By Doug Stern

Chances are I’ll be at Bowman Field tonight.

I’ll be there with many of my neighbors, largely from Drayton and Landor avenues and Taylorsville Road in the Seneca Park area, eager to know more about the airport authority’s plans for our trees.

We’re part of the 500 or so households within a half-mile of each of the four ends of the old airport’s pair of intersecting runways. We all recently got letters telling us about the government’s concern about the height of many of our old trees.

The tallest ones are apparently giving the Federal Aviation Administration heartburn, and there are federal orders to buy our airspace along with federal dollars available to give our neighborhood a haircut.

 So much for reason

Judging from recent front-yard kibitzing, there’s no shortage of theories why. I heard one the other day, that lowering or removing our trees is a part of a back-door plot to encourage or accommodate more corporate air use of Bowman Field.

There’s also a rumor making the rounds that planes will be able to fly lower once the old trees are out of the way. It probably won’t do much good to reason with the conspiracy theorists. It probably won’t do much good to point out that the airport authority has been buying “avigation” rights and trimming and cutting down trees near Bowman for the last 20 years.

Speaking of reason, the Courier-Journal reported that the volunteer arborist from nearby Seneca Gardens said that the airport authority could save trees by shortening the runways instead. I could be wrong, but Hell will freeze over before that happens.

In the interest of transparency

Let me go on record as saying that I love trees. I love trees every bit as much as or, perhaps, even more than my neighbors, the Sierra Club and Joyce Kilmer do (or did )… all wrapped together.

You might also want to know that there are three, large limb-dropping maples shading/threatening my house, all 70-plus years old and many, many years past their prime. Hardly a month goes by that we don’t have a tree removal contractor knock on our door, unsolicited. Our community’s various wind, snow and ice storms conjure up images of crushed bedrooms, blue tarps and worse.

And, yet, despite my angst, I can’t imagine living in a neighborhood or a city without lots of trees. Great big, old trees. Tall trees.

I agree with everything I’ve read and heard (and, there’s a lot out there) about how trees impart character to a place, raise property values, enhance economic development and generally make life a lot more sustainable and livable.

All of this has got me to thinking

I just wish we hadn’t saved up all this tree loving the way we apparently have locally. Because, according to a long-term study of the condition of metro Louisville’s trees, we suck at taking care of that about which we claim to care so much.

Back in October 2011, the C-J’s James Bruggers had an excellent blog post about how Louisville has neglected its trees for at least a generation. Compared to other cities, we reportedly lag behind in nearly every measure of tree care, preservation and replacement.

A survey by urban planning and environmental law students at the University of Louisville found that trees cover about 27 percent of metro Louisville, compared to 40 to 50 percent of our Southern peer cities.

As Bruggers put it, “Louisville’s trees are fighting a losing battle to storms, invasive pests, neglect and age – and the mighty oaks, maples and ash that once towered over parkways, neighborhood streets, parks and backyards are not being replaced.”

Katy Schneider, a former deputy mayor and a tree-loving insider’s insider, agreed. She was quoted by Bruggers, saying, “Trees are not even on the city’s radar screen, and it’s very short-sighted.”

 So what?

Maybe you’re thinking, don’t we have bigger problems than saving a bunch of old trees? Aren’t we in the late stages of the middle of a recession?

Well, these things are true. Case in point: There are still three trees on my property that ought to be removed precisely because my wife and I have chosen to make other household expenses a higher priority since we moved in six years ago.

And, yes, I know that government belt tightening and cutbacks have been on the front pages since 2008. (I also know that our peer cities are just as cash strapped.)

The Panic of 1893, however, didn’t stop Louisville’s late-19th century civic and corporate leadership from hiring Olmsted and creating one of the world’s greatest and most far-sighted systems of urban parks and parkways. (Haven’t heard of the Panic of 1893? Economic historians call it the nation’s worse depression until the 1929 Crash.)

And, we can’t rightly play the recession card to rationalize why we’ve been dragging our feet on the establishment of a tree commission to make policies and what have you. This not-exactly-revolutionary idea has been on the drawing boards over in the mayor’s office since 1996.

Remember 1996? Back when we were riding high on Bill Clinton’s federal budget surplus and had the highest job growth since Jimmy Carter was in the White House? Yes, that 1996.

We had money back then for everything. Except taking care of our trees.


The exception to our recent history of tree neglect has been in deep eastern Jefferson County. That’s where David Jones, Dan Jones, Dr. Steve Henry and others have labored mightily to re-create the Olmsted model in the Floyd’s Fork watershed. They – and Sen. Mitch McConnell – have raised several hundreds of millions of private and public dollars to buy and improve a string of parks that will eventually comprise nearly 4,000 acres of much-needed park space.

As best as I can tell, they’re succeeding. This is a testament to their vision and generosity.

When they’re finished, I hope they’ll turn their sights and aim their checkbooks on the rest of Jefferson County. I hope the Jones family and their partners inspire a new generation or two of tree preservation.

I hope they inspire a spirit of stewardship that systematically replaces trees in our parks and neighborhoods and along our parkways.

A spirit of stewardship that takes a little of the sting away when the airport authority sends another batch of letters out 70 or 80 years from now.

 About Doug Stern: Doug Stern has lived in Louisville almost his entire life, a lot of it close to Bowman Field. “I always look up whenever I hear a piston-driven aircraft.” When he’s not wishing he were flying, he writes for a living.

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