Today’s round of questions, my smart-aleck replies and the real answers:
Question: I’m writing concerning the Asheville Muni Golf Course and their plan right now to cut down 157 mature trees, including over 100 oaks and pines. My understanding is the city is going to be presenting that to the Urban Forestry Commission. And then after that it has to get permitted. That’s a lot of trees to be cut and have a possible impact on climate change and the city’s tree canopy. I think the city has a responsibility to their other environmental initiatives. What is the plan for all of this? What is the process? When might trees be cut? Does it have to be this many?
My answer: Ironically enough, these are the exact same 157 trees I hit during my last round at the Muni. But I swear there’s no connection between that and the plan for removal. That chain saw in my cart belonged to someone else. Swear.
Real answer: As you may know, nothing gets folks in Asheville more riled up than a plan to cut down a lot of trees. So the issue at the Asheville Municipal Golf Course, a Donald Ross design that opened in 1927, has drawn a lot of criticism.
The issue revolves around the ability to grow grass on the course, which is impeded by too much shade, particularly on the back nine, which snakes through the Beverly Hills neighborhood.
In August, Asheville City Council approved a new operator to take over operations at the Muni, Commonwealth Golf Partners II – Asheville LLC. Commonwealth took over Oct. 1, replacing Pope Golf LLC, whose contract expired Sept. 30.
To put it nicely, the course has fallen into disrepair, and the city and Pope Golf, which operated the place for 10 years, blame each other. In my opinion, the city which owns the course and is responsible for major infrastructure, let drainage problems linger way too long, as well as issues with the cart paths.
Meanwhile, Pope Golf really didn’t do much in the way of maintenance out there, so fairways and tee boxes are often bare, rocky dirt, and some of the greens also sport bare patches. Excessive shade is part of the problem, so the new operators, and the city, want to prune or remove some trees.
Having played the course on a recent Sunday, I can tell you that a lot of trees are marked for removal, but a lot of small stakes also represent spots where new trees will be planted. But let’s look at the removal plan first.
“Your reader is correct in that the planned number of total trees to be removed is 157, however, they are not all mature trees as stated, some certainly, but not all,” Chris Corl, the city’s director of Community and Regional Entertainment Facilities, said via email. “This figure includes invasive trees, dead and dying and hazard trees, and trees to be removed for ‘golf purposes.’ Golf purposes, for example, include the oak tree that is currently growing in the bunker on the left side of number 14 green.”
Having hit this tree a few times, I can vouch for Corl on this one. I can also tell you that the course has a lot of tree limbs overhanging the fairways, which is definitely not a Donald Ross hallmark.
By the way, if you want to take a deep dive on the plans, including a tree-by-tree recap of what the different colored ribbons stand for, and the size and variety of tagged trees, and an overview of the replanting plan, visit: https://www.ashevillegc.com/renovations/
Beyond the city’s replanting plan on the golf course, it’s also offering free trees to homes neighboring the course.
“We have invited neighbors and property owners in East Asheville to sign up for up to four free trees to be delivered to their property, and if needed, assistance in planting the trees,” Corl said, noting the city hasn’t fully advertised this yet. “Thus far, having announced the program at a public meeting and posting on the website, we have had 10 property owners sign up for a total of 21 trees.”
The idea is to move some trees, or tree locations, off the golf course, which will help maintain tree canopy. For the course itself, Corl said they have “identified over 160 locations on property where new trees can be planted.”
Those are represented by the aforementioned stakes. Personally, I got ahead of the game and hit some of the stakes during my last round.
It’s also important to note the city, as Corl said, “is finalizing the removal and thinning plan” to “get to a final figure on the canopy to be removed in order to know the final amount of canopy we are trying to replace.”
While 157 trees is indeed substantial, in context it doesn’t sound nearly as drastic. In May 2022, the city requested a tree evaluation on the course from the U.S. Golf Association, and their agronomist recommended removing over 1,000 trees, an evaluation later pared down to 500 trees.
The city used this report, as well as assistance from the new course operator and volunteer work from a local golf course architect, and tagged over 200 trees throughout the course, Corl said.
“After the trees were tagged, we had a private arborist review the tagged trees, as well as the city’s arborist,” Corl said. “ Through those reviews, many trees were completely removed from the list, many were adjusted to a pruning plan and in some cases trees were added at their suggestion.”
As Corl noted in the Dec. 6 Urban Forestry Commission meeting, the city has counted all the trees on the Muni’s 122 acres, and it comes to 2,387.
“In total, we are looking at approximately 6.5 percent of the total trees on property (slated for removal), which comes out to about 1.2 trees per acre to be removed,” Corl said. “At the moment there are no contracts signed with any removal companies or with the operator to remove or prune trees on the course. The earliest that trees may start being removed is late January, but more realistically February or March.”
