But Lazaro got busy and put off the call. And then the unthinkable happened.
The century-old tree, which had grown 100 feet tall and weighed an estimated 40 tons, suddenly teetered and fell two weeks ago, crushing Albert Carl Roeth III’s Mercedes CL600 andclaiming his life. The tragedy was all the more improbable because it occurred in clear, calm weather, just weeks after the violent derecho.
On a recent afternoon, Lazaro, a dentist and the head of the local business association, pulled out the tree photo. He said he was ashamed of his silence but would not be quiet again. Lazaro is on a mission to change Great Falls’ policy and its attitudes toward trees.
He wants authorities to take down two mighty white oaks less than 300 feet from the scene of Roeth’s death and next to a professional park he owns. The oaks have stood for much of Great Falls’ history and are some of the largest and oldest trees in the center of town.
Lazaro also wants authorities to deal more aggressively with aging trees that pose a potential danger.
Lazaro’s fight has placed him at the center of a rekindled — and often raw — debate that runs as deep as the roots of the oaks and elms in Great Falls and other old-line communities. Tree lovers have ardently fought to protect big trees that create the much-loved leafy atmosphere here and provide environmental benefits.
But some, such as Lazaro, think the push has left common sense behind.
“We as a community, in our zealous love for trees, have blinded ourselves to a tree that could take a life,” Lazaro said. “We need to wake up.”
Some, although not Lazaro, have gone as far as to say Great Falls’ tree lovers have Roeth’s blood on their hands. They say tree supporters have been so vocal they have stifled debate.
As one angry resident wrote in a group e-mail to local officials: “I BLAME THE TREE ACTIVISTS OF GREAT FALLS FOR THIS UNFORTUNATE ACCIDENT.”
Great Falls tree lovers roundly reject that idea, saying they would never defend a tree that poses a danger, including the one that fell on Roeth. But in a county that is losing canopy, they say, Great Falls and other communities can ill afford to chop down trees that clean the air, prevent erosion and help keep cooling costs down by providing shade.
Some worry that Great Falls’ grandest trees — such as the trees near Lazaro’s property — could be casualties of a rush to judgment in the heightened emotions surrounding Roeth’s death.
They also say the tragedy is a wake-up call to better manage Great Falls’ stock of trees.
“In my mind, there are two things we’ve learned from this tragedy,” said Bill Canis, co-chair of the Great Falls Citizens Association (GFCA) environment committee. “We need to focus on the care of trees . . . and redouble our efforts to evaluate them. We should also have an active tree replacement program.”