Jeff Tarling, Portland's city arborist, said the recent removal of several invasive Norway maple trees on the Western Promenade opened up a view of the Fore River he said hadn't been visible since the 1930s. (Portland Phoenix/Colin Ellis)
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If you ask Jeff Tarling, a hundred-year view of the Western Promenade in Portland was restored just in time.

Tarling, the city arborist and forest and horticulture manager, said the view, overlooking parts of the Fore River near the Western Cemetery, was obscured by overgrown trees, many of which were invasive species.

So last week the city removed a stand of Norway maples on the southern end of the Promenade near Valley Street. The clearing left native red oak and black cherry trees.

Arborist Jeff Tarling said while neighborhood residents expressed concerns about tree removal, mostly out of fear that development would follow, he said most residents he’s spoken with now understand the need to remove invasive species that crowd out native plants. (Portland Phoenix/Colin Ellis)

“We wanted to target the Norway maples because they are problematic trees,” Tarling said. “If you leave one or two, they still seed prolifically.”

He said Norway maples can put down millions of seeds a year, and when they grow, they frequently rob native species of sunlight. He said the city had been doing pruning work on other trees in the area, and knew other species weren’t in the view corridor, so they decided to tackle the nuisance trees that were blocking a view that had become obscured over the decades.

“That view of the Fore River hadn’t been around since the 1930s,” he said.

Tarling said part of the historic preservation of the area involved public dialogue with nearby residents.

Cutting down the invasive trees took just a few days of work, Tarling said, although he emphasized it was important to do. He said the city has frequent discussions with other New England cities that have lost large portions of their native forests because they didn’t do enough to slow the growth of invasive species.

He said Portland has been fortunate enough to be in a position to push back those species, working with partners like Maine Audubon to provide education to the public.

Nonetheless, Tarling conceded, tree removal can often be a confusing subject for neighbors and abutters, especially if they don’t know why the city is removing trees.

“There is an emotional aspect when you see a stump where there used to be trees,” he said.

However, Tarling said most of the feedback received was positive, once they explained what they were doing.

“Some people had questions,” he said. “Some people assumed this is another development. People see clearing and it’s always associated with a condo or a commercial building. When we related it wasn’t a condo being built, but it was being cleared for the vistas, people were appreciative of that.”

Tarling said restoring the view was part of an ongoing Western Promenade Master Plan, a guiding document approved by the city that manages the historical landscaping in the area.

He said the city waited until the right time to take down the Norway maples. He said they didn’t want to go in and cut down trees during the summer when people would be out and about, and wanted to wait until the ground was frozen. But, he said they didn’t want to wait too long, since they didn’t want crews to be out cutting in the snow.

As it turns out, they missed the first major snowstorm of the season by a few days. Eventually, he said, the city will put in more screening using native species, to acknowledge some residents still want buffering instead of the views of the river. He said there is still screening around commercial development at the bottom of the embankment.

As for the rest of the Western Promenade, Tarling said slope stabilization is not a concern for the area. There will be stump removal in the spring, but he added the work already done has cleared up access to a community garden and creates additional play space. The area is adjacent to a community dog park, as well as the cemetery, which Tarling said is the last remaining city cemetery to be considered for the National Register of Historic Places.

“There’s a lot of things we’re trying to do to improve the Western Prom, like improving the sidewalks, maybe putting the bandstand back in someday, improving the fencing at the dog park,” Tarling said. “Little pieces that in the next few years, we should start seeing additional results.”

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