Spring 2013: We lost the battle to save these trees

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Here are a couple of the last birds who used the tree and a video that lets you hear how noisy and disruptive the cutting was, especially during the peak of spring migration.  I reproduced the form letter we all received from Mitchell Murdock below (I added the bold):

“Good morning,

Thank you for your recent email regarding landscape concerns on and around Wooded Island.

Wooded Island is a designated natural area. On the Wooded Island, our restoration work is focused on improving the ecological integrity of the site through the establishment of diverse native plant communities and the removal of the non-native and invasive weedy plant species. The creation of native habitat provides an increase in critical services for many types of wildlife, including migratory birds. Disturbances within the natural area are always kept to a minimum during peak migration times.

The area around the Columbia Basin just north of Wooded Island is not part of the natural areas program, and therefore is not managed as a habitat area. There is currently a landscape design enhancement project underway in this location.  The weed trees that are being removed will be replaced by 125 ornamental cherry trees this spring, and more will be planted in future seasons.  This project does not include any tree removals on Wooded Island. The Jackson Park Advisory Council has been kept abreast of these plans, and has been supportive of them.

Beaver damage was also a big concern this spring. In fact, a total of 6 beavers were relocated from Jackson Park this season, 2 of which weighed in at over 70 lbs.

Thanks again for your concern and interest in Jackson Park.

Best regards,

Mitch Murdock  (Mitchell.Murdock@ChicagoParkDistrict.com)
Natural Areas Manager
Chicago Park District | Dept of Natural Resources”

And here is an article from the Tribune:

Bird-watchers fear the worst as Park District removes trees near Wooded Island

Transformation of nearby areas in Jackson Park fuels worries for migratory habitat

June 13, 2013|By Jennifer Delgado, Chicago Tribune reporter

The birders made a plea last month when they saw two trees marked for destruction just outside the bird haven in Jackson Park.

Wait a few more weeks, they asked, until the height of migration season is over. Although the trees aren’t in the bird sanctuary, fledgling green herons use the mature mulberry tree to rest and refuel. The other tree provides shelter and nutrients for the thousands of birds stopping during their travels.

But a few days later, crews felled the trees in the South Side park. Then they removed the stumps and planted five ornamental cherry trees.

“It always made me so happy to go there in the morning. Now it’s mixed,” said Jane Masterson, 57, a birder from Hyde Park. “It makes me think, ‘Do I want to live here? They’re killing my park.’ ”

As part of a beautification project, workers have removed 60 trees around the park’s Columbia Basin and planted 130 decorative cherry trees that pay homage to the parkland’s cultural past and lay the groundwork for a future festival. More trees will be cleared over the next few years.

A small part of the work is right beside Wooded Island, known nationally for the migrating birds that pass through. That has led to a dispute between bird enthusiasts and the Chicago Park District over the ecological value of the land and plants immediately around the isle.

Birders say the migratory visitors won’t stop because the cherry trees that skirt the island don’t offer as much protection and nutrition. The Park District disagrees. The agency also argues that, unlike Wooded Island, the area with new trees is not a natural habitat, but a regular park landscape.

“We’re keenly aware what the best things are for migratory birds,” said Mitchell Murdock, the district’s manager for natural resources. “It’s not like something slipped our minds and we made a mistake.”

The new foliage marks the 120th anniversary of the Phoenix Pavilion on Wooded Island, a gift from Japan during the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago to teach others about Japanese culture.

At that time, Jackson Park was a sandy marshland that famed architect Frederick Law Olmsted molded into an elaborate setting for the fair, including a 16-acre isle for those wanting a quiet respite. When the world’s fair ended and most of the buildings were razed, the island remained.

Today the spot is a bird-watcher’s paradise. Officially named the Paul H. Douglas Nature Sanctuary, the island and the immediate surrounding area attract 258 kinds of birds, with most flying by during spring and fall migration, birders say. The pavilion burned down in 1946, but a lush Japanese garden with ponds and a waterfall remains on the site.

This spring crews started the project, which will help the Park District stage an annual cherry blossom festival. The trees — backed by the Jackson Park Advisory Council and partially funded through tree donations from the Japanese Chamber of Commerce & Industry of Chicago — are expected to draw thousands of visitors.

The two trees that birders complained about being chopped down were “weedy” and dead or half-dead, Park District officials said.

“The trees that were removed were not any more or less valuable than any other weedy trees a mile or more” away, Murdock said. “I think … the birding community had a specific, sentimental value to these trees because they walked past them on their route to Wooded Island.”

The agency plans to take out a few extra trees around the Columbia Basin to plant at least 100 cherry trees over the next two to three years around the basin and near the shores of the Jackson Lagoon.

Some of that has birders like Hal Cohen scared.

He’s not against sprucing up the park, but he thinks certain areas are essential for birds and other wildlife. Birders like the mulberry and box elder trees — even though they are considered “low-class” — because birds are attracted to them, he said.

Future plans for the park are “more of a picture postcard. That’s my impression of what I saw,” said Cohen, 72, a Hyde Park resident and retired field biology professor, who looked at drawings. “It would be a place of grand beauty, yes. It would be very colorful. Unfortunately, it would be to the detriment of the wildlife, to the birds.”

Removing a tree and replacing it with another can affect birds both positively and negatively, said John Bates, an associate curator of birds for the Field Museum.

It’s hard to quantify how much nutrition a bird gets from a tree or if removing one or two greatly affects migration, he said. But mulberry trees offer more cover than cherry, which won’t grow very large, and birds still benefit from dead trees, he added.

“I think what it comes down to, the birders have a good point,” Bates said. “If you look at Wooded Isle from a satellite map, it’s not really big. Anything you can do to make more habitat along the lakefront is a good thing.”

At some point, some trees north of the Columbia Basin’s north stairs will also be removed and replaced with cherry trees to accommodate a major facade project for the nearby Museum of Science and Industry, Park District officials said.

Murdock called this season’s tree removals outside of Wooded Island an “unfortunate reality” — cherry trees are easier to plant in the spring, right around the peak of migration season in May.

Still, it was a shot in the heart to the birders, some of whom take daily treks to see the migrating species. In a petition submitted to the Park District’s top officials, they asked the agency to create a buffer zone around the island that would make it impossible to chop down trees.

“When we go out and see a tree that had six or seven different species in it and then it’s gone ….” Cohen said. “We were heartsick when we went out the other day.” jmdelgado@tribune.com

Birds in the mulberry tree the day it was cut down.

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