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Capitol’s Cameron Elm Unsafe, Will Be Removed

After witnessing almost a century and a half of Congressional history, the beloved Cameron Elm on the Capitol’s South Lawn has to come down.

Following assessments by two arborist firms that the tree has a significant hollow area in its truck threatening its structural integrity, the Architect of the Capitol sought and received authority from the Congressional leadership and its oversight committees to take the massive tree down. A spokesman for the AOC said Friday that it could be felled as early as the weekend.

The elm actually had an extra 130-year lease on life after then-Sen. Simon Cameron (R-Pa.) implored a crew in 1875 not to remove it when it had been slated to be dug up as part of Landscape Architect Frederick Law Olmsted’s plan to remake the Capitol grounds into a more parklike setting. After passing the crew readying its removal on his way to a vote, Cameron stopped them and later addressed his colleagues on the floor, lauding the tree’s grandeur. The elm was subsequently named after him.

The two firms hired by the AOC concluded after several years of study that a majority of the tree’s interior was hollow or decayed wood. Resistograph tests found that in most places the tree has less than 6 inches of sound wood. Two years ago a large limb fell from the tree without warning. Although it did not injury anyone, Architect Alan Hantman wrote in a letter to Members last week that the event caused even greater concern for the safety of Members, staff and visitors, especially because the main visitor screening facility is in its immediate proximity.

“The Cameron Elm — though a sentimental favorite for its longevity — has been determined to pose a great public danger due to the amount of decay in the main trunk,” Hantman wrote. “We have taken numerous precautions — short of its removal — to protect those who pass beneath it, but with its increasing structural instability, we can no longer assure public safety in its vicinity.”

The AOC has already taken cuttings from the elm and plans to plant the progeny on Capitol grounds when the seedlings are strong enough. Nearly one-third of the trees on the campus are relatively new to assure that the aging of the landscape happens gradually. Dozens of new trees will be planted upon the completion of the Capitol Visitor Center in 2006.

As part of that project, the AOC hired an arborist firm to continually monitor and pamper the trees on the East Front, and the firms that studied the Cameron Elm also assessed the health of approximately 2,800 of the 4,000 trees on the grounds.

One of the trees receiving special care is an elm, reputed to be more than 175 years old, on the House “egg” on the East Front. Two years ago a dozen lawmakers were upset when they heard a rumor that it would be cut down. After several letters were exchanged, the Architect convinced the Members that the tree’s historic value overrode recommendations by arborists that it come down for safety considerations.

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