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Tumwater seeks to hire arborist as 400-year-old oak tree faces potential axe

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(The Center Square) – The fight over the historic Davis Meeker Garry Oak Tree has the city of Tumwater sending out a Request for Qualifications document seeking another risk assessment of the tree’s health.

The sought after arborist will help determine if the 400-year-old tree should be cut down or spared.

The tree is named after environmentalist Jack Davis, who in 1984 saved the tree when the highway was being improved in this area and the right-of-way was re-routed and a barrier installed to ensure the tree’s security. The tree name honors his work and that of notable Oregon Trail pioneer Ezra Meeker.

Tumwater Mayor Debbie Sullivan originally made the decision last year to remove the tree, which is located along Old Highway 99 next to Olympia Regional Airport, citing its poor health and high risk for causing accidents or injury.

Its huge branches stretch out over the two-lane road. In 2023, an 18-inch-diameter branch fell from about 50 feet high and landed partially in the roadway. No one was hurt.

A group of citizens formed Save the Davis Meeker Garry Oak, and in May the group was able to get a Thurston County Superior Court judge to issue a temporary restraining order preventing the city from chopping it down. However, a week later the court reversed course, siding with the city.

The group of citizen activists contend the city of Olympia’s arborist Kevin McFarland, who has recommended the tree’s removal, lacks qualifications to make that determination. They cite other arborists who came to different conclusions about the Garry oak.

The group also points to the fact the tree is home to the North American kestrel, a bird of the falcon genus, with a photo posted to the group’s Facebook page Tuesday showing a young kestrel nesting in the tree.

The Garry oak is listed on the Tumwater Register of Historic Places. The tree’s historical name reflects its status as a landmark on the Cowlitz section of the Oregon Trail. It is the only living thing on the register; all other listings are area historic buildings.

During a July 2 city council meeting, City Administrator Lisa Parks updated councilmembers on where things stand now.

She said the city is putting out a Request for Qualifications document in seeking an International Society of Arboriculture Board certified master arborist.

“We hope to select a firm by the 24th of July, and then we’re hoping to have that assessment started by Aug. 1,” Parks explained.

Councilmember Joan Cathey suggested whoever is chosen to conduct the risk assessment should have access to all of the analysis from previous experts, including those who have said the tree presents only a moderate risk.

Parks responded by noting she has been informed blind peer review in these cases is not uncommon.

“We’re hiring someone based on qualifications,” she said. “It’s going to be up to them to determine how they do the work in the manner they are credentialed to do so.”

The arborist to be hired must be a registered consulting arborist through the American Society of Consulting Arborists, and be within 250 miles of Tumwater.

There are 55 people who may qualify, according to Parks.

The Center Square reached out to Tumwater to find out how much the expert analysis will cost taxpayers.

In an emailed response, Communications Manager Jason Wettstein said, “We do not yet have an estimate for the arborist. While it is still to be determined, we do not anticipate the investment to be high, likely under $20,000. This step is responsive to public requests for more study on Davis Meeker Garry Oak Tree.”

Wettstein said the team of arborists who completed the first risk assessment found significant decay in the tree’s main stem and large scaffold branches, and agrees further assessment is also appropriate.

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