Four years ago, the Cherry Creek North neighborhood was the site of a confrontation between people who wanted to save a hundred-year-old American elm on a Madison Street lot and a developer who wanted to cut it down so he could put up two 5,000-square-foot condominiums.
A group called Eye on the Elm was created to protest the tree's imminent demise, stringing its hearty trunk with bright-pink hearts, the message "Save me!" and even a quote by Marcel Proust: "We have nothing to fear and a lot to learn from trees." As pickets, tourists and television crews gathered, the developer waffled. For three weeks the tree's fate was in limbo, and then, late on a Saturday night, someone cut a swath of bark from the tree's base, essentially killing it. A few days later the elm was gone.
Since it was on private property, neighbors who loved the old elm were helpless to save it.
But trees may soon have more rights in Denver. The city is putting together a proposal to give trees in residential areas new legal safeguards. The plan would protect mature trees in the twenty-foot area that separates front doors from sidewalks, requiring homeowners and developers to get permission before cutting them down.
The destruction of mature trees has become especially controversial in such areas as Hilltop and Washington Park, which have seen plenty of large-scale redevelopment and so-called scrape-offs, or clearing of lots for new homes. Dozens of century-old trees have been cut down to make room.
"In this arid climate, taking out a mature tree as part of a scrape-off is painful," says Denver City Councilwoman Susan Barnes-Gelt. "We need them for our sanity."
Dubbed the "tree preservation ordinance," the law would apply only to front yards; homeowners and developers could still make kindling of trees planted in back and side yards. City staffers are currently researching tree-protection laws in Los Angeles, New York and other cities. They expect to have a proposal ready later this summer.
"There's a wide variety of policies in place [in other cities]," says Gretchen Williams, legislative analyst for the city council. "Mostly they require people to replace trees that they take out." Williams says she has found only one city that forbids the removal of trees altogether. "That's in Carmel by the Sea in California, which is hardly comparable to Denver," she notes. "That's the only town that says you can't put your addition on your house; if the tree is there, it has to stay."
Williams says Denver already has jurisdiction over the trees that line the space between the sidewalk and the street in most neighborhoods, but the proposed ordinance could extend that range of influence to the front door. Since most additions go on the side or rear of a house, though, existing homes wouldn't be affected as much as new ones.
"Everything in the setback would require a review and permit," she says. Whether or not all tree cutting would be prohibited has yet to be decided, but at a minimum, the proposed law would probably require property owners to replace any tree they take down in the front yard. Williams emphasizes that the proposal is still "in the formative stage" and probably won't come before the council until the end of the summer.
Trees have always been an emotional topic in Denver. The growth of the city and its stages of development were marked by the importance that people put on bringing trees to the plains.
In the beginning, the story of trees in Denver was simple -- there were almost none. The city was a barren and dusty place, and the only trees around were the cottonwoods along the South Platte River and Cherry Creek. In 1873, English writer Isabella Bird described Denver as "a great braggart city spread out, brown and treeless, upon the brown and treeless plain, which seemed to nourish nothing but wormwood and the Spanish bayonet."
The first trees, a load of cottonwood saplings from the East Coast, had been planted just a few years before Bird arrived. But over the next twenty years, a network of irrigation ditches allowed residents to begin planting trees and gardens in Capitol Hill, Curtis Park and other neighborhoods. Early on, Denver required builders to create a strip of public right-of-way between the sidewalk and pavement, allowing for rows of trees to be planted along every street. Today those trees are considered public property, although homeowners are still responsible for caring for them.
By 1890, the first wave of planting had paid off, and the local press boasted that many neighborhoods were becoming classically beautiful. The Denver Republican compared a northwest Denver neighborhood to the hanging gardens of Babylon. "During the spring, summer, and autumn months, with its tasty residences, its trees, its fruits, its lawns and flowers and shady groves, Highlands is truly a fairy-like portion of the Queen City," the writer gushed.
This faith in trees and landscaping reached its zenith during the tenure of Mayor Robert Speer. Elected in 1904, Speer spent three terms in office doggedly pursuing his vision of making Denver a "city beautiful." "He wanted Denver to be called 'Paris on the Platte,'" says Tom Noel, history professor at the University of Colorado at Denver.
Speer gave away more than 100,000 trees, commissioned famous landscape architect George Kessler to come up with a master plan for Denver parks and parkways, turned Cherry Creek into a landscaped greenway through the heart of the city, and pushed the city to create a Civic Center across from the State Capitol. He also created the city forester's office, which today is responsible for roughly 100,000 trees in city parks and parkways. No one knows exactly how many trees there are altogether in Denver, but a good guess is about 500,000 -- or one for every resident.
Unfortunately, most of the 100,000 trees Speer gave away were elms, and they were devastated when Dutch elm disease hit Denver in the 1970s and '80s. Thousands of trees were lost, and every year, more have to be cut down. Today the city makes a point of planting dozens of different kinds of trees -- cherry, locust, maple and others -- to prevent such devastation from happening again. But because of that epidemic and Colorado's clay soil and dry climate, which causes trees to grow slowly here, the city's old trees are even more valuable.
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Where are the biggest, oldest trees in Denver? No one really knows, although tree experts point to the eighty-foot cottonwoods along the Highline Canal as good candidates. Other unusually tall trees can be found in City Park, Cheesman Park and Washington Park.
And while for most people, a tree is still just a large, leafy, thing, tree lovers can spend hours talking about varieties and marveling at especially fine specimens.
Jon Elliott, an arborist with the city, says he was thrilled to discover one of the only American chestnut trees in Denver in the yard of a home on North Alcott Street several years ago. "I talked to [the homeowners] once, but they didn't know what they had," he recalls. "They thought it was just a tree."