Is it too late to save the Davis-Meeker oak tree?


On May 14, Mayor Debbie Sullivan and City Administrator Lisa Parks of Tumwater announced their decision to cut down the Davis-Meeker Garry Oak tree that stands between the Olympia airport and Old Highway 99.

They made this announcement of their “administrative decision” in a Zoom work session of the Tumwater City Council, safely shielded from public comment. Three of the seven city council members voiced objections to the behind-closed-doors decision and the exclusion of the Council, which had no chance to vote on it.

The choice to cut down the tree, it appears, had actually been made months ago. The City is already soliciting bids for the tree’s removal, and hopes to execute the plan to cut it down before the middle of June. It will probably be done at night to minimize disruption to traffic.

At the May 14 meeting, Mayor Sullivan said the Tumwater Historic Preservation Commission had “completed its process” of considering whether the tree should be removed from the city’s historic register. What she didn’t say was that they voted unanimously against it.

There’s a lot to be said about all that is wrong with that process.

But there’s even more to be said about the tree itself, and why it deserves a reprieve.

It’s estimated to be about 400 years old, which means it sprouted in about 1624. It may be even older.

As it grew, it bordered the Cowlitz trail, which was traveled by native people since time immemorial. We do not know how local tribal communities feel about its planned removal,  because they were not consulted until after the decision had been made. In fact, it’s not clear whether conversations with the tribes have even been held yet.

It is also not clear what danger the tree poses. About a year ago, it dropped a branch, and that is what set off the process that led to the city’s contracted arborist to declare it hazardous. But there are still questions about what measures could be taken to preserve it and to mitigate any danger.

Respected, independent arborists passionately disagree with the decision to remove it and believe that its health and safety can be protected, possibly by cabling and bracing. One also pointed out that no ID was made of the fungal pathogen within the tree.

But at the recent Council work session, it was clear the tree has been condemned, and that the Mayor is in a big hurry to carry out the death sentence. Absent a reversal of this decision – or at least a delay to allow a more open-minded inquiry into study of possible ways to safely extend its life – the Davis-Meeker oak will be gone before the summer solstice.

A delay would also allow time for meaningful conversations with the Tribes that should have been initiated many months ago, before this decision was made.

There is no obvious appeal process. The people who want to save the tree – or at the very least take time to consider the alternatives and consult the Tribes – must invent one. Here are some ideas about that:

  • First and foremost, we must find the words to explain to anyone who will listen why making every effort to let this tree live matters.
    Many will say the tree is just a symbol of the past; a relic at the end of its natural life. Its preservation is not going to “save the environment” or any other lofty goal. The paved highway and the developments around it have already “unsaved” the environment, and obscured the history of the Cowlitz trail, which settlers renamed the Oregon Trail. Saving a single tree won’t change any of that.
    But all that is exactly what makes keeping the tree vital. We can recognize that it has long since lost its traditional plant neighbors and companions to buildings and pavement, but doesn’t that make it even more important to save that location’s last native green, growing tree? And isn’t the tree a living monument to the layers of history that shaped our communities? Isn’t the tree a part of our communities’ identity?
    This tree – or its absence – will help define where we live and who we are. How we treat that tree will be a harbinger of what we are becoming. Don’t we live in an era when we finally recognize our need for a mutually sustainable relationship with the natural world? Saving one tree won’t achieve that, but it would show that our feet are on that path, and it would connect our past to our future.
  • Second, we need to make our voices heard by Mayor Debbie Sullivan and the Tumwater City Council.
    The City Council, like other legislative bodies, has power over the budget.
    It’s more than likely that the city council could pass a measure that forbade the city from spending money to cut down this tree.
    We also need to have words with the Olympia City Council and the Port of Olympia, who have assented to the tree’s removal.
  • Third, as Americans we can engage in peaceful protest and possible civil disobedience. One arborist is already talking about chaining himself to the tree. He will need to know just when the City of Tumwater has scheduled the work. Those who might wish to support a timely protest will need to know too. It’s unlikely the City will reveal this information willingly. A Freedom of Information Act request might be needed.

