the start. It’s comparable to shadowy trade deals like the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), where deals have to be made and permits granted behind closed doors, hidden from public view, because the people orchestrating these deals know that what they are doing is wrong. Having to pay them off to keep the trees there sets a bad precedent for future situations like these with developers and big business as a whole. We can’t pay the corporations of the world for all the resources that need to be saved.
Moreover, at this point in history, with the dangerous levels of carbon we continue to pump into the atmosphere, we need all the trees we can get. The city’s current tree codes, intended to preserve more of Portland’s canopy, appears to actually be leading to canopy loss. According to Street Roots newspaper, “for the first time, the city is able to track the number of trees being cut down. A total of 1,346 permits to remove and/or replant trees were issued by the city between Jan. 1 and June 30. There has been a loss of 25,000 square feet of canopy since the interim rule was enacted. Approximately 16,000 square feet of canopy has been replanted since the rule was enacted, but that leaves a net loss of 9,000 square feet. Before the interim rule took effect, 2.4 trees were replanted for every tree removed. Since the rule has been in effect, the rate has dropped to 0.8 tree for each tree removed, according to a report by Portland Parks and Recreation.”
Additionally, “approximately 50 percent of the city’s trees are less than six inches in diameter, and less than 10 percent of the city’s trees are greater than 30 inches in diameter”, as recorded by Portland Parks and Recreation’s Urban Forest Canopy Assessment and Public Tree Evaluation. This illuminates another reason why keeping these giant older trees around is so important: they only make up ten percent of the city’s canopy. Portland’s urban forest also “removes approximately two million pounds of pollutants and 53 million pounds of carbon from the air, valued at more than $3 million, and stores about 1.5 billion tons of carbon.” A large redwood tree like the ones on SE Martin Street can convert and store more than a metric ton of carbon from the air in its trunk and roots. They sequester more carbon than any other tree on earth, and the older and bigger a giant sequoia is, the higher its capacity to remove carbon and pollutants from our atmosphere. At least as far as redwoods go, when one is cut down, burned, or otherwise damaged, it re-releases much of its stored carbon back into the air. In fact, deforestation accounts for nearly 25% of worldwide carbon emissions. So are we really getting a good deal when a sizable, mature tree is felled, and a spindly little sapling is put in its place?