The pecan tree that leans heavily over the Barton Springs Pool is scheduled for removal. This iconic tree has been in poor condition for decades, at least since the 30’s when its heavy lean is first documented in historical photos. The city of Austin has done everything possible to physically support the tree, from using tar, concrete and rebar to fill the massive cavity in its trunk (where decay created a hollow large enough for a man to easily fit inside of it), to installing steel support posts, to anchoring support ropes to nearby structures. They even planted a replacement tree next to it in the 70’s. For decades it has been poked, prodded and even internally examined with high tech radar equipment.
The question on everyone’s mind of course is, “Can’t it be saved?” This is not the first time the question has arose in recent history. Surely back in the 40’s, 50’s and 70’s, when other support materials were installed in the tree this question was asked. But it was asked again in 2009, when the city was planning to remove about 24 huge trees around the pool area, including this tree. In fact, this tree was one of four that received the highest risk rating out the 58 trees assessed at that time. But during public hearings regarding these trees, I and several other local arborists advocated for a more thorough assessment of trees the city thought should be removed. It was my opinion that most of them would be deemed worthy of keeping after such an assessment. I did not think this tree would (or should) be one of them.
The assessments were done, and only about five or six trees were removed over the following year or two. But public sentiment was so strong during the hearings that “Flo”, as she came to be called, was shored up with yet more steel supports, and then I guess everyone just crossed their fingers.
Now, indications of further decline have led the city to reevaluate Flo yet again. One of the most troubling indications is the recent appearance of a fungal structure that was identified by Texas A&M plant pathology lab as a decay fungi known as Kretzschmaria deusta. This serious decay fungi almost always leads to rapid, total root failure or tree death. This, and the widening of the separation between what little remains of actual trunk tissue and the massive concrete filling installed over a half century ago (and then replaced again years later- see photos)
led the city to have an in-depth assessment done by some of the city’s most respected arborists. A prominent local environmental group also asked me to look at the tree. I basically explained that the tree was in worse shape than in 2009 and the best course of action was removal. After the other city-ordered reports were done, the city was asked by several other concerned citizens if they would have me also look at the tree. Given that my opinion of the tree for 14 years earlier hadn’t changed, I agreed to provide a more basic assessment. All four arborists were unanimous in our recommendation that the tree be removed. The city has put our reports on their website.
There are dozens of photos on the city website that make the condition of the tree quite obvious. Yes, it has a lush green canopy of leaves, but this has nothing to do with a tree’s structural integrity (see my post on tree decay). In fact, in an urban environment it’s usually a tree with a full green canopy that topples, and is found to be totally rotten inside. The dead and dying ones are often cut down before they fall.
While it is possible to add even more steel support posts sand cables to truss up even more of the tree (like this cedar in Switzerland) it would still be necessary to construct some kind of barricade to keep people out from under it should part of it fall, and this would mean a permanent structure of some kind in the pool itself. This would obstruct part of the pool and pose a significant obstacle and possible hazard to swimmers.
If the city decided to do those things, and something still happened, it would be hard for the city to justify having kept the tree in light of its condition. To put it mildy. And after $100K is likely spent, the tree will still die from root rot, probably within five years according to some of the experts.
Now the prominent environmental group (who valued my opinion for decades) has decided that I and the other arborists (who have a collective 100 years of local experience) don’t know what we are talking about. They have hired another local arborist who stated he does not have the experience and training to properly assess what level of risk the tree poses. The group that hired him says that he is the only one of the arborists who looked at the tree to “acknowledge” that he does not have that expertise. They do not say why he was the only one.
The city has done an amazing job (and endured significant liability risk in my opinion) to keep this tree for the more than 50 years that it has been in poor condition. Unfortunately, it’s time to say goodbye.