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Posted at 10:58 PM ET, 12/ 4/2010

A treasure of D.C.'s spring at risk at the arboretum

By Jeanne Connelly and Felix Laughlin, Washington

Nothing says springtime in Washington like the cherry blossoms. Except perhaps azaleas in bloom at the U.S. National Arboretum.

Which explains why last week’s surprise announcement by the arboretum that it plans to destroy the most frequently visited section of the historic Azalea Collection and dismantle the entire National Boxwood Collection hit a horticultural nerve throughout the region. Countless fans, including members of the nonprofit Friends of the National Arboretum (FONA) and National Bonsai Foundation (NBF), have expressed opposition to the decision to eliminate one of nature’s most magnificent and scientifically important spring displays.

The Azalea Collection has long been a landmark in Washington. The lesser known but nationally recognized Boxwood Collection is the most complete collection in the world.

In fact, it was the magic of the spring azalea displays that first prompted the arboretum, a U.S. Agriculture Department research and education facility, to open its doors to the public in 1954. Twenty-eight years later, gardeners, horticulturists, landscape designers and other supporters established FONA to raise money and awareness about the federal arboretum — much like FONZ supports the National Zoo. Over the years, FONA and NBF and their members, along with corporate partners, foundations and other stakeholders, have contributed millions of dollars in support of this 446-acre green space to which visitors flock to see not only the azaleas but also the world-famous National Bonsai and Penjing Museum, the National Capitol Columns and many lesser-known gems such as the Gotelli Conifer Collection.

Given the draw of the azaleas and other treasures, the recent outpouring of support is hardly a surprise. What is a surprise — and a disappointment — is the arboretum’s shortsighted decision to eliminate these collections because of the loss of proceeds from a private trust.

The money will not run out until more than a year from now, sufficient time to identify alternative funding to preserve these beloved collections. FONA has committed to help the arboretum explore ways to replace the lost funds. In turn, we call upon the arboretum to suspend its decision and consult with all stakeholders on preservation instead of destruction.

At the same time, this decision brings into sharp focus budget constraints the arboretum has faced for many years, and the pressing need to put this vital public asset on sound financial footing. With an eye toward the future, we call on Congress to hold a public hearing on the future of the arboretum and an alternate model for managing and operating the site that can provide financial sustainability for the long term. Successful examples of public institutions that operate as public-private partnerships exist throughout our region; Wolf Trap, Ford’s Theater and Glen Echo Park come to mind.

We recognize that in these difficult economic times, public institutions need to tighten their belts and carefully prioritize how they spend their funds. However, an irrevocable act of destruction would not be in the best interest of the arboretum or the public. For almost 60 years, the U.S. National Arboretum has been a vital public asset, providing generations with the opportunity for learning as well as enjoyment. Our goal is to ensure that the azaleas and the arboretum’s many other treasures will continue to be an integral part of the Washington experience for residents — and visitors from across the region and around the world — for many years to come.

The writers are chairman of the board of directors of Friends of the National Arboretum and president of the National Bonsai Foundation, respectively.

By Jeanne Connelly and Felix Laughlin, Washington  | December 4, 2010; 10:58 PM ET
Categories:  D.C., environment, history  
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