What really happened to the trees along Riverview Avenue
By Marianne Stanley
“Only when the last tree has died and the last river been poisoned and the last fish been caught, will we realize we cannot eat money.” Cree Indian Proverb
For more than half a century, 16 trees stood sentry on Riverview Avenue, along the levee facing the residential neighborhood of McPherson Town. Their lush canopy gave shelter to birds and squirrels and much-needed shade on hot summer days to the walkers and bicyclists who walked or rode along the pathway on top of the levee.
Then, on another horribly hot August day, without advance warning, the buzz saws started up and every single one of those fully leafed-out, tall trees were, in the words of one of the residents, “slaughtered” just when they were needed the most. The people in that neighborhood and other Dayton residents who knew and loved that area of town are in mourning in the aftermath of this great loss. The neighborhood is angry and looking for honest answers about how something so counter-intuitive, so illogical and shortsighted could have been done by, of all people, the Miami Conservancy District, the very agency charged with the care and maintenance of our rivers, dams and levees.
So what happened here? How did it happen? Why did it happen? This article seeks to lay it all out for the Dayton community from the eyes and minds of many of the players themselves. As with most complex issues, there may be no final resolution, no easy conclusion to reach about all of this. But, if the only outcome is a better understanding of how easy it is for us to all see things differently, depending on our backgrounds, experiences, positions, proclivities and interests, then this exploration is worthwhile because the times in which we are living will call for more and more cooperation and understanding if we are to survive as a species, given the economic conditions and intensification of climate change facing us today.
The Miami Conservancy District came into existence after the devastating 1913 Dayton flood to manage and control the 55 miles of levees and five dams between Piqua and Hamilton. Janet Bly, MCD’s general manager, said, “Our task is to protect communities in Southwestern Ohio, including Dayton, from flooding. The best science was used to develop a flood protection system to protect us from floodwaters up to 40 percent higher than the 1913 flood. For several years now, as part of maintenance of the system, we have been removing trees from the levees. While we are not under the Army Corps of Engineers’ control, we do use their engineering manuals as our guideline and it calls for no trees on levees. The Ohio Administrative Code says the same thing. We’re a political subdivision of the state, under Chapter 61 of the Ohio Revised Code that requires us to have our levees accredited by FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) if they are to be shown as providing protection on flood insurance maps. Another significant factor in the decision was the difficulty of mowing on such a steep embankment. Also, branches were dying off and dropping into the street, which was a safety hazard. In our obligation to comply with our guidelines, we have already removed 31 stumps from Dayton levees in 2011, plus 22 trees in West Carrollton and 15 in Franklin.
“We had not planned or budgeted to remove those on Riverview this year, but when we were told the trolley lines were going to be put there due to the I-75 re-do, we had to move quickly because of that project. We met with neighborhood representatives the day of the removal. We typically don’t do a lot of advance notification where we maintain the levees – which includes mowing and vegetation removal. Our main job is to maintain and to make sure neighborhoods are protected from flooding.”
The requirement that trees be removed from levees for FEMA certification only came about after Hurricane Katrina and was based on erroneous assumptions that the entire country has soil like that in New Orleans, which sits below sea level and is surrounded by swampland. Studies have since shown that, rather than raising the likelihood of flooding, trees on the levees can secure the levees and prevent flooding depending on the local soil type and topography.
Kurt Rinehart, MCD’s Chief Engineer, further supported Bly’s statements by adding, “As a public agency, we still have the obligation to remove trees from levees and we can’t abdicate our duties. We are ultimately responsible for the operation and maintenance of the flood control system. Trees on a steep slope like that are a safety hazard. Windstorms can blow them over, leaving a hole in the levee. Trees might begin to have diseases and create a seepage path for water, which would weaken the levee. Roots can encourage burrowing animals, like groundhogs and moles. Public safety is always our number one concern.
