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Original Purpose or Only Native Plants?

COMMENTARY: Will Mount Pisgah go native?

The idea violates the original concept of the arboretum

By Theodore Palmer

For The Register-Guard  (Click here to go to the Register-Guard article online where you can see comments).

Published: (Sunday, Feb 19, 2012 05:00AM) Midnight, Feb. 19



Mount Pisgah Arboretum is a nonprofit corporation that has developed and maintains a 209-acre site in the Howard Buford Recreation Area. Founded on Jan. 3, 1973, its original purpose was to create a garden featuring trees from around the world living in harmony with local trees to demonstrate international peace and friendship. That grew to the vision of a uniquely structured international arboretum — a vision that is now threatened.

The arboretum’s statement of purpose, written by Fran Kemler and included in the bylaws and articles of incorporation, reads:

“The purpose of this organization shall be to establish, maintain and perpetuate an arboretum of highest quality for the public benefit; to acquire and grow plant specimens from our own country as well as from other countries around the world; to encourage conservation, research and awareness of ecology; to assist education on all levels in the natural sciences and arts; and to provide facilities for the public enjoyment and use of its gardens. The organization was founded upon the idea of a garden featuring plants from around the world growing together to symbolize international friendship.”

Last Dec. 17, the current board of directors of Mount Pisgah Arboretum took a straw vote — 5-2, with one abstention — to dramatically change the purpose of the organization by restricting all future plantings to species native to the Willamette Valley.

As the only founding member of the arboretum still serving on the board, I seek to protect the half-million

dollar endowment and other assets from being diverted to a purpose other than that for which they were created. I ask that those who wish to support the arboretum’s original vision contact me.

A review of the history of Mount Pisgah Arboretum shows that the idea of international plantings has been central from the beginning. In 1965, Barbara Newton conceived the idea, which was backed by then-Eugene Mayor Les Anderson and former Mayor Ed Cone.

An arboretum is an outdoor museum of living trees. Most include trees from around the world.

While Newton did not originally use the word “arboretum” herself, she soon was joined by a number of local leaders who had long been trying to start an arboretum here, including Howard Buford, Paul Beistel, Ed Smith, Duane Hatch and John Phillips. An Ad Hoc Committee on an International Arboretum first met in September 1969. I joined soon after moving here in 1970.

All those involved with the arboretum for its first two decades considered planting trees from around the world to be its core purpose. There was devotion to the vision of these trees growing together as a symbol of international friendship, and to the plantings themselves as beautiful and interesting displays to promote knowledge and appreciation. It is this core purpose that a majority of the board wishes to reject.

It is important to understand the unique, new “ecological planting plan” that Mount Pisgah Arboretum originated. The trees in most arboreta are arranged by taxonomy (the structural and genetic relationship between trees) or by their geographical area of origin. The local board developed the idea of selecting about eight ecologically different but homogeneous small areas (say, three to five acres each) within the site. Each of these areas gradually would then be interplanted with trees from around the world adapted to the particular conditions of that site — moisture-loving trees in the wet area, etc. Thus, we would teach about ecology while planting diverse trees where they naturally would flourish.

Trees are the historical basis of our local economy, and many people move here because of a love of the outdoors. However, the Willamette Valley has a limited flora of native trees, and there is no first-class arboretum nearby. The international plantings were designed to be easy to reach by trail but visually unobtrusive, leaving the vast majority of the site with managed native vegetation as at present. If you love the vistas we already have created, they will not change.

Those on the board who seek to change the mission say they are concerned about nonnative trees becoming invasive. That is not a problem at other arboreta, and from the beginning the board established strict rules to deal with this concern.

Board members also profess concern that the original plan is beyond the arboretum’s capabilities. However, their narrow vision already has lost the arboretum substantial private and foundation support. If the arboretum can move forward on its original plan, there are foundations and individuals who would support this effort enthusiastically.

After considering 12 other sites, we selected our original 118-acre site and started to clear it of collapsing buildings, trash, and the blackberries and other undesirable species that originally made access almost impossible. Within a few years, we had opened the views that so many hikers enjoy today. Trails still are being built to provide access to its eight different ecological areas.

The international arboretum became a key part of the ideas for the development of the whole park. Since Howard Buford had spearheaded the effort to acquire Mount Pisgah, when he retired the 2,363-acre park was named the Howard Buford Recreation Area.

On July 28, 1978, the board changed the name of the nonprofit corporation from International Arboretum Association to Mount Pisgah Arboretum. In 1996, the area leased by the group was increased to 209 acres. In my broad experience, it is one of the most outstanding arboretum sites in the United States.

Right away, many people were excited by the idea of a local arboretum. They generously donated specimens of rare and valuable tree species (between 300 and 400 specimens, according to a 1983 grant application). Most of these later disappeared from a city holding bed where they were stored.

On Feb. 26, 1975, George Jette presented his “dream scheme” master plan, which formed the basis for our early development of the site. His students and youth crews, skillfully supervised by Buford as a volunteer, made substantial progress before the arboretum had the resources to hire its own employees. Others deeply involved in planning and work at the site in this early period were Bill Coslow, John Phillips, Fran Kemler, Duane Hatch, Mary Warner, Phoebe Staples, Dave Wagner and myself.

In September 1978, our infant organization hosted the Western Regional Meeting of the American Association of Botanical Gardens and Arboreta. Those attending who had been involved in starting other arboreta gave us a clear message: “Do not start planting until you have a master plan and the infrastructure in place to maintain everything you do.”

I now regret that we followed this good advice too long.

Many readers will be familiar with our Wildflower Festival (held since 1981 on the first Sunday after Mother’s Day) and our Mushroom Festival (staged since 1982 the last Sunday in October). These two much-loved annual festivals have become the meeting point for all people interested in natural history in the southern Willamette Valley.

When the arboretum finally was able to afford staff, it hired Rhoda Love in 1980 and Tom LoCascio in 1981. (LoCascio still works there and lives in the house on the site.)

In May 1988, we received the first of five federal Institute of Museum Services general operating support grants. No other American arboretum secured more than two of these intensely competitive grants. From 1988 to 1993, we worked earnestly on a professional master plan, chiefly funded by the Meyer Memorial Trust.

More recently, some board members began to lose faith in the dream that had sustained our efforts for decades. Those of us who have spent so long working toward the realization of our original goals fear that a wonderful vision and gift to the local community will be lost.

If the organization can regain its unity of purpose and begin to develop carefully chosen, beautiful, natural-looking international plantings in focused areas, I have no doubt that Mount Pisgah Arboretum can become a world famous tourist destination, beloved and a source of pride to the local population.

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