Most of the trees slated for removal are white oaks or white pines.
That Dec. 6 Urban Forestry Commission meeting did get a little testy at times, especially an exchange between Urban Forester Mark Foster and commission member Ed Macie.
About 80 people sent in comments, many of them opposed to the cutting plan, and three callers also raised concerns.
The Muni was the first public golf course in the Carolinas, and Corl noted it was the first to “embrace integration,” when local Black golfers formed the Skyview Golf Association and started hosting a tournament. The course also is something of an oasis of open space (on the front nine by Swannanoa River Road) and trees (on the back nine).
The upshot is a lot of people really care about the course for a variety of reasons.
Corl told the commission the plan now calls for removing 141 non-invasive but unhealthy or hazardous trees, 10 invasive species trees and six trees for golf purposes. Pruning is slated for 38 more trees.
Macie’s main concern was the risk assessment done on the trees and whether it adhered to industry standards. As he said, it seems there are “no options for mitigating risk other than removal.”
“I think probably a lot of the trees that have issues could be mitigated,” Macie said, noting that trees within wooded areas pose less of a risk. “Judicious pruning,” he said, could open up the course to more sunlight and better growing conditions for grass.
Foster, the city arborist, said it’s a lot easier to see the reasons why trees are slated for removal “when you’ve been on the field trip.” That’s a reference to Corl taking folks on a tour of the course to check the tree issues out for themselves.
Macie said the city should be following the Tree Risk Assessment Qualification program used by the International Society of Aboriculture for trees to be removed.
“I have a full-time job,” Foster said. “I didn’t do TRAQ forms on every tree.”
He relies on his experience and qualifications as an arborist, he said.
The city does note on its website that on Nov 7 and 8, “a TRAQ certified Arborist reviewed all trees that had been tagged with ribbons throughout the course providing suggestions and recommendations for each tree.”
But back to the meeting. Macie said in effect, Foster was telling concerned citizens, “Don’t worry. Just trust the city because they know what’s best.”
“Did you expect the federal government to trust you?” Foster said.
Macie, a consulting urban forester and arborist, has worked for the federal government.
After the meeting, Macie told me he was “pretty antagonistic toward the city with their plans,” but that’s because he thinks they’re rushing to cut down mature trees instead of considering other approaches, including pruning.
From an ecological perspective, Macie said, science has found that mature trees “sequester carbon so much better than baby trees.”
“We have to be mindful of the ecological impacts, not only in changing climate, but also with pollinators and migratory wildlife,” Macie said. “I think we’re too quick to pull the trigger when there are alternatives.”
Macie also noted that the Urban Forestry Commission has been lobbying for $150,000 to develop a comprehensive urban tree plan, “and then at the bat of an eye we’re going to be spending a quarter million dollars to cut down trees (at the golf course).”
Commission member Cecil Bothwell, a former Asheville City Councilman, said he too found it “wryly amusing that removing all these trees is going to cost about as much as we’re going to spend on preserving trees.”
Corl said the removal costs have not been set, but he did note removal of trees likely will run about $100,000, with the remainder of that $250,000 figure coming from replanting and associated work.
Bothwell also noted that perhaps the greens fees should go up to help pay for the work, and Corl said they will go up starting April 1, about 5 percent for city residents, roughly 20 percent for non-city residents.
Other board members, and some of the callers also mentioned that they’d like to see the Muni adopt course maintenance practices that don’t include harmful chemicals.
In the end, the commission voted unanimously to make four recommendations to City Council:
- Hire a certified arborist independent of the project to conduct a review of all tree removal and report back to the commission.
- Have city staff present to the commission a specific replanting plan, including plans for replanting with native species.
- Have city staff obtain and provide to the commission information on soil testing, and the use of chemicals and potential hazards posed to old growth trees.
- Explore alternatives to removal for all trees slated for removal, including pruning.
Amy Smith, chair of the Urban Forestry Commission, said a lot of citizens who wrote the commission were urging them to “reject this plan.” But that’s not really possible.
“As a group, of course, our goal, our mandate is to address City Council,” Smith said. “In a lot of the comments and emails I’ve received, they were asking the Urban Forestry Commission to reject this plan, but we actually don’t have any power to do so. We can make recommendations to City Council, as can any citizen.”
It looks like considerably more work will take place before a plan is finalized, and Asheville City Council will weigh in on this, too.
Macie seemed to summarize the commission’s feeling well near the end of the discussion.
“We really should be as cautious as possible in making any decisions to remove these trees,” Macie said. “Canopy counts everywhere, even on golf courses.”
So, to my reader I say, “Stay tuned.”
Got a question? Send it to John Boyle at firstname.lastname@example.org or 828-337-0941.