“Our biggest worry is that the efficiency of the levees could be compromised in any way. We have been stepping up our inspection of levees in recent years to make sure our entire flood protection system is as good as it can be. Because the levee provides flood protection, we must be pro-active with our maintenance of the five dams and 55 miles of levees. We don’t want to put a neighborhood in danger by not taking the trees off their levees. We have known for years that the trees have to come down. The plan was to remove the trees, then immediately remove the stumps and repair the levee. We just wanted to move as quickly and efficiently as possible. We were trying to get the work done before RTA went in there. It would have been more difficult to take the trees down once the trolley lines were installed.
“RTA is moving the curb out six feet more from where it used to be in order to accommodate new tree plantings along the street. We have planted more than 400,000 trees in areas around the dams. We appreciate the benefits and beauty of trees, but cannot allow them on levee slopes. In retrospect, the timing was unfortunate because of the summer heat and drought. We understand that the neighborhood would have liked for us to have talked to them more than we did.”
But, while the MCD emphasized the push to get the trees down before RTA re-routed its trolley lines, RTA’s Director of Planning and Marketing Frank Ecklar made it clear that RTA had nothing to do with the tree removal and never asked for it. “We’re a public entity,” he said, “and we take pride in having a good working relationship with neighborhoods. We’ve worked closely with the McPherson and Grafton Hills neighborhoods, the Dayton Art Institute, the City of Dayton and ODOT so that, in the end, this will turn out to be a really nice project for everyone.”
Aimee Noel, Vice President of the McPherson Historical Society, confirmed RTA’s responsiveness and cooperation saying, “RTA has involved us at every step of the project. Our neighborhood association has a statement from the city saying they didn’t require taking down the trees, and RTA also made a statement that taking down the trees was not required for the trolley line project.” Aaron Sorrell from the City of Dayton’s Planning and Community Development office supported Noel’s statement saying, “MCD was the entity that decided to remove the trees, not us.”
Noel said, “We’ve been told by MCD that for FEMA certification, the levees can’t have any vegetation on them, but other cities are getting waivers.” (Sacramento, Calif. and Corrales, N.M. both sought and received waivers.) “We asked if they had requested one, but MCD would neither confirm nor deny that they had.”
California’s Department of Fish and Game actually sued the Army Corps of Engineers earlier this year over its national policy of banning all trees and vegetation on levees. In 2007, in the wake of Katrina, the Corps adopted that policy to help protect the integrity of levees. But the lawsuit claims that, “the very trees they’re destroying and taking out are the ones Californians have been planting for years to stabilize our rivers and keep them in their banks.” It also cites the loss of wildlife habitat as a violation of the Endangered Species Act.
Pam Miller Howard, longtime historic district resident and board member of Preservation Dayton said, “It was an ill-advised solution. All riverbanks have natural growth on them. Those trees were all healthy trees and they were on the street side, not the river side of the levee. None of them were ash trees. MCD seemed to take the path of least resistance, rather than looking at all the reasons to keep the trees there where they had been planted more than seventy years ago. I don’t want to see any more trees taken off our region’s levees. I care about not only our neighborhood, but our country. Trees and vegetation occur naturally along rivers and riverbanks and act to anchor, to secure the soil and prevent erosion and flooding. They should be valued, not violated.”
All the residents of McPherson Town know is that the trees came down before they had a chance to respond. Noel said, “From the neighborhood standpoint, we did not have any prior notice that the trees would come down except a blanket email to the community that same morning. We woke up to the sound of chainsaws. At a previous meeting, we were told that certification was coming due by FEMA, but that no inspection date had been set yet and that, with FEMA running so far behind, it would probably be 5-10 years before the inspection date arrived. MCD specifically told us that they wouldn’t cut the trees down until they received a scheduled date for their re-certification.”
According to the MCD, for levees to receive Army Corps of Engineers certification, they can have no vegetation on them. If a levee system isn’t “certified,” FEMA will not provide federal disaster-relief funding to that community if it is hit by flooding. But states and cities all across the country have raised an outcry over what they consider a flawed policy due to an over-reaction to Hurricane Katrina’s levee failures.
