At least six Japanese maple trees on Gresham’s list of significant and protected trees have been cut down by a Metro contractor without the required permits.

The trees were part of a grove of 18 Japanese maples, as well as Hogan Cedars, south of the Springwater Trail along Southeast Ambleside Drive.

The grove was added to the city’s list of significant trees in 1995 in part because the slow growing trees were estimated to be 80-95 years old at the time.

“The delicate and graceful branching patterns of the large open-grown trees give the Ambleside area a distinctive beauty,” reads the evaluation of the grove for significant tree designation. “The large number and maturity of these trees in a large single area is unusual.”

Ambleside Drive runs along Hogan Road south of the Springwater Trail. Portland’s well-heeled built summer homes in the area between 1900 and 1925. Now, a few houses remain nestled along the private drive that crosses Johnson Creek.

The 26-acre sites is jointly owned by Metro and Gresham as part of a partnership aimed at restoring the Johnson Creek Watershed.

Earlier this month, a Metro contractor cut down at least six Japanese maples at the instruction of Metro staff as part of its ongoing effort to remove invasive species and allow native vegetation to thrive in the area, said Dan Moeller, natural areas land manager for Metro.

“Flat out we should have had a permit for it and we didn’t,” Moeller said of the tree removal.

The trees were smaller than other larger trees in the area, so they didn’t appear to be very old, Moeller said. They also appeared to be seeding, or reproducing, which could negatively affect the growth of Gresham’s beloved and rare Hogan cedars. One tree also was leaned over the road, creating a potential hazard, Moeller said.

Technically, Japanese maples are not native to the Northwest. But they are not the thug menaces that other invasive species can be, like for example, English Ivy.

“They’re beautiful old trees,” said Steve Fancher, director of Gresham’s Department of Environmental Services. “Japanese maples aren’t native species, but we would never advocate removing beautiful historic trees that are not aggressively invasive.”

Moeller said Metro staff has met with Gresham officials, including code compliance officers, regarding the felled trees.

A private arborist who the city has hired as a consultant is still investigating to make sure no other regulated trees have been removed, Fancher said.

But the city’s tree code has no specified punishment or mitigation plan for those who cut down a significant tree without the necessary permits. It’s just one of the tree code’s many weaknesses being examined as part of a multi-year code review process intended to add teeth to the city’s tree codes.

As such, Metro and Gresham officials are still ironing out what Metro should do to mitigate the tree removal.

One possibility is to require Metro to plant more trees and shrubs where the trees were cut, which Metro has been doing for more than a decade in the Johnson Creek Watershed.

Metro has planted more than 1,000 trees and 2,000 shrubs at the 26-acre site since purchasing the property, thanks to bond measures approved by voters in 1995 and 2006.

Students at Reynolds High School and countless volunteers have helped remove invasive species in the watershed to improve fish habitat, water quality and encourage native plants to thrive, Mouller said.

As for the situation with the trees being cut down, “It’s a little unusual for us,” Moeller said.

The irony isn’t lost on him.

Not only was Metro out there “doing good work” when the trees were cut down, but Metro is usually associated with preserving park land, green spaces and trees, not cutting them down.

“It’s not to say we’re never going to make a mistake,” he said. “But we do our best to avoid it and do what we can to make up for it.”

In the meantime, both government agencies are working together to resolve the situation.

“We clearly made mistakes,” Moeller said. “And we’re going to work with the city to do everything we can to patch it up.”

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