Historic Tree Down

Historic tree at White Rock Lake Park reduced to pile of mulch — by accident

Historic tree at White Rock Lake Park reduced to mulch — by accident

White Rock Lake tree
This pile of mulch was once a 170-year-old tree. Photo courtesy of Ben Sandifer

In what one nature lover described as a demoralizing and disheartening move, a 170-year-old tree at White Rock Lake was destroyed by a contractor for the City of Dallas.

According to a release from the city, the tree was ground into a pile of mulch on January 30 as part of "regular maintenance" by the Dallas Park and Recreation Department "to ensure the safety of park patrons."

The actual work was done by a contractor the city did not name, but the Dallas Morning News identified it as Crews Service Co., based in Walnut Grove, Missouri.

 Although nature lovers recognize that the tree was in decline, it served as home to a family of great horned owls, including a mated pair.

The destruction was first noted by nature photographer Ben Sandifer, who posted a photo of the mulched aftermath on Facebook, saying, "It is with a heavy heart that I report the demise of the Texas State Champion Black Willow along Dixon Branch in White Rock Lake Park."

The tree was listed as "state champion," added to the state's Big Tree Registry in 2011 as the biggest known black willow in Texas, with a circumference of 265 inches. It sustained damage in a storm in October 2014, but the bottom of the trunk survived and showed signs of budding growth.

According to the city, the contractor, who was onsite removing nine authorized tree stumps, grinded the black willow without proper authorization.

"The contractor was in the area and thought they were doing the city a favor to take it down while they were there," says city spokesman Jeff Clapper. "It was an unfortunate thing, but the actual tree as it stood was an 8-foot trunk."

The release says that the city "intends to seek remediation from the contractor" and will implement additional controls that include written permission for the removal of stumps more than 24 inches tall that are not already on an approved list.

Although nature lovers such as Sandifer recognize that the tree was in decline, it served as home to a family of great horned owls, including a mated pair. Sandifer was able to capture their comings and goings in photos and in a video he posted on YouTube.

There have been bigger concerns raised by White Rock Lake advocates about the level of respect given to landmark trees by Park Board director Willis Winter and city forester Karen Woodard.

Naturalist Ted Barker views the downing of the tree as the latest in a situation brewing between Woodard and citizens at White Rock Lake, one that first erupted in November 2013 with what he calls the "Blue X brouhaha," when a number of trees, including this willow, were marked with a mysterious blue X. Woodard initially denied that the X's were marked by the city, but the Park Department eventually admitted that an unamed staffer had marked the trees for removal.

"The tree has been a matter of contention for a long time," Barker says.

Woodard was out of the office and not available to comment, but Clapper says that "there's no reason to believe there's any conspiracy. From the level of knowledge we have here, that is not the case."