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Monday, September 22, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 68.0° F  A Few Clouds
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Historic oak tree likely doomed in UW Memorial Union reconstruction
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What are we to gain once the historic oak tree is cut down next year?
What are we to gain once the historic oak tree is cut down next year?
Credit:John Feith

Two months ago, the Wisconsin Union announced that one of the five 100-plus-year-old oak trees at the Terrace has evidence of decay. But fortunately, it is the one next to the Wisconsin Union Theater -- the same tree that for over a year architects have planned to remove as part of the Memorial Union Reinvestment plan.

You and I would never notice that the oak tree in question is not a grand specimen of arboreal health. It has been very well taken care of. The branches are healthy, and the leaves were dense this summer. It has survived strong ice and wind storms in the last decades. Compared to the other four oaks of similar age, it appears healthier to the untrained naked eye. Its roots have been safely encased under the Terrace and theater steps for 72 years. Yet the tree was doomed as not worth saving from the start of the Union expansion process.

Why might this oak tree be worth saving? In 1939, the same tree was spared when the Union Theater was built. Instead of taking the easy way out and cutting the tree, designers built the steps leading to the theater around it. This may be pure coincidence, but at the time, conservationist Aldo Leopold was working at the university. The first restored prairie in the world, Curtis Prairie, had just been established at the UW Arboretum. Oak savanna management was a hot research topic.

UW-Madison was indeed confirming its already strong leadership in conservation. John Muir, a pioneer in wilderness management, had been a student almost 80 years beforehand. No, the Terrace cannot be considered a wilderness on most days, nor are the oaks a significant habitat for any species in danger of extinction. But those historic oak trees add a significant amount of gravitas to the otherwise simply charming atmosphere. The tree is estimated to be possibly 150 years old -- alive during the Civil War and maybe even around when John Muir was a student.

The Union published its 2011 Terrace Tree Inspection Report on Monday, Nov. 28. It was revealed this week that another similar Terrace oak tested at the time also showed a hollow center using the same new, high-tech ultrasound techniques (tree tomography). Many questions come to mind. Are we in constant danger of losing a limb from a falling oak tree every time we share a pitcher at the Union? How many years have we lived so precariously? Should we be cutting down every tree that is not completely solid in the name of "risk management" or only the ones that get in the way of construction?

Bruce Allison, the consulting arborist and writer of the report, was instrumental in restoring some of the Terrace oaks to health in the 1980s and is a leading expert in the use of tree tomography. His research is available here (PDF).

Tree tomography has been shown to sometimes overestimate the size of soft spots in old oak trees, and it can't be used to accurately tell us any probabilities of whether the tree will live another 100 years or just 10 more (white oak trees can live to 600 years). The star-shaped crack that most old trees have in the middle can be the cause of some of the acoustic shadows. Yet the technology and the highly regarded arborist make a good case. While there is still plenty of hardwood around the circumference of the tree, there is definitely some decay in the middle, as most old oaks have, and maybe even at the roots.

Arborists can only ascertain that the tree does have a higher risk of toppling over (the only government stat I found for "odds of being killed by a tree" is 1 in 20 million in the U.K.). More likely would be a slow deterioration of the tree over an undetermined number of years (10 or 100, who knows?), perhaps not unsafe if carefully monitored. So the question is: Who should decide what is worth saving or too dangerous for public enjoyment?

Maybe another way to put it is: What are we to gain once the historic oak tree is cut down next year? From the current plans, it seems like we will have a new hallway going from behind the Brat Stand and into a cooler and storage space for brat buns. Hoofers offices and meeting rooms will be moved to the area. And the controversial new Union Theater lobby, now a real glass box instead of football-shaped (thanks, savetheterrace.org), is forcing a raised Upper Terrace and reconstruction of the steps. These expansions, along with countless other details typical of large-scale projects, have innocently conspired to write a death sentence for the most majestic of all trees at the Terrace next year.

But as a consolation to any now-crying tree huggers or potential "Occupy the Oak Tree" protesters: The Union will have more trees at the end of this five-year construction extravaganza breaking ground next fall, as the Memorial Union parking lot is to be converted into a tree-covered walkway to Lake Mendota. And 100 years from now, the grown trees will hopefully inspire the same amount of historic awe as the grand old oak tree of the Union Theater. May it R.I.P. as decorative wood (its current destiny, in the name of sustainability).


John Feith is a UW grad in electrical engineering. He is the producer of the Bird Song Ear Training Guide CD and the Hoofers 75-year anniversary documentary. "Citizen" is an opinion series that presents the views of the author. If you would like to reply, please comment or consider submitting an op-ed in response.

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