Any and all strategies to save this tree – or even to buy more time for exploration of alternatives to make it safer –  involve a risk of failure. But until the chainsaws start, there is still hope.

Jill Severn writes from her home in Olympia, where she grows vegetables, flowers, and a small flock of chickens. She loves conversation among gardeners. Start one by emailing her at  jill@theJOLTnews.com


16 comments on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here

  • griffithga

    Excellent comments Jill. Thank you

    Friday, May 17 Report this

  • DStusser

    Shouldn't the city investigate moving the road around the tree? Make a little park there? Turns out, there's a 10+ acre parcel directly across the street, with plenty of room to shift the traffic away from potential falling branches. While they're at it wouldn't that location, and a 10-acre piece of land, be just peachy for the long wished-for Tumwater Community Center? A representative of the owner told me that they might be interested in selling.

    Saturday, May 18 Report this

  • BevBassett

    It's obvious that the road should be moved rather than the tree cut. Mayor Sullivan is so hell bent on taking the tree down despite a loud public outcry to save the tree; thus, it is perfectly obvious that she's removing the tree to enable airport expansion and her claim that safety is the reason is false.

    Saturday, May 18 Report this

  • MartyKenney

    Amazing. Thank you Jill.

    I was just getting my tree-sit anarchist friends on the phone, they love to see chainsaws halted.

    I love all the articles about this. I think we really have something going here with the JOLT bringing light to these issues, and consistent updates on how we can make an impact in the place we call home.

    Saturday, May 18 Report this

  • GinnyAnn

    Your voice speaks for most of us who see the tree as a symbol of endurance. That tree deserves to be saved and honored. We can move the road and construct buildings elsewhere. There is no reason why that tree needs to be cut down. The mayor is abusing her power and she knows it because she unilaterally eliminated any open discussion with stakeholders and the public. She knew in advance that the majority would react in favor of keeping the tree, so she moved ahead quickly in order to circumvent their input. She knows she's wrong and is trying to bully her way through. She has been caught out. Public outrage needs to be organized to act quickly before this poor tree is gone forever.

    Saturday, May 18 Report this

  • 52237123abc

    Thank you Jill!

    Saturday, May 18 Report this

  • FirstOtter

    Reroute the Hwy on the east side of HWY 99.

    Last year, the POrt of Olympia completed plans to expand the airport to allow cargo and passenger jets. THey were vociferous in their objections to the International airport...probably because it would have meant the Oly airport would have to go.

    How astonished the clueless Port was when hundreds of us showed up in their chamber to say not just no but heck no. They were angry. How DARE we object? We are merely the people paying their salaries. One of them said, we're mandated by legislation to make money. So CHANGE THE LEGISLATION.

    This most recent attempt to expand the airport is merely the Port throwing an ugly baby into the Mayor's lap...and she's perfectly happy to kneel and kiss the Port's rings.

    The airport must not be expanded. The tree must be saved. Tumwater has already demonstrated it has no problems moving roads...look at allllllll the roundabouts in Tumwater (Tumwater should be renamed Roundabout), and yet the Mayor can't figure out how to move Hwy 99 two hundred feet to the east? No, this is merely the Mayor in bed with the Port. What offends me most is how they think we don't see this for what it is-a blatant attempt at ramming home airport expansion for Big Business. Don't think Amazon built that huge warehouse on 93rd just on account of because. THey were planning to use it as their own own airport, paid for by us taxpayers.

    Yeah, tehre are people calling those of us 'tree huggers'.. so what. One poster even used a swear word...pretty normal behaviour for knuckledragging morons who can't see the big picture.

    Sunday, May 19 Report this

  • TCresident98501

    Is there any documentation of these airport theories? Or verification from someone who is an authority on the topic?

    Sunday, May 19 Report this

  • 52237123abc

    Are people planning on attending the city council meeting Tuesday at 7:00? I hope it’s a huge crowd!!!!

    Monday, May 20 Report this

  • Boatyarddog

    Maybe climb it and do a Sit In.


