If a tree falls in McLaren Park, does anyone notice?
In one recent case, the answer was an unequivocal “yes.”
Pictures of felled trees and two circles of colored stakes in a McLaren Park Facebook group in late July reignited complaints that the Recreation and Parks Department has a habit of moving ahead with some of its plans before receiving approval or completing its public outreach process.
The most recent round of the ongoing conflict occurred near Wilde Tower, a lookout point on the eastern edge of McLaren Park and the site of a recently proposed Outward Bound ropes course.
On July 29, Tom Borden, a McLaren Parks advocate, photographed what he says are the remains of seven felled trees in and around two rings of wooden stakes outlining the site of a proposed ropes course.
“At the July 18 McLaren Park Collaborative meeting last week, we heard that [Recreation and Parks Department] was considering a deal with Outward Bound to install a ropes course in the park near Wilde Tower,” Borden wrote in a Facebook post. “Well, apparently [RPD staff] have already signed the deal.”
RPD must post a 30-day notice informing the public of plans to cut down a tree, however no notice needs to be posted if a tree is determined to be a danger to the public, according to the city’s Urban Forestry Ordinance.
Borden suspects the trees were removed in order to clear the site for the ropes course without following proper outreach procedures. Borden and other activists raised similar concerns about the department’s outreach when RPD allowed a company to rent horses in the park for two months last year.
Asked about Borden’s post, RPD said in a statement that the city’s Urban Forestry department removed the trees after they were identified as “hazardous to the public.”
“The tree removal had nothing to do with the [proposed ropes course],” RPD stated on Aug. 2.
Two weeks after Borden’s Facebook post, RPD released department emails discussing the tree removal in response to a public records request.
The two brief email conversations show department staff and an employee of ropes course design firm discussing the removal of the trees and the placement of the stakes.
Borden says the released emails show RPD staff discussing the tree removal in preparation to place the ropes course. RPD maintains that it is working on a “fleshed-out concept” to show the public in September and that the trees were cut down because they were dying or dangerous, not to make room for the ropes course.
“There is nothing unusual or suspect about cutting down hazardous trees and standing logs. Our arborists are in charge of maintaining more than 130,000 trees across the city. Pruning and removing them as necessary happens all the time,” RPD stated on Aug. 15.
In one email exchange titled “Outward Bound questions,” two RPD staff members discuss the removal of the trees near Wilde Tower.
“[Outward Bound is] interested in getting a better idea of a timeline so Outward Bound can make their internal funding request for the tree assessment and [Challenge Works] knows when to start ordering materials with long lead times,” Jackie Suen wrote in a July 9 email to her colleague, Kevin Jackson.
In his response, Jackson wrote that staff are “currently pruning and/or removing trees in affected and surrounding area based on my recommendations” and offered to save the felled trees for use in the ropes course.
“If you or the designers would like to utilize any existing logs for the project (borders, seating) let me know so I can arrange placement and/or removal,” Jackson wrote.
In a second email exchange three days later, Nick Redrigner, Chief Operating Officer at Challenge Works, a company advising Outward Bound on possible designs, told RPD’s Jackson that he had outlined the course with wooden stakes.
“I just put a draft layout of the main course for the Outward Bound Ropes Course in the Wilde area,” Redringer wrote on Monday, July 16.
“Clearly the ‘affected area’ is the ropes course. [Jackson] is offering to place the logs for the ropes course now, not sometime in the distant possible future. The tree removals were for the ropes course,” Borden stated in response to the RPD emails.
Outward Bound and Challenge Works did not respond to requests for comment.
Trees, Ropes Course Up for Debate at September Meetings
Although Borden doesn’t oppose the idea of the course, he is concerned about who the course will serve and how often it will be open to the public.
“At the [July] Collaborative meeting, we were told Outward Bound planned to hold corporate team building events at the site,” Borden wrote in an email. “Obviously, this would be a huge fundraising source for [RPD] given all the well financed tech companies in town.”
Although plans for the McLaren Park ropes course have not been released yet, Outward Bound unveiled a similar course in Baltimore’s Leakin Park last year. The Baltimore course, which features a rope bridge and zipline, is available to rent for $500 per day.
“The programming [at the proposed McLaren Park course] is toward school-age children through Outward Bound, and would also include opportunities for neighbors to use the course free of charge,” RPD stated.
If approved, the ropes course will be paid for by Outward Bound, according to RPD.
The removal of the Wilde Tower trees will be discussed at the Sept. 5 meeting of the Park, Recreation and Open Space Advisory Committee.
RPD staff will present official plans for the ropes course at the McLaren Collaborative’s Tuesday, Sept. 18 meeting.