These trees won't fall easily

Residents hope city will explore all options to keep ponderosa pines

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JEROME A. POLLOS/Press Carl Couser enjoys an afternoon stroll Thursday along the tree-lined Rosenberry Drive near North Idaho College. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is requiring the city of Coeur dŐAlene to remove around 500 trees along Rosenberry Drive over the next two years to maintain the safety of the dike that separates Lake Coeur d'Alene from North Idaho College.

COEUR d'ALENE - Trees, they say, don't grow to the sky.

But when it comes to cutting them down, Coeur d'Alene may want to do its own research before it accepts the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' order that nearly 500 trees along the city's Dike Road need to go.

Tom Torgerson is one Coeur d'Alene resident who wants the community to crunch its own numbers before even one of the 500 ponderosa pine trees is removed.

"I would say I'm cautiously optimistic," said Torgerson on the chances of success fighting - or at least questioning - the federal findings that rule those trees are a hazard sitting on the dike. "I couldn't sit back and not try."

What's needed, once the Army Corps of Engineers releases its data in the next month, is "an overwhelming abundance of proof that they pose a danger," he said.

That should be determined not just by the federal study, Torgerson said, but with local engineers and arborists studying the same terrain.

"This needs to be looked at in a much more stringent angle than what it's appeared to be," he said.

News of the federal order, issued to the city's engineering department in March, requires the vegetation removal as safety precautions in light of possible flooding during a natural disaster.

Pete Pierce, Army Corps of Engineers spokesperson, couldn't comment on the study since it hasn't been released, but said it will be "in the next couple of weeks."

Meanwhile, news of the order has been met with less than flattering reactions by some locals. Thursday in the nearby Fort Grounds neighborhood, residents described it as "horrible," "a tragedy" and just "too bad."

"I appreciate the mayor's comments that the city will explore all of its options," said David Groth. "That's the best we can do right now - explore other options... There's always another way."

Mayor Sandi Bloem did say the city was in communication with the federal department about whether there would be any compromise or wiggle room in the order. That process is just getting under way, but the city will keep pursuing other routes "to see if there is some other way to mitigate their concerns."

"It's still pretty new to all of us," she said. "We still have to look at the reports and see why the vegetation they are talking about is a jeopardy to the credibility of the dike."

The order came after the federal department studied maintenance and safety protocol along a number of dikes, levies and embankments nationally following Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

The affected area will stretch along Rosenberry Drive, known as Dike Road, near the Spokane River and North Idaho College. It will stretch about 1,200 lineal feet from the intersection of Hubbard Street and Lakeshore Drive to River Avenue and Dike Road, while clearing around 15 feet on the college side of the road, and 25 feet on the river side.

City Engineer Gordon Dobler said Tuesday he didn't sense there was a lot of negotiation room in the order.

"They're telling us there's really no wavering," he said at the time. The city would be financially responsible for the removal (upward of $100,000), too.

If the city refused to remove the trees, the Fort Grounds neighborhood, the wastewater treatment plant and NIC would be forced to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars each year because the dike would be removed from Federal Emergency Management Agency protection.

Torgerson, though, wants the community to come together for its own study. He wants engineers, arborists and others with a hand in the field to contact him to get something together. He cites a similar Army Corps of Engineers project in St. Maries in the late '90s that removed cottonwoods along the St. Joe dike.

That project rubbed St. Maries citizens the wrong way, too, and Benewah County Commissioner Jack Buell said he remembers the sides negotiating so fewer trees were removed than originally requested.

"They were very reasonable," Buell said. "They tried to make it work for everybody."

Trees were removed though, and the topic is still "a sore spot" for many locals, he added.

Part of Torgerson's plan is for people to fight the federal order through federal representatives.

U.S. Sen. Mike Crapo's press secretary, Lindsay Nothern, said the office hadn't been involved yet, but "I'm sure we will be asking for the corps for an explanation."

Should the order go through, the city would have two years to remove the growth. The majority of the trees are at least 12 inches in diameter.

"Oh no, these trees, these big, beautiful, healthy trees," Fort Grounds resident Maureen Larson, said of her initial reaction to the news. "It doesn't make sense to me."

Larson said she would support a counter movement or study, but wants to see the federal results before making a decision on what she'll support in the end. She said she loves the Dike Road trees, and takes walks along the road three times a day sometimes.

"I would look at it objectively," she said. Then she looked up at the trees around her home and added: "I guess people take them for granted a little bit."

To contact Torgerson, call 640-8086 or e-mail tomtorg@roadrunner.com.

"If there are people who have solutions that we haven't thought of, we're still open to options," Bloem said.

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