Updated: April 25, 2014 at 8:54 am
Recently, Carol Willis returned to her home near Colorado College to find a large "X" painted in orange on the trunk of a large, old silver maple tree out front.
It might as well have been a skull and crossbones in orange.
The "X" was painted by city foresters who determined the tree, growing in the parkway between the sidewalk and curb, was dying and a hazard that must be removed before it falls and crushes someone or damages property.
Now, Carol is mourning the pending loss of the tree, which towers over her century-old home, and she worries about how many more city trees damaged by a decade of drought and watering restrictions are doomed to suffer a similar fate.
"It's like losing your favorite aunt," Carol told me. "You've been close with her for 35 years. She's always been in excellent health, cheerful, kind to animals and then suddenly you are told she has a terminal disease and she won't be with you for but a few more weeks.
I know exactly how she feels. My wife, Cary, loves trees so much I have photos of her hugging them on hikes and on vacations.
Big, old trees attracted us to our little home in Rockrimmon. We love the massive blue spruce in front and cherished the privacy we enjoyed from a dozen or so tall pines in back. Then pine beetles attacked and killed a handful of our trees, which had to be removed. We've felt exposed, like a plumber bent over beneath a kitchen sink, ever since.
Anyway, Carol is dreading the loss of the tree, which was part of a pair of silver maples in front of the house when she and her late husband, Clif, bought it in 1979.
Funny story, she and Clif discovered Colorado Springs in 1968 when they were on their way from Chicago to a new job in California. Their car broke down on Raton Pass near the New Mexico border and they hitched a ride into Colorado Springs with traveling salesmen. They called a friend who happened to be living here and borrowed a car to complete their trip to California.
"The job in California didn't work out, and we moved back to Chicago," Carol said. "But we kept dreaming of Colorado Springs. Finally, in 1973, we just decided to go, and we picked up and moved here."
They found jobs - Clif worked in broadcasting and acted in TV commercials while Carol danced, did choreography and costume design and more - and after a few years they bought their home on East Dale Street with the twin silver maples in front.
But almost immediately one silver maple was cut down by the city after it was declared dead.
The other silver maple became a beloved friend.
"I think of how comfortable, warm and protecting it's been," Carol said. "It's shaded us and never shed one branch.
"It's been the home of two nesting pairs of flickers. Squirrels live in it. They really love it. They run up and down, chasing each other all the time. They are going to be losing their home."
She always looked forward to it leafing out in spring, bringing a burst of green to the neighborhood. In the fall, it turned red. And she loved seeing its wing-shaped seed pods helicopter to the ground.
"I love them," she said wistfully of the memory. "And its leaves are so beautiful in the fall."
But city foresters plan to remove the tree "sooner rather than later."
Even though the tree appears to be alive, even producing leaves through the barely alive bark and branches, it is dead on the inside, said Kurt Schroeder, manager of park operations for the city.
"The heartwood of the tree is rotted out," Schroeder said. "It's hollow in the middle and has raccoons living in it."
Given its proximity to the street and houses and pedestrians and cars, Schroeder said the city has no choice but remove it.
"It has become a potential hazard tree," he said. "It's an accident waiting to happen. We want to get it down before it blows over."
Because the tree sits in the city right-of-way between the sidewalk and curb, Schroeder said it's the city's responsibility to remove.
Schroeder said the tree is very old and the rot may have occurred naturally. Or it may be the result of drought and water restrictions that killed thousands of trees and threaten many more.
It has happened before. Previous drought cycles have decimated Colorado Springs' lush urban forest, started by Gen. William Jackson Palmer, who transformed a treeless prairie by overseeing the planting of 10,000 trees after founding the city in 1872.
A drought in the 1950s resulted in widespread destruction and replanting. City foresters at the time aggressively replanted, relying heavily on silver maples along with elm and ash. Foresters estimate Carol's maple at around 60 years old, meaning it could have been planted at that time.
Then came a five-year drought cycle in 2000 that left huge holes in the canopy of trees shading the city.
Historic parkways in the Old North End saw significant losses as well as those on East Platte Avenue and in the Broadmoor neighborhood.
Schroeder said Carol is right about the impact of ongoing watering restrictions on the city's trees.
"We have a lot of trees in decline," he said, describing how trees have suffered as more homeowners convert their yards to xeriscape and remove irrigation systems that once fed thick lawns and trees.
"Unless trees get supplemental water, they will have a much tougher time," he said.
And trees in the city's medians have thirsted for water since the city parks department's staff and operating budget were slashed, forcing an end to routine watering of medians and parks.
Part of the problem is that people often don't start watering trees until they notice stress.
"By then, it's usually too late," he said. "We've got to water trees year-round to keep them healthy."
Sadly, it's too late for Carol's silver maple.
Now, she's considering whether to replace it and if she should choose a buckeye or a horse chestnut. I think she should replant. And, hopefully, she'll get to watch a new tree grow and give those squirrels and flickers a new home.
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