By Charles Seha
A couple months ago, I noticed numbers painted on the many large oak trees in the park on the high school grounds above the junction of Union Street and Highway 52. I discovered the numbers represent an inventory of the existing trees on the site to determine how many will be destroyed by the future swimming pool project.
In most of the country, heritage oaks like these would be off limits to any construction disturbance, and the dripline, or outer edges of the tree canopy, would be fenced off to avoid compaction of the soil over the root system during construction.
In Chatfield, the oak grove is apparently considered the prime location for the new swimming pool.
In disbelief, I spoke to a City official and it was confirmed that this is the new pool site and only a dozen trees would be destroyed with the latest arrangement of the facility. After reviewing the site plan it looks like 18 burr oaks and seven high quality, long lived pines that were planted in the 1960s. A recent article in the Fillmore County Journal in reference to the pool project has comments by Mayor Russ Smith, who spoke of “rumblings” in the community about the pool project. The “rumblings” are most likely about the location and destruction of the park and trees, not the pool itself. A blog on the pool project speaks of the sensitive placement of the pool. Since when is the destruction of valuable, ancient trees and the leveling of the entire hill to build the pool sensitive site planning? Apparently, the school feels the new pool will take up too many parking places, although there doesn’t seem to be a master plan that quantifies the projected parking needs. Remember, the old pool location will be part of a parking lot and the school grounds appear to be ripe for parking expansion on level, treeless ground. Fifty-five percent of the citizens voted for the pool but did they vote for the destruction of a beautiful park, shaded by extremely long lived, high quality trees. Who is in favor of destroying these trees?
Without a doubt, the pool will be an asset to the community and I fondly remember the opening of the existing pool in the ‘60s and summers spent in swimming lessons and cooling off on hot summer days. The new pool will be a huge improvement with many updates and code compliance issues resolved. But, the cost of the pool dramatically increases when you consider the value of the park and the trees and the tremendous loss to the community.
The burr oaks on the site represent the little that remains of the oak savanna that was a dominant part of the pre-settlement vegetation in the region. The savannas consisted of groves of burr oak and other fire tolerant species that could survive the frequent fires used to maintain the prairies by Native Americans, who used fire to improve wildlife habitat and increase plant diversity. Virtually all the prairie and savanna ecosystem is gone, with only the ancient and majestic oaks surviving the changes in the land. Many of these trees are two or three hundred years old and were already large, old, trees when Chatfield was settled by Europeans. They are, in fact, often mentioned with affection and respect by the early settlers who preserved them for future generations. Remember, all the other trees in the town were planted or allowed to grow, the burr oaks were here and are a major asset to the community.
I hope you will visit the oak grove in jeopardy and admire many of the grand old trees around your town and try to imagine Chatfield without them.
Surely some sensitive and sensible alternative pool site is available. How about a shady park next to the pool? The current plan is completely unacceptable and sets a very negative and shortsighted example to the children and future generations of Chatfield residents.
Although it’s late in the game, you may want to voice your outrage to the people involved in this ridiculous decision.
*Charles Seha is a former resident of Chatfield