As many of these communities point out, to comply with these new guidelines, they have to violate other guidelines by the EPA and Endangered Species Act. Communities in the Northwest claim that removing trees on their levees will prevent the shade and thus, the cool water required by the salmon that live there. Ironically, the Corps remains inflexible despite their own 2011 study that shows trees oftentimes actually boost flood safety by binding soil together with their roots. Ignoring this scientific evidence is producing outrage across the country as communities lose not only the shade and scenery that they love, but also the habitat for diverse and cherished wildlife. The push is for exceptions to be granted and waivers to be approved on a site-specific basis and to abandon such a draconian policy at a time of record droughts, record heat and record air pollution when trees are the perfect antidote in their generous provision of shade, of cooling and of providing fresh oxygen to the air we breathe.
Political consultant and long-time McPherson Town resident Jim Nathanson, also protested the removal of those trees. “I walked that levee almost every day for over ten years with my dog. There is no question that MCD’s removal of those trees has greatly diminished the aesthetic value of the riverfront,” he said.
Nathanson’s point was reiterated by another McPherson Town resident and House Manager at The Victoria Theatre, David Hastings, who said, “I am saddened. I was so surprised! I walk my dog there and it really bothered me to see these healthy trees cut down. We never have been able to find out why they were cut down. We’ve heard all kinds of reasons … that it’s because of the trolley lines, or for post-9/11 security, or because the root system is a flood hazard, etc., but I cannot find anyone who can give me a good reason for why they were cut down. It took them all of these years to figure out that trees are undesirable? Are they going to take down the Masonic Temple levee trees too? It bothers me to see trees cut down, especially in this warming climate. We need the trees for their shade, their oxygen and the beauty they provide.”
David Dominic, Ph.D., a Wright State Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences, and a McPherson Town resident said that cutting the trees on the levee was first mentioned to the neighborhood about a year ago when they were told that due to I-75 construction, there would be some re-routing of the RTA trolley lines.
Dominic said, “It’s a contentious issue (that levees should be clear-cut). I think what the research shows is that trees do not always weaken levees, so it’s impossible to make a blanket statement regarding this issue. A ‘one size fits all’ policy does not make sense. I don’t think the trees had to go and I wish that they hadn’t. Certainly there are trolley lines where there are also trees. While it certainly is easier and cheaper to do it the way they did it, that in no way makes it the best way.”
Another resident, Margaret Knapke, former University of Dayton philosophy instructor, Reiki master/practitioner and therapeutic bodyworker said, “I’m just a disgruntled, heartbroken person from the neighborhood. I knew nothing about this until I saw the machines cutting the big limbs down and realized it was already a fait d’accompli. For me, it was a personal mourning thing. I was surprised at my level of anger. Every time I drove by, I felt like I was driving past a violent crime scene. MCD seemed to do this in a way that people would have no way to organize or to stop it. I spent time with each tree. I could feel sadness from the trees. These trees had been of service, some of them for 90 years.
“A friend from McPherson Town and I had the idea of putting signs up so that these trees that had long been a part of the Dayton community could address the neighborhood. So we hung signs that said things like ‘For 75 years, we shaded your streets,’ ‘We filtered your air,’ ‘Birds nested in our branches,’ ‘Our roots held firm the levee.’ It was a symbolic expression from the trees. With the signs, we wanted to apologize for the occasional stupidity of our species.
“None of MCD’s excuses ring true to me. It seems to me that if they were really concerned about levee safety issues, they would have taken the time to look at conflicting research on the effects of having trees on levees, as well as the effects of removing them. They could have sought a waiver to get time for such research.”
