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Replant on Spencer Butte. Here’s Why

February 26th, 2021 by dk

Eugene city officials announced last week that the Douglas fir tree atop Spencer Butte that was senselessly felled by a vandal won’t be replaced.

Kelly Shadwick, speaking on behalf of the Eugene Parks and Open Space Division, assessed the chances of a replacement tree as poor. “This tree was just uniquely adapted for that climate and that habitat,” she said. “Really, the fact that it stood alone is a testament to just how tough the conditions are.”

The city’s analysis is correct. And also wrong.

Shadwick pointed out that the soil there is rocky and shallow. “A planted tree would be highly unlikely to survive. It’s an irreplaceable and special tree.” The unlikelihood of the life that tree had is exactly the reason it should be replaced.

I agree with Eugene poet Barbara Mossberg, who said it beautifully in a letter to the editor: “Life should have a chance…. To plant a replacement tree says that an act of destruction is not the final outcome. That in itself is a powerful message of civic resilience.”

We’re having this discussion about the fate of an unlikely sapling at the same time that Americans are marveling at the pictures returning from Mars. President John F. Kennedy added some powerful rhetorical propulsion to our space program in 1961. He famously articulated how government can and should embody our collective ambitions.

“We choose to go to the moon not because it’s easy, but because it’s hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.”

We ask government to do things that are hard all the time. Mowing grass on a median strip between busy lanes is hard, but greenery along roadways is nice. Measuring pollutants in drinking water is hard, but our health requires it. Tallying our homeless population annually is hard, but it’s important and necessary.

The city should plant a tree near where this one was lost. It should be marked for those who climb the butte. If it dies, or is vandalized, it should be replaced. It may take dozens or hundreds of attempts to find another tree that can thrive in that unlikely environment. Why should the difficulty dissuade us? “Life should have a chance.”

Our collective refusal to abandon hope that another tree can someday have the same view as that 40-foot fir will inspire us for decades. We need government to do small things for us, but also big things on our behalf. This would be both.

If the city doesn’t act, you can be sure private citizens will, but not in any coordinated manner. It was our people, after all, who erected a cross atop Skinner Butte in the dark of night because government officials dithered. 

Do we want dozens of saplings planted by vigilantes? Better to have an official city response that speaks for and to all of us. Unlikelihood is not the end — it’s the point.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and archives past columns at

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