FARGO — As the Fargo Park Board moves forward with a $1.5 million project to move the loop road in Lindenwood Park to higher ground, a group of concerned citizens is preparing to challenge the plans, saying that too many ancient trees would have to be cut down.
Braving below freezing temperatures early Wednesday, Feb. 17, Mark Taggart and a few friends from the online group Defend Lindenwood Park, which has about 140 members, pointed out trees in the area slated for removal in the south Fargo park along the Red River.
“That one there, that’s at least 20 saplings worth,” Taggart said. “And all these saplings are going to be at risk. If they had planted 100 trees about 10 years ago, then I could see the justification, but there will be no balance in what they’re planning to take.”
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The group wants to see a balance of natural and human recreational spaces in the park, with no removal of healthy trees. They also believe flooding issues can be addressed by raising the existing asphalt loop road with cement, and they don’t want a new parking lot near the main shelter.
Keeping his feet warm with three pairs of socks, Mike Graalum, a friend of Taggart’s and fellow organizer of Defend Lindenwood Park, said the park district never solicited input from the public about the project.
“And if they don’t there will be people in trees and there will be chaos in three months,” Graalum said. Many people involved in opposing the Enbridge Line 3 oil pipeline in northern Minnesota are also critical of the Fargo Park Board’s plan for Lindenwood and say they will come to defend the trees, Graalum said.
Dave Bietz, parks director for the Fargo Park District, said the plan’s ecological impact on the park would be minimal. Currently, there are 3,100 trees in Lindenwood, and the 82 trees slated for removal would represent less than 3%, he said.
Since 2016, the district has planted 141 trees in Lindenwood Park, Bietz said. After the road project, the district intends to plant replacement trees at a 2-to-1 ratio to "diversify our urban forest and build a better resistance to disease," Bietz said.
Eighty-two trees is the maximum that would be taken, Bietz said. "We’re hopeful that as we get underway here that we can reduce that number. It will not be any more than that," Bietz said.
But Graalum said planting saplings isn't as important as maintaining mature trees. A normal woodland is around 200 trees per acre, Graalum said. Lindenwood Park is about 90 acres.
"It takes a tree decades to reach the level where they have meaningful microclimate effects. Mature trees have strong climate regulating effects, and because they have larger canopies they can absorb more carbon dioxide. They also provide shade and evaporation," said Graalum, who described himself as an enthusiast who loves the woods and used to work for Fargo and Grand Forks park districts.
But the changes are necessary, Bietz said, because every year when the Red River hits 18.5 feet, the loop road, called Roger Maris Drive, floods, which does the environment no favors as the road is currently made of asphalt.
“The asphalt does not do good when it gets inundated with floodwaters, and it expedites the deterioration of it,” Bietz said.
Because of flooding, workers have to repair parts of the road every year, Bietz said. “Mother Nature is telling us this road is too close to the river,” he said.
All the trees that are cut down will be milled into lumber for other park projects and for the park's wood dispersal program that gives away wood to Fargo residents, Bietz said.
In December, the park board gave approval to seek bids for the plan. Construction is expected to begin in the spring.
The plan aims to create a new loop road on higher ground that will be shorter than the existing road and will start near the information center and campground entrance and loop around the main shelter.
The new loop road will lead vehicles back to the campground entrance area and will not continue along the river. The existing loop road will remain and will be closed to vehicular traffic in the fall after the project is completed.
As part of the plan, three shelters will be moved to higher ground, and a parking lot will be added within the loop near the main shelter and playground, which will be updated with new equipment, Bietz said.
For Taggart, the park board’s rationale isn’t enough.
He said last summer an "overwhelming number of trees" were lost in forest fires on three continents. “We want a verbal assurance that they’re not going to cut down any trees and also a public open commission on their current plans,” said Taggart, who's been involved with environmental issues since the 1990s.
“If there is a need to replace the playground, we’d like to see it done with ecologically sound, safe equipment. This playground is one of the most popular features of the park, which adds great value to the shelter. A parking lot would invade this service,” Taggart said.
Bietz acknowledged that the project did not undergo any public input sessions, but said his office did send out notifications to residents living around the park. Recent talks about the project began in November, and discussions continued through four different public meetings, with bids being awarded in two different meetings, Bietz said.
“The road project is something we’ve been talking about for a long time. We are very sensitive to what people think. Our job is to be good stewards to this land while we are here. We knew the road needed attention and this was our best shot,” Bietz said.
Graalum and Taggart have both tried to be actively involved in providing input to the Fargo Park Board, but have had difficulty attending the virtual meetings, Taggart said.
“We respect the Fargo parks’ efforts to be sensitive to the COVID situation but are frustrated with the inaccessibility of their meetings the past few months. Better and more prominent virtual links to the meetings are necessary for public engagement — as well as more timely releases of recorded meetings,” Taggart said.
Because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, Fargo Park Board meetings are held virtually over Microsoft Teams, and the public can log in to the meetings from a link provided on the board’s website. Recordings of the meetings are posted later to YouTube.
Lindenwood Park, once called Linden Woods, was purchased from William and Alice Resser by the city for $32,900 in 1917 to showcase mature trees thriving along the Red River, according to North Dakota State University Archives. A second section was purchased for $70,000 in 1919.