Gretchen Jacobs, resident, artist and art professor at Wright State University, said that the only way out of McPherson Town is along Riverview Avenue, so the residents had to pass the clear-cutting site every time they left or returned home. “It was really hard,” Jacobs said. “I couldn’t stand it. I felt like the grief and the tragedy were palpable. It was like an act of environmental terrorism. The way the trees were cut down was over-the-top brutal. I have been told about the horrible sounds the remaining stumps and roots made as they were ripped, still alive, out of the ground. Those trees were a living thing, a living entity. I couldn’t help but ask myself what those trees have experienced in their lifetimes, standing there like that, unable to move, observing everything. This is a huge loss.”
Frank Ecklar sees the vociferous reaction to the tree removal as a public mandate for all government entities to “reach out,” as he puts it, to all their stakeholders, all those affected by any decision that must be made. Ecklar said, “RTA has worked hard to work with the community to ensure that what we do is tasteful and responsive to the communities we serve.”
What a difference it would make in the Miami Valley if all the various governmental boards, commissions and public agencies were as genuinely caring and responsive to those they purport to serve as the RTA! Were this the case, the beautiful and historic Julienne High School would still grace the hill on which it stood for more than 70 years and could have still continued to humbly serve community needs that now sadly go unmet in the Five Oaks community. The quaint cottages of Shawen Acres would still stand to also please the eye and continue to serve more of the underserved, rather than also meeting an untimely and unnecessary death by wrecking ball. And so too would those grand old trees along Riverview still be standing. Instead, Dayton Public Schools, the Montgomery County Board of Commissioners and the Miami Conservancy District acted as insular agencies rather than as agents of the people of Dayton.
This defiance of or indifference to public will, coupled with a stunning lack of regard for the historical and aesthetic importance of these and other landmarks must end. As a community, our voices must be heard and more importantly, respected. The RTA and the City have done this, with the City giving 6′ of land at the base of the Riverview levee to the RTA so that at least 20 new trees, 18′ tall or taller, can be planted to grace that area once again with the beauty that only a tree can provide giving at least some relief to the distressed residents of McPherson Town .
It is time to take a longer view, to become a more visionary city again and to opt for preservation or renovation rather than the profoundly sad death and destruction of our natural and architectural resources. These belong to all the people here. It is no longer ok for the few to make decisions for the many. We are, after all, a community.
Species of New Trees Along Riverview Avenue
According to Frank Ecklar of the RTA, three species of trees will be planted at the base of the levee to reduce chance of one disease, pest or problem wiping them out. They are listed here with their characteristics:
1. The Swamp White Oak. Drought tolerant, slow to medium growth rate, its acorns are important food for wildlife such as squirrels and a variety of birds. It grows to up to 70′ with dark, glossy green leaves on top that are whitish on the bottom. Turns crimson in the fall.
2. The Exlamation London Planetree: Heat and drought resistant, rapid growing up to 6′ or more per year. It grows to 60′ tall. Resistant to disease. Symmetrical, upright pyramidal shape with attractive bark. Turns yellow in fall.
3. Princeton Elm: Resistant to Dutch elm disease. Fast growing up to 6′ a year. Can grow from 80-100′ tall. Beautiful arching canopy. Yellow in fall.
Before our white brothers arrived to make us civilized men, we didn’t have any kind of prison. Because of this, we had no delinquents.
Without a prison, there can be no delinquents. We had no locks nor keys and therefore among us there were no thieves.
When someone was so poor that he couldn’t afford a horse, a tent or a blanket, he would, in that case, receive it all as a gift.
We were too uncivilized to give great importance to private property.
We didn’t know any kind of money and consequently, the value of a human being was not determined by his wealth.
We had no written laws laid down, no lawyers, no politicians, therefore we were not able to cheat and swindle one another.
We were really in bad shape before the white men arrived and I don’t know how to explain how we were able to manage without these fundamental things that (so they tell us) are so necessary for a civilized society.
John (Fire) Lame Deer
Sioux Lakota – 1903-1976
Reach DCP freelance writer Marianne Stanley at MarianneStanley@daytoncitypaper.com