Residents fear trees will be torn out to 'restore' Salt Lake City park
Miller Park • Residents say "hundreds of trees" would topple amid post-spill restoration project.
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The oil that spilled into Red Butte Creek from a ruptured Chevron pipeline in June 2010 exposed the residents of the Miller Park neighborhood to toxic odors for weeks. And now they fear that money — about $1 million — from the oil giant for mitigation and restoration of the public park along a quarter-mile stretch of the waterway could also harm the canopy that abuts their backyards.

Miller Park is a hidden gem on Salt Lake City's east side where Red Butte Creek supports an urban forest and bird refuge between 1500 East and 1700 East south of 900 South. Although most land on the banks of Red Butte Creek is private, as it meanders west from Red Butte Garden and Arboretum to Liberty Park, the stream and its banks in Miller Park belong to Salt Lake City.

The municipality's plan for mitigation and restoration work in the park has some residents in the Yale¬≠crest neighborhood fearful that hundreds of non-native trees would be cut down and the creekside pathway — a track on both banks connected by bridges to form a loop — would be interrupted. Not least, they worry the creek would be allowed to run dry in summertime.

City officials would like to assuage those fears.

"We are the stewards of this land in perpetuity," said Emy Maloutas, director of parks and public lands. "I would like to encourage trust. We, in parks and public lands, live for these things."

Among the concerns for residents is a memorandum from Biohabitats, the Baltimore-based firm hired by Salt Lake City for the restoration project. It reads in part: "The vegetation in Miller Park is dominated by non-native species. For example, about 75 percent of the tree species in the park are non-native."

Resident Patricia Kerig's concerns echo that of others in the area: "Although the money from this project comes from the Chevron settlement and was intended to restore health to the creek, the city has commandeered it for other purposes such as the destruction of hundreds of trees — literally, hundreds in their plan — to pursue some sort of artificially pure 'native species' agenda."

City Councilman Charlie Luke, who represents the area, said residents want to give input to the city on the proposed project.

"When people hear we are going to remove 75 percent of the canopy, they get concerned," he said. "I would like the administration to give people a chance to be heard on Miller Park."

But neither Maloutas, nor the city's urban forester, Bill Rutherford, favors removing that many trees.

"I won't be advocating for the wholesale removal of anything," Rutherford said, noting that most trees in Salt Lake City are non-native.

Rutherford did say, however, that it is important to "introduce species [in Miller Park] that will work well in the long run."

Maloutas, who had been overseeing the project but left the city last week, said a more reasoned approach would be to remove about 10 percent of the canopy that consists of invasive species, such as Siberian elm and Tree of Heaven.

The proposed work also includes shoring up creek banks, which under one scenario would remove portions of the walkway. But Maloutas said if a majority of the residents don't want the path removed, the city would seek alternatives.

And, she added, officials do want to hear from residents. "It's about context," Maloutas said. "We don't want to make decisions in a vacuum."

But when it comes to water in the creek, it's out of Salt Lake City's hands, said Jeff Niermeyer, director of public works.

Mount Olivet Cemetery holds the senior water right on the creek and during dry years can take almost all of the water during summer months.

"But that's only in dry cycles," Niermeyer said. "During a normal hydrologic cycle, the stream will run year-round."

csmart@sltrib.com