At the same time Freedom Day events were kicking off in downtown St. Thomas on Sunday, local arborist Clay Jones was at the Bovoni landfill, scouring the land for pieces of the lignum vitae trees from Emancipation Garden whose branches were pruned just a few days before.
With help from the landfill’s crews, Jones was able to find about 10 logs that he had gathered to ship over to St. John woodworker Avelino Samuel. Talk in the Garden during events Sunday, as it had been circulating in the days before, centered a bit on the trees, with some residents remarking that it was clear the branches had been improperly shorn.
It could be fine, one person said, remarking that they could grow back just as strong and healthy as before.
But that’s not the case. Lignum vitae, a rare and native plant, grows slowly and is averse to pruning. And, with the trees being decades old, it would be hard for them to recover, according to local environmentalists, who added in the aftermath – and in response to statements from Sports, Parks and Recreation that the pruning was meant to eliminate dead branches that could be a hazard to residents – that “not one branch cut down was a threat.”
In a statement Tuesday, Sports, Parks, and Recreation, which has pruned trees in the park before, took full responsibility, saying that the efforts to beautify the park came ahead of the Freedom Day celebrations.
“As they have done several times, they removed branches thought to be hazardous,” Commissioner Calvert White said. “I want to assure the public that this was not done with malice and was not done with any intent to desecrate this sacred space. The men and women of this Department, in this case, specifically the ground crew, approach their jobs seriously and with sensitivity to our cultural, historical, and natural resources. As the Commissioner of DSPR, I am mindful of the concerns expressed by members of the community and take full responsibility for our actions.”
The pruning occurred Thursday afternoon, with local activists jumping in to alert Jones and the State Historic Preservation Office, whose director brought the project to a halt. According to the Community and Heritage Tree Law passed by the Senate in 2018 that offers protection to public trees within the territory, such activities would have needed approval and a permit from the Department of Agriculture.
Since Thursday, Jones, local activist Jason Budsan and the Historic Preservation Office have continued to field calls with questions and requests for guidance on how to handle the management of heritage trees – education that both Jones and White have emphasized the importance of.
“These trees survived with little to no damage from two Category 5 hurricanes,” Jones said. “There was no need to prune them now.” Jones said that in the coming weeks, he and a group of tree experts from across the territory, along with interested stakeholders, would be meeting to ensure that the law could be implemented properly and a public education campaign launched. In the works is also an exhibit by Samuel, who, using the severed lignum vitae logs from the park, would be using the proceeds garnered from the sale of his crafts to start a fund for tree preservation.
Meanwhile, White said Sports, Parks, and Recreation would continue working with the State Historic Preservation Office to better understand how to care for and maintain trees in the historic districts and encouraged residents to do the same.
“I encourage the community to become educated on safe tree practices and the identity of heritage trees during our own everyday lives. DSPR remains dedicated to the care and maintenance of our parks and recreational facilities, particularly those of cultural and historical significance,” said White.