The sound of chain saws reverberated across the area of downtown Santa Fe just east of the Plaza on Tuesday as a beloved cottonwood that has dominated historic Sena Plaza’s courtyard for decades began to come down one branch at a time — but not without controversy.
Police said the tree removal led to a physical confrontation between one of the workers and a man known around town as the Tree Doctor. The incident came as some continued to raise questions about the health of the 65-foot cottonwood and whether the city did its due diligence before signing off on a request from the property manager, Southwest Asset Management, to have it removed.
An arborist with the tree company assigned to cut down the giant cottonwood said a “well-intentioned man” broke through protective fencing before noon and punched a worker in the face, prompting Santa Fe police to rush to the scene. Deputy Chief Ben Valdez said the 57-year-old man, who was detained at the scene, could face charges but could not be “medically cleared” for incarceration, said Valdez, who did not release his name.
A friend and co-worker identified the man as Steve Thomas, who specializes in saving sick and dying trees.
The incident, followed by afternoon thunderstorms, forced work to come to a halt.
“There are many people who are rightfully upset about it,” Miguel Hoffman, an arborist with Santa Fe-based Southwest Fire Defense and Tree Services, said as police investigated the incident. “No one is happy about this at all.”
Before the confrontation in Sena Plaza, Thomas dropped by The New Mexican’s nearby newsroom and said the tree was fine. He also said he expected to be arrested.
“I can look up and see it’s in good shape,” Thomas said. “To cut down that tree is unconscionable. I would like to X-ray the tree to determine the real stability of it.”
Lisa Martinez, the city’s former land use director, said she was saddened to learn the tree would come down.
“When I saw the paper, I was just heartbroken,” she said, referring to a Tuesday story in The New Mexican about plans to remove the tree.
“It just makes me so sad because it’s so beautiful,” Martinez said. “I even had lunch there a couple times over the last month, month and a half, and just admired its beauty. I mean, it’s stately. It’s just gorgeous.”
Martinez was in charge of the Land Use Department when the city rejected the property manager’s request for permission to remove the tree about four years ago.
“I had it studied by arborists who determined that it was healthy, that if it was maintained, it could have at least another good five years, if not longer,” she said. “If the city failed to do [a current assessment], I think it’s severe negligence.”
The city’s new land use director, Carol Johnson, said the city did not have an arborist examine the tree before the city signed off on its removal because “the responsibility falls on the person requesting to remove a tree to hire an arborist.”
That arborist hired by Southwest Asset Management, Jeremy Gray, recommended the tree be felled “due to its location, covering a pedestrian and business plaza, history of dropping limbs and declining health,” according to documents provided by the city.
“Due to the amount of pruning this tree has been subject to, in my opinion, it does not have enough canopy left to safely and predictably support its large branches and trunk,” Gray wrote in a report to the city. “The tree will eventually have to come down, we can do it safely now.”
In an interview, Gray said the tree was in good health for its age.
“In looking at the tree a lot, it hasn’t really been managed consistently over the years, and none of the trees in that plaza have,” he said. “Actually, I don’t think they’ve been managed from a scientific perspective at all. I think they’ve been managed from kind of like a landscaper, cowboy tree care sort of thing where they’re like, ‘You have to cut the branches pointing down, leave the ones that are pointing up.’”
Gray said his recommendation to remove the tree was “completely tied to the risk,” not necessarily the health of the tree.
“The health of the tree is really impressive for its age and size and site,” he said. “But the risk of a tree of that age and size and height, coupled with the management strategy that it’s had, which is pruning out a lot of big branches and leaving those wounds to sprout … creates a hazard.”
While Hoffman of Southwest Fire Defense and Tree Services called the cottonwood “a good, strong tree,” he said the life expectancy of such trees is generally 100 years. He said the cottonwood that is being cut down is “probably approaching” that age.
“It’s not going to get stronger or younger, and it’s the nature of this species that they will continue to grow and break,” he said.
Johnson said tree trimming caused the structure of the cottonwood to weaken over time. “At this point, that creates significant danger for the public,” she said.
Martin Gabaldón, a planner in the Land Use Department, signed off on the removal of the cottonwood and two other trees in January.
“Their removal comes with the condition that other trees be provided in their place,” he wrote in a Jan. 18 letter to the property owner. “Replacement trees shall be a minimum 2-3 inch caliper for deciduous trees or a minimum 6 ft. high for evergreen trees.”
Gabaldón requested photos of the new trees after they have been planted.
“The trees mentioned have provided decades of comfort and habitat and unfortunately as it may be, it appears the trees should be removed in order to protect life and property,” he wrote.
A limb broke off in 2015 and pinned a woman, though she was not injured. Another branch fell in 2018, but no one was in the courtyard, said Christine McDonald, president of Southwest Asset Management, which manages Sena Plaza for its owner, Gerald Peters.
“Importantly, this large tree inhibits the healthy growth of the other trees in the courtyard,” Southwest Asset Management said in a news release Tuesday. “A certified arborist with Holistic Tree Care 505, noted in his assessment that the red oak, chestnut, spruce, and smaller trees currently growing there will thrive and will create an appealing and safe space in keeping with the integrity of the historic courtyard. The courtyard will also be enhanced with additional landscaping and trees.”
Two Santa Fe arborists, including Thomas, disputed Holistic Tree Care’s finding.
Robert Coates, owner of Coates Tree Service, trimmed the tree in 2015. Coates, who said he trimmed and pruned the cottonwood nearly every year from 2000-09 and again in 2015, said he turned down an offer to remove the tree now.
“I bet they won’t find any decay in the main trunk,” Coates said. “It’s the biggest tragedy I’ve seen in my life. … The tree doesn’t need to be removed. It needs to be maintained.”
McDonald showed a 1935 photo of a small tree that stood in about the location of the now-doomed cottonwood.
Shopkeepers in Sena Plaza received notice late Monday afternoon that the big tree would come down and that their businesses, along with
La Casa Sena restaurant, which has outdoor tables in part of the courtyard, would have to close temporarily. The courtyard is expected to remain closed for at least three days while the tree is removed.
Southwest Asset Management issued a statement Tuesday that pointed to the “possibility of serious injury or death” as reasons the tree had to go. According to the statement, the tree was blessed by a Catholic deacon and Rabbi Neil Amswych of Temple Beth Shalom.
Staff writer Ari Burack contributed to this report.
Follow Daniel J. Chacón on Twitter @danieljchacon.