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Nocturnal tree-clearing awakens fears on the Hill.

Late one night this spring, as Rep. Earl Blumenauer was leaving his office, the Oregon Democrat says he stumbled upon a vexing scene. What had been quiet parkland on the east side of the Capitol now looked like something from the logging country near his Portland hometown. Chain saws tore into trunks; trees toppled. For the next three nights, he watched what he calls a “midnight massacre.”

The trees were the latest casualties of the quest for greater protection around federal facilities, sacrificed to clear room for a secure, $335 million subterranean Capitol Visitors Center. Despite taking what even the Capitol Hill Restoration Society calls impressive steps to preserve as many trees as possible, the Office of the Architect of the Capitol, which manages the Capitol grounds, has provoked bipartisan furor with its recent lumberjacking activities.

So far, 76 trees have been removed from the site, including 14 that had been planted as memorials. Six of these, among them a sugar maple planted by Earth Day co-founder Sen. Gaylord Nelson (D-Wis.), were chopped down outright, to be replaced by cuttings from the originals. The other eight, including a Japanese zelkova dedicated to Martin Luther King Jr. and a Southern magnolia given by the wives of the Senate to First Lady Pat Nixon, were dug up and transplanted elsewhere on the grounds—a painstaking process that included moving tons of dirt along with the full-grown trees.

The greatest tumult, though, is over a tree that’s still standing. A short distance from the southeast steps of the Capitol building is a rare English elm, thought to be the oldest tree on the grounds—predating the current Capitol dome. The massive trunk of the 150-year-old tree makes nearby concrete security planters look puny and ineffectual, and its canopy—though somewhat stunted and short on green—shades the area where TV journalists film shots with the Capitol as a backdrop.

Although the tree is fortunate enough to stand just outside the chain-link construction fencing, word spread on the Hill in June that it might be chopped down anyway. One rumor had it that the elm would be sacrificed to create temporary parking room for Congress during the construction period.

Last week, Rep. Rodney P. Frelinghuysen—a Republican from New Jersey, descended from a long line of Frelinghuysen congressmen—circulated a letter to his colleagues calling for action to save the tree. The letter, signed by some 20 representatives from both sides of the aisle, challenges a recent finding that the elm’s health is failing and states that chopping down the tree to allow for temporary parking is “totally indefensible.”

Mark Broadhurst, press secretary for Frelinghuysen, says that his boss’s “deep-rooted” concern for the old tree is shared by “a lot of like-minded members here who want to preserve the Capitol’s history and this tree.”

Preserving history, though, is not the chief concern around the Capitol just now. The trees themselves are no security threat, unless evildoers try to hide behind their hefty trunks. But they’re in the way of a major security project.

In addition to being a museum and tourist-information site, the new Capitol Visitors Center—buried underground by the east front of the Capitol building—will serve as an emergency refuge for members of Congress and a screening point for visitors to the building. Although plans for a visitors’ center have been toyed with on Capitol Hill for decades, approval and the first round of money came in 1998, after a deranged gunmen killed two Capitol Police officers in the Capitol building. Funding for the center more than tripled when $40 billion in emergency spending for homeland security was approved last winter.

Despite the new enthusiasm for the visitors’ center, the Office of the Architect of the Capitol knew that it would not be given carte blanche to tear up the Capitol grounds for the construction project. So in addition to the trees that are being moved and replanted, the office plans to put in 85 new ones. “There will be more trees on campus after we finish,” says spokesperson Bruce Milhans.

The office is also attempting to preserve the health of trees not directly affected by the construction.

“We’re putting little sprinklers on trees to wash leaves to help the trees survive the stress of construction,” Milhans says.

Though the new trees will take years to reach the stature of their fallen forebears, Milhans says they eventually will contribute to the Capitol’s defense. “Trees are actually a vehicular barrier,” he explains.

As for the nocturnal tree-cutting, Milhans says that there was nothing surreptitious or sinister about it. Arborists took down trees under cover of night, Milhans says, out of safety concerns: Members of Congress often park in the areas where trees were being felled, and his office wanted to avert any snafus such as a limb crashing down on a congressional BMW.

“We try to make the minimal impact on the people who work in the Capitol,” Milhans says. “At night, we do all kinds of work.”

But goodwill between Congressional tree-lovers and the Office of the Architect ebbed as soon as the old English elm was imperiled.

Milhans acknowledges that the tree is in jeopardy and that his office is getting “creative” with temporary parking, but he denies that the two issues are at all related. He says that no trees will be removed to make room for parking lots, and that the old elm tree’s problems arose during normal tree maintenance.

“As we progress with our works, we occasionally discover trees that are in questionable condition,” Milhans says.

At a glance, the mighty elm appears sound of trunk and leaf. But, as with Maryland’s gigantic, recently storm-toppled Wye Oak, appearances can be deceiving, and the tree may be rotten inside.

“The tree is somewhat hollow. It’s certainly not the most robust tree in the area,” Milhans says. “We’re taking a very, very hard look at that tree.”

The English elm survived the first wave of tree purges, and it was at first recommended for preservation by the Davey Tree Co., the arborist contractor for the project. But another assessment found that the tree was indeed moribund and that it posed danger in the form of a prodigious collapse, potentially on something or somebody.

Milhans says that the old elm was slated as “a likely candidate for removal.” However, Congress does call the shots in its own back yard. Milhans says that the bipartisan support has made his office take another look at the tree, giving it another chance at avoiding death at the hands of arborists. But the elm is not out of the woods yet, because it stands within a few yards of ground that will broken for a 60-foot retaining wall for the construction project.

“It is true that the tree is very near where the Capitol Visitors Center will be. It certainly will lose some roots,” Milhans says.

Only time will tell if the ailing senior citizen among the trees on the Capitol grounds can survive a diminished capacity for sustenance. As construction moves forward, the Office of the Architect will monitor and care for the tree, likely with extra urgency given the support the tree has received.

Margie Ellis, a staffer in the office of tree-supporter Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.), says she is relieved to hear that oldest elm may be spared. But she laments the new, substantially less sylvan vistas of the Capitol building.

“They’ve significantly harmed the beauty of the Capitol and its grounds,” Ellis says.

Blumenauer is even more blunt about the implications of seeing “magnificent trees” go the way of traffic access to Pennsylvania Avenue. “We’re putting at risk 200 years of our heritage,” he says. “If we’re not careful, the dominant architectural influences for the next century will be Timothy McVeigh and Osama bin Laden.” CP