University

Kristin McGee’s fight for the trees

Lumberjacks swing chainsaws at her

At city hall, civil servants despair when her name is even mentioned. Tree cutters curse and sometimes swing their chainsaws at her. But tree guardian Kristin McGee won’t give up. ‘It’s not even about the trees, it’s about life.’
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Door Christien Boomsma

28 April om 13:55 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 22 November 2020
om 16:15 uur.
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By Christien Boomsma

April 28 at 13:55 PM.
Last modified on November 22, 2020
at 16:15 PM.
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Christien Boomsma

Achtergrondcoördinator en wetenschapsredacteur Volledig bio » Background coordinator and science editor Full bio »

It’s too late for the ninety-two trees at the Zernikelaan. Of the big chestnuts that used to line the bus lane on the university complex, only stumps remain. Even those will be removed soon as part of the renovation activities that are in full swing. By summer, the somewhat sad and dangerous road will be well on its way to be transformed into a lush boulevard, with seating areas beside the water and – hopefully – new trees.

But the promise of new trees is no consolation for associate professor of popular music Kristin McGee. She fought the felling of the old ones with all that she had, writing op-eds for newspapers, meeting with politicians, and writing objections. She’s cultivated quite the reputation at city hall. 

As one of Groningen’s Boomwachters, or Tree Guardians, a group that fights to protect trees, she’s not buying what she feels are excuses made by civil servants with a double agenda. ‘Do you know how many trees have been cut down in the last ten years? Six thousand a year’, she says. ‘In 2010 the city had 180,000 trees. Now it’s down to 113,000. They cut down one third in just ten years. And it’s all to increase the percentage of biomass to produce so-called “renewable” energy.’

Overboard

Research from Wageningen University & Research even showed that the province of Groningen had the fastest decrease in tree coverage in the Netherlands. McGee thinks she knows why.

They are cutting trees that could have been saved

On its website, the city of Groningen says it wants to transition to a bio-based, circular economy and one of the ways to do that is to use the wood that comes from pruning trees, or the felling of local ones. But according to McGee, the city goes completely overboard. ‘They are systematically harvesting branches to achieve their goals’, she says, ‘and cutting down big trees that could have been saved.’

She admits there are horse chestnut trees in the city that suffer from bleeding canker, a disease caused by a bacterium that makes chestnuts bleed from fissures, which ultimately kills them. She’s also aware of ash dieback, a fungal disease that kills ash trees. Bleeding canker can be treated, but the remedy is not always effective. But the city chooses the easy – and profitable – way out, she says, by just cutting them down. Or they just claim a tree is ill so that they have a reason to cut it. ‘I often talk to the workers doing the felling. They told me flat-out that often these trees aren’t sick at all.’

Downright criminal

McGee feels this is downright criminal. Killing or crippling an organism that is essential for our very survival – since it produces oxygen and absorbs carbon dioxide – makes no sense at all. ‘With all this talk of sustainability, we’re completely losing track of the big picture here. We can’t live without oxygen. We are completely dependent on trees.’ 

When someone asks her why she is so passionate about them, she will tell them it’s not really about the trees at all. ‘I’m passionate about life.’

Felled trees near the Zernike pond. Photo by Martin Specken

Not even the university, it seems to her, wants to take responsibility for what McGee calls its urban forest: all the trees in gardens, parks, by the side of the road and on university grounds. ‘They cut them down to make way for new buildings or renovations, as they did on Zernike. But they should respect the fact that these trees are essential. They should build around it. The replacement trees will be tiny saplings and it’ll take them thirty years to produce as much oxygen and sequester as much carbon dioxide as their predecessors did. But we don’t have thirty years!’

It has been McGee’s passion ever since she came to Groningen and bought a house in Haren. She fell in love with the huge, rustic grey poplar trees that lined her street, the way the light came through the leaves, the animals, the life they housed. ‘The birds were absolutely incredible.’

Polarising

Then the neighbours started complaining about leaves falling and the eighty-year-old trees’ roots in their driveway and asked for them to be cut. 

Half of them were with me, the other half against

She and twelve neighbours protested, and the trees were re-evaluated. ‘They were still healthy.’ She encouraged other neighbours to protest too. ‘Half of them were with me, the other half against. It was very polarising.’ She fought a hard battle and even took her case to the highest level court, which cost her around five hundred euros. ‘It was just me by that time’, she says. 

When the tree cutters came, she even put herself between the electrical saws and the trees in an effort to protect them. She was escorted off by the police.

But her appetite had been whet. She started reading up on trees and the way their organism works and concluded that the Dutch are really quite ignorant about it. Take the pruning that is done so vigorously everywhere around her. ‘What they do is raise the crowns dramatically by cutting off the lower and inner branches.’ 

Starving

It may seem harmless and is often done for safety reasons. But it’s far from harmless and far from safe, she says. It makes the tree top-heavy, which impacts its balance. It can create a turbine effect during high winds, increasing the risk of a tree falling down. The lack of leaves takes away much of the tree’s ability to photosynthesise the sunlight. And it needs to do that to maintain the enormous root system, which you can’t see but which is just as deep and wide as the visible part of the tree. ‘Raising the crown starves the tree’, she says. ‘Basic tree health is poorly understood.’

Basic tree health is poorly understood

She found allies on Twitter and Facebook, where she was posting about her cause. She joined De Bomenridders, or Tree Knights, a national organisation with a branch in Groningen. However, a couple of months ago she quit them and started the Tree Guardians with a couple of like-minded female associates. ‘There had been tension for a long time’, is all she wants to say about the break. 

The foundation tries to create awareness about the situation of the trees and the drawbacks of biomass. But many people resent her for it. Officials aren’t too happy about her activities, because she objects to the tree-cutting, using money the foundation gets from donations, causing a lot of delays and publicity. Tree cutters don’t like her either. ‘Once, someone actually swung a chainsaw near my legs, while all I did was go up to him and ask him what he was doing.’

Zernikelaan

But she keeps going, even though she loses more often than she wins. She went to a municipal hearing about the felling of trees for the southern ring road, where her objections fell on deaf ears. She objected to trees being cut around the Aa-Kerk and the Zernikelaan. She couldn’t save the chestnut trees at the Harmonie building, or the one in the Academy building yard. Couldn’t do anything about the two hundred trees that were cut at the Kerklaan in Haren, or the illegal removal of ten trees close to the DUO building.

But she did have some success at Helperzoom, she says. After their protest, the city only cut around thirty trees, instead of 140. ‘And I’ll keep doing it. You know, I can’t do very much about the Amazon being deforested. But I live here, so I try to do what I can here. I’m in it for the long run.’

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