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Storm destroys historic tree at U.S. Capitol

By Paul Kane
As if environmentalists hadn't already suffered enough on Capitol Hill this summer, now comes this symbolic setback: Sunday's violent thunderstorms in Washington ripped across the Capitol grounds and destroyed an 84-year-old white pine tree dedicated to the founder of Arbor Day.

The roughly 60-feet-tall tree was planted in 1936 to honor J. Sterling Morton, the 19th-century environmental trailblazer who founded the tree-planting holiday in 1872 in his native Nebraska and later served as Grover Cleveland's Agriculture secretary.

The white pine was one of more than 80 memorial trees on the East Front lawn of the Capitol, each dedicated to an important person in the nation's history, from the Rev. Martin Luther King and historically important congressional figures.

In Morton's spirit, the Capitol's memorial trees have taken on a certain outsized significance among latter-day arborists, who have gone to great lengths to preserve the mix of magnolias, elms, maples and oaks that tell the nation's history in their own way.

The Morton tree had lived through the Great Depression, World War II, the Cold War and Vietnam War-era protests on the Capitol grounds; it had a bird's eye view of 10 presidential inaugurals, until Ronald Reagan moved the ceremony to the West Front of the Capitol grounds in 1981. It survived brutal winters, including the snow-filled days of last February, and the hot, humid summers of Washington lore. And it survived the chopping block -- literally -- that befell dozens of other trees on the East Front that were sacrificed in 2002 and 2003 for the construction of the $621 million Capitol Visitor's Center, built below ground.

But by late Sunday afternoon, the Morton tree had blown over at its base, nearly uprooted entirely as it tumbled eastward away from the Capitol.

Environmentalists will likely see an insidious cause of death: global warming. Like much of the nation, Washington has undergone a brutally hot, humid summer, even by this swamp city's standards. Temperatures over the weekend topped 100 degrees, which led to Sunday's violent thunderstorms.

But their preferred fix for this issue -- comprehensive climate change legislation that would put a cap on carbon emissions -- died during Senate negotiations on Thursday, 72 hours before Morton's tree would meet a similar fate. Democrats could not find the 60 votes needed to beat an expected Republican filibuster of the legislation, as conservatives contended it would lead to higher energy and production costs for businesses. Instead, Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) this week is pushing a scaled-back version of the legislation without any carbon limits.

Across the entire Capitol grounds there are nearly 1,000 trees. About 350 are located on the East Front in the vicinity of Morton's tree. The pine fell Sunday into a 10-year-old maple tree dedicated to mark the 200th anniversary of the first gathering of Congress in Washington. Some of the smaller tree's branches were destroyed by the impact.

By Paul Kane  |  July 26, 2010; 6:30 AM ET
Categories:  44 The Obama Presidency , Capitol Briefing , Climate Change , Issues  
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Comments

Does the tree still get to vote? I don't remember if DC follows Obama's Chicago rules or not.

Posted by: jiji1 | July 27, 2010 4:35 PM | Report abuse

My family and I came from Scotland last year for a months holiday in the U.S.,and we much admired Washington clean Classical layout.We had been visitors in other years but we had not spent so long in the capitol .We can say we have seen the Morton Tree and feel sad that it is gone.

Posted by: patrickjury | July 27, 2010 8:26 AM | Report abuse

My family and I came from Scotland last year for a months holiday in the U.S.,and we much admired Washington clean Classical layout.We had been visitors in other years but we had not spent so long in the capitol .We can say we have seen the Morton Tree and feel sad that it is gone.

Posted by: patrickjury | July 27, 2010 8:26 AM | Report abuse

Sad, but not nearly as sad as the malicious plan to destroy a much older and probably more historic tree in or near downtown Sacramento. This ancient Butternut tree is over 20 feet around at its base and it's branches spread over 100 feet according to an NPR news story I heard recently. It is to be cut down to make room for some addle brained project near the tower bridge in downtown Sacramento, CA. The compromise was to plant 75 of a smaller species in the development as time goes by. These 75 probably represent a net loss of canopy to start and over time as it will be much easier to chop the less significant species out as developmental needs dictate. Personally, I think the tree is a more valuable asset than the entire development, developers, city planners and anyone else involved with cutting this tree down combined,and probably has a greater intellect than all of them as well. This is especially so as it's fruit is edible and delicious.

Posted by: McChalium | July 26, 2010 2:33 PM | Report abuse

Turn the "historic tree" into toothpicks for use in the White House.

Posted by: guthriej | July 26, 2010 12:47 PM | Report abuse

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