James Mahar has had a passion for the environment for as long as he can remember. In fact, one of his earliest memories involves his 6-year-old self asking his father to not burn leaves in their yard because doing so would increase air pollution.
Today, Mahar, a retired engineer, and his wife, Lisa, live sustainably on their 21-acre Washougal property, which includes a 25,000-square-foot pollinator garden, solar panels, and rainwater collection and self-composting systems.
Having worked with various ecological organizations, including the Adopt-a-Road program and the Camas Ivy League, Mahar understood something was amiss when he noticed tubes on trees during a stroll on the Washougal River Greenway trail in early December 2020.
“They were out in plain sight. And even though the tubes were perforated, the trees were suffocating,” Mahar explained.
Mahar decided he couldn’t just walk by and do nothing so he enlisted the help of Washougal resident Barbara Gagnier and, over the course of the next two months, the pair went to work removing the restrictive tubes from thousands of trees — many of which had already died.
Mahar and Gagnier estimate they worked about 60 hours removing the aged tubes, and freed at least 3,000 trees.
“The work benefits the trees directly because now they have a chance to breathe,” Mahar said. “It also helped with habitat. The critters who depend on these trees now have a place to live without plastic surrounding them. And they were unsightly. Now the public (can say), ‘Wow, that is so much better. Maybe I can do something if these two can be out here.’ That’s the value.”
Gagnier said she was motivated to improve the health of the 1.1-mile trail, which she has visited regularly ever since moving into her current residence in 2014.
“It’s a hidden gem because a lot of people don’t know about it,” Gagnier said of the river greenway trail.
“My dad owned a landscaping company, so I’m all about saving the trees,” she said. “I’m retired, and since this was during COVID there wasn’t a lot going on. I was looking for some place to volunteer. Because I have a dog, I was familiar with the trail, so it all worked out great.”
Mahar cut most of the tubes with a battery-powered reciprocating saw and the rest with a box knife. He then tossed them to Gagnier, who dragged them, eight to 10 at a time, down to the main trail, where she stacked them for later collection by city of Camas employees.
“It was a lot of work,” Gagnier said, “but Jim has high energy and he’s in good shape for his age. Some of the tubes were just laying on the ground. I’m not sure what happened there, but obviously we picked them up too and took them to the main trail.”
Maher said that 90 percent of the trees had died and decomposed into the ground many years ago.
“Ten percent of the trees had survived, and a large portion of those were terribly deformed,” he said. “(In some instances) the tube blew over, and the tree paralleled the ground, which of course is unnatural. There were some trees that were still standing in their tubes, but as soon as I pulled the tube the tree just fell over. Why the perforations didn’t work, I don’t know. They were supposed to break away when the tree got too big and, except in very rare cases, they did not. If you compress that bark, the tree is doomed to die, and those are the ones that I was really after.”
Mahar said there are several reasons why the nearly 3-feet-tall, 3-to-6-inch-wide tubes were placed on the trees, including protecting young trees from predators and helping the tree grow straight.
“The problem is, though, that departments rarely go back with the maintenance dollars or volunteer staff or enthusiasm to take the tubes out,” Mahar said. “This park area is not unique. They should have been removed within five years. But also, they were not maintained. The (trees) that blew over were never re-straightened. They were doomed to die. They had no chance.”
Maher asked Port of Camas-Washougal Commissioner Cassi Marshall, who he knows from his volunteer efforts with the Camas Ivy League, to check with city of Camas officials about when the tubes were put on the trees. Marshall inquired, but said she didn’t receive any answers.
“A couple of the old-timers who came through said, ‘This is great. I remember when these tubes were put in place, somewhere between 20 and 25 years ago,’ but Cassi could not locate any records of when they were put in,” Mahar said. “Practices have changed since then and things have gotten a little bit better, but generally, somebody had to get in there and do it, and if not me, who?”
On the first day of 2021, a woman approached Gagnier while she was stacking tubes and asked her why she was working on a holiday. Gagner responded, “What better way to start the new year off by saving a tree?'”
“Because it was a holiday, there were actually quite a few people on the trail,” Gagnier said. “People were going by and thanking us, and it was really great. It’s a rewarding feeling because we are saving trees. What makes me happy is when people see what we were doing and say, ‘Thank you for doing that, we really appreciate it.’ That makes me feel really good.”