    Monday, May 20 Report this

  • Karinamurphy1

    I absolutely agree that the Meeker Oak should not be cut down until there is a public hearing announced at Tumwater City Hall or the fire station. What is the Mayor afraid of? Does it hurt to postpone a few weeks while the public has its chance to voice their opinion and what measures they are willing to support to save the tree. I am willing put up my own personal money to save the tree and I am sure others are too! Come on Mayor let your residents have some input! Thank you.

    Monday, May 20 Report this

  • Joy Johnston

    The author is leaving out the findings of a thorough analysis conducted by a team of arborists:

    "there are structural concerns associated with the significant decay found in the stem base, lower main stem, east facing co-dominant stem and large scaffold branches. Probable future failures include large diameter scaffold branches from the east facing co-dominant stem and the entire west facing co-dominant stem at the union. The associated inclusions and stress loads will contribute to future failures. Structural support systems in conjunction with pruning were considered but the extent of decay in the main stem and upper east side of the canopy removes that as a mitigation option."

    In other words, the structure of the tree is compromised. And it's in a spot that puts people at risk.

    Removing a tree for the sake of public safety is an administrative decision. That's how it works, folks! I personally would hate to see a public hearing for every safety issue. For example, if a bridge was in danger of collapsing, I'd rather see a quick decision to close off the bridge rather than bog things down in a public process - and put lives at risk.

    It will be so sad to see this tree go, and heartwarming to read the comments of those who love the tree. I truly hope we can work together to remember the tree.

    Monday, May 20 Report this

  • EntitlementRightsLLC

    Saw a Spotted Owl nesting in it yesterday, way up high!

    Monday, May 20 Report this

  • RosePNW

    Thank you Jill for your thoughtful comments in your column.

    It seems a shame that the appropriate steps have not been taken to make sure all people involved with this historic tree have not been contacted and involved. Not talking with the tribes is one glaring example. Made me feel disappointed in the politics here. I moved here from Chicago, and I know how things can go wrong politically. I thought it was different out here.

    Monday, May 20 Report this

  • garyaritchie

    I very much enjoyed your column on the Davis-Meeker Garry oak by the airport and share your deep concern for its safety and well being. 

    Perhaps if it were packaged as a "witness tree" it would gain more attention and respect. There are very few trees left that have witnessed our early history and one along the Oregon-Cowlitz Trail that may be over 400 years old is indeed rare and very special.

    I grew up in the east and found few if any witness trees left on the many of the battlefields I visited (Saratoga, Brandywine Creek, Valley Forge, Gettysburg, Manassas, Kennesaw Mountain, etc.). The only one I know of for certain is a sycamore at Antietam Creek (https://tcimag.tcia.org/tree-care/burnside-sycamore-witness-to-history/), which is held as sacred despite being less than 150 years old. Certainly our own 400+ year old Garry Oak witness tree deserves much more care and respect than it is presently getting.

    I hope someone is collecting acorns and rooting cuttings before it is too late.

    Tuesday, May 21 Report this

  • PamelaJHanson

    Abundant thank you's to you Jill!

    In part, and probably because of your brilliantly written article, a series of events took place that brought a group of us together to meet at the Davis Meeker Garry Oak Tree today, Saturday, May 25, 2024 at 4:00 pm, for a rally and celebration. We met new friends, we talked about the surrounding area, we talked about the surrounding politics, we shared our thankfulness for the Temporary Restraining Order that is more clearly defined in another article, we had our pictures taken, we listened, we smiled and sometimes waved at the honking vehicles that drove past and echoed our sentiments, we appreciated the media that we were able to meet, and some of us either ate cookies or fresh baked bread that made us feel at home. We had a lovely garden tree party in some respects. I will leave my comment to you at this point, at peace and without the visceral political emotion that begins about 1 foot to over 200 feet from the tree. Because, with warehouses, possible cargo airplanes and military nearby the airport - there may be semi-trucks, large cargo trucks, and/or military transport vehicles and military birds being planned into our Tumwater lives without our review and/or permission. Tumwater needs to save the tree! Thank you Jill!

    Saturday, May 25 Report this