Island tree doc uses science and activism to save historic trees.


Tree expert Olaf Ribeiro’s Arbor Day tours of Winslow’s historic trees was fully booked, even with two added walks. If you missed the tour, you can still read the story (below) I wrote last week. For Larry Steagal’s photo gallery of Ribeiro in action, check out this link.

A change comes over Olaf Ribeiro when he touches the gnarled and scabbed bark of an old apple tree gripping a small patch of lawn on Winslow Way.

Suddenly he no longer sees the clinic and the busy sidewalk crowding the tree’s roots. The supermarket across the street and its vast parking lot disappear. In his mind’s eye, acres worth of Winslow streets, shops and restaurants give way to rows of apple trees much like the one at his side.

“All of downtown was an orchard,” he said, squinting at a view in the distant past. “Twenty acres. All that you can see here was apple trees. Why this one has survived is beyond me.”

Having an accommodating inheritor – the Winslow Virginia Mason clinic – is one key to the tree’s longevity. The other is Ribeiro, who has combined the passion of an activist with the know-how of a scientist to save some of Winslow’s oldest and most revered trees.

A plant pathologist for over 30 years, the Kenyan-born Ribeiro uses Bainbridge as his home base between globe-spanning, tree-saving adventures that have been profiled in the Wall Street Journal and NBC’s Today show. He’s advised arborists treating the Doomsday Tree, under which England’s Magna Carta was signed, and provides ongoing care for Britain’s Tortworth Chestnut, a tree said to have sprouted over 1,200 years ago.

“How long a tree lives depends on how you treat it,” he said.

Ribeiro gives his most dedicated attention – often free-of-charge – to the island trees he holds most dear.

The three towering trees outside the Bainbridge Historical Museum have been under the Ribeiro’s care for decades. He agitated at City Hall enough to save the former pet store property from redevelopment and worked to free the trees’ compacted roots from the store’s parking lot. Now the trees – an elm, a sycamore and an 88-foot-tall red oak – live on as reminders of a unique past.

“These trees were brought across the ocean from Britain,” Ribeiro said. “They’re the last of their size remaining in downtown.”

The three trees were shipped to the island as seedling from the royal Kew Gardens near London by one of Winslow’s early shipbuilding families.

Lately, Ribeiro has battled bulldozers to save island trees. He railed against a high school redevelopment plan until he was allowed to move cherry trees linked to the island’s Japanese-American heritage. Late last year, Ribeiro fought a Wyatt Way development that would have cut down three large trees planted by a Winslow farmer almost 100 years ago. The developer recently put his project on hold.

“Oh my god, I hope he lives forever,” said Meg Hagemann, standing near a 100-year-old walnut tree outside her Parfitt Way home. “He is an island treasure.”

When a developer announced he had permission to rip the tree out to make way for a utility pipeline, Hagemann didn’t know what to do.

“I was going to chain my self to the tree,” she said.

But Ribeiro came to the rescue armed with documents showing the tree was planted by Winslow pioneer Ambrose Grow and a compromise plan that would route the pipes beneath the tree’s roots.

“I’ve had visitors come, holding hands, and ask me to take their picture under it,” Hagemann said. “It’s what we all long for. It’s an oasis of peace.”

Despite his victories, Ribeiro says much more should be done to preserve Winslow’s trees.

For Ribeiro, the logic is simple: trees are undeniably beautiful. They are living links to island’s past and integral to its environmental health. They should be protected. End of story.

The activist and a scientist in Ribeiro leaves little room for the politician.

“I’ve lost faith in a tree ordinance,” he said. “They’ve been at it for six years.”

Action doesn’t often come quickly at City Hall, even if most islanders agree about the value of Winslow’s trees, city forestry commission member Katy Krokower said.

“I agree there’s a lot to be desired,” she said. “But there’s a lot of reluctance on the part of the (City) Council and the community to have regulations on single-family homes and private property.”

Krakower said the commission has crafted a draft community forestry plan that aims to maintain the island’s current tree canopy coverage of 75 percent and increase tree preservation requirements in developed areas. The city has a voluntary “heritage tree” program that recognizes but does not protect historic trees.

Ribeiro points to several nearby cities – Seattle, Port Townsend, Mercer Island – that have tougher protections.

He admits that these cities have fewer trees to lose than Bainbridge, with its city limits spanning several large forests.

“People always tell me we have enough trees,” he said. “But do we want to end up like any other city, with no trees as reference points to our history?”

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