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Historic tree at Capitol struggles to live

State officials spent nearly $300,000 to move historic trees on the Oregon State Capitol grounds to make way for a construction project.

CLAIRE WITHYCOMBE/EO MEDIA GROUP - A historical Camperdown Elm tree that was relocated on the Oregon State Capitol grounds in May 2017 is struggling to survive after the stress of the move and extreme weather in Salem.One of the four historic Camperdown Elm trees that the state spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to relocate for construction at the Oregon State Capitol appears to be perishing.

"He is getting a lot of special attention now, and we are not giving up hope on him until he is actually dead," said Jodie Jones, director of the Capitol Accessibility, Maintenance and Safety (CAMS) project.

The four trees, along with two cherry trees, were moved in May 2017 from the east and west entrances of the Capitol at a cost of $285,500 to make way for new mechanical vaults. The new vaults are part of the $59.2 million CAMS project, approved by the Legislature in 2016.

The distressed tree's weeping boughs have turned largely brown and brittle, but if you look closely, signs of life are visible, Jones said. The distress stems from the move combined with extreme weather since the tree was replanted on the northwest side of the Capitol, she said.

Two of the four Camperdown Elm trees date back to before the original state Capitol burned down in 1935. Planted sometimes between 1870 and 1930, the trees survived the fire. The trees were replanted in 1941 after the existing Capitol was completed. The trees were moved again 1977 to make room for a new wing to the Capitol. Officials at the time were doubtful about the trees' chances of survival, so they planted two more Camperdown Elm trees as backups. All four survived.

Jones said she doesn't the age of the distressed tree, but it would have been planted in one of those two periods.

Texas-based Environmental Design Inc. dug out as much of the root systems as was possible, bundled the roots in burlap bags and inserted heavy pipes under the roots to support and lift the trees with a crane.

The timing of the move was not ideal. Typically, trees should be moved when the plants are dormant and have no leaves.

"There is a question as to how the watering occurred when they moved it," Jones said.

Arborists have dug air holes and are monitoring the moisture in the soil to increase the tree's chances of recovery.

"All kinds of folks are trying to bring the tree back to its full beauty," Jones said.

The state opted to relocate the trees, rather than remove them, to save time and preserve the historic character of the Capitol grounds, a nominee for the National Register of Historic Places. The state Historic Preservation Office and the City of Salem's Landmark Commission wanted to preserve the trees. If state officials had chosen to fell the trees, they would have had to mitigate the historical loss in some way. That would have delayed construction on the project and escalated construction costs by $2 million, according to an April 2017 briefing on the project.

The CAMS project includes planting an additional four Camperdown Elm trees, so regardless of the fate of the distressed tree, the tradition of the Camperdown Elm lives on.