The removal of trees in Grand Marais last week to make way for highway construction was cataclysmic, in the view of one Cook County man.
“Wait till you see what it looks like,” said Jim Raml, 61, who lives on Seagull Lake at the end of the Gunflint Trail. “It’s not Grand Marais anymore.”
What particularly pains Raml are the nine elm trees — out of a total of 11 along Scenic Highway 61 in Grand Marais — that were removed. The most painful of all, he said, is the loss of the tree locally known as the “Cobblestone elm” because it’s at the corner where the old Cobblestone gas station was located. It was the largest of the elms, and Raml contends it may have been more than 100 years old.
In the view of Raml and his allies, the Minnesota Department of Transportation’s reconstruction of 11 miles of Highway 61, scheduled to take place in 2020-21, could have been accomplished without the removal of a single tree. He blames the trees’ destruction on what he considers a misguided decision to include a 12-foot-wide bicycle path alongside the highway.
But Mike Roth, city administrator, said the plan came from desires expressed in the community and involved not just access for bicyclists but “pedestrian connectivity.” That includes such issues as safety for pedestrians crossing the highway, he said.
“That downtown space where some of these trees are is one of the spots that really lacked a lot of pedestrian connectivity,” Roth said. “There wasn't any obvious place for people to be. The community has engaged in a multi-year planning process. … And MnDOT identified the need to reconstruct the highway and so that's what we're doing right now.”
Raml, who said he has been fighting the plan since it first came out five years ago, disputes the notion that there’s community consensus. He contends that most of the business owners along Highway 61 are privately appalled by the tree removal but are reluctant to say so.
The decision to remove trees wasn’t just about the 12-foot-wide path, said Roth and Michael Kalnbach, Duluth-based project manager for MnDOT.
While the road construction takes place, a new stormwater system will be installed, Kalnbach said, and city sanitary and water work will be done. The contractors will dig down 3 feet below the road service to backfill it with clean, drainable soil. In addition, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency is taking advantage of the opportunity to remove contaminated soil. Because of the MPCA work, there would have been no chance of saving four of the elms, he said.
Of the other seven, it was determined that five of them would be unlikely to survive the excavation that would take place in their vicinity, Kalnbach said.
MnDOT also brought in an arborist to determine the health of the trees, Kalnbach. Each of them, in varying degrees, was determined to be in poor to fair condition.
A different assessment came from Orvis L. Lunke, a retired Minnesota Department of Natural Resources forester whose observations were delivered to the Grand Marais City Council last month. He found all of the trees to be somewhere from fair to good condition. Of the Cobblestone elm, Lunke wrote, “Good tree. Nice condition.”
“In my estimation none of these elms are in immediate need of removal,” Lunke wrote. “Yes, it is obvious some have defects, but not to the point that they will die in the near future.”
Raml contends the Cobblestone elm could have been spared just by moving a water line.
Roth responded, “I suppose anyone can reroute a water line, but that’s not a simple or cheap thing to do.”
Kalnbach said the water line could have been moved, but not without new difficulties. Moving it might have affected a historic wall nearby, he said. Moreover, excavation still would have taken place on three sides of the Cobblestone elm.
“So even if we would avoid the water main, I don't know that we could have saved the tree,” Kalnbach said.
Raml said that, although there is Dutch elm disease in Cook County, none of the Grand Marais elms had it. He hasn’t been able to document it yet, but Raml believes the elms on the south side of the highway — across from the Cobblestone elm — may have been planted as memorial trees after World War II.
Ultimately, the health of the trees was a moot point, Roth said.
“People wanted to know if they were healthy or not, and some work was done on that by different people, and I think there's different opinions on it,” he said. “But that wasn't a factor in the removal.”
Although construction of that section of road won't take place until 2021, tree removal was scheduled for November. Raml and other tree defenders, knowing they were running out of time, asked what it would take to at least delay removal until next fall. MnDOT checked with the contractor, and found it would cost $4,600 for the contractor to go away and come back again next year.
The City Council, at its Oct. 30 meeting declined to do that.
“(The council) decided that if we weren't going to change anything about the design, which they weren't, then they were not interested in spending any money to delay the cutting-down,” Roth said.
Raml said a member of his group offered the city a $4,600 check to pay for the delay that Friday. Roth didn’t dispute that, but said by that time it would have been too late to post a meeting notice and meet before the work began.
The last-ditch effort occurred on Wednesday as elms were being removed. Raml didn’t chain himself to the Cobblestone tree, but he did stand in front of it for eight hours, accompanied by two women.
“The sheriff came and asked me to leave, and I was going to let myself get arrested,” he said. “But I had my dog, and they said the dog would have to go to the pound. So I shook his hand and I walked away.”
Both Kalnbach and Roth said they took no delight in the trees’ removal.
“We’ll feel their loss, absolutely,” Roth said. “There will be a lot of benefits that this project provides, and I think over time people will be happy with that. But you can’t really replace something like that.”