Park plant-slashings spark new guidelines

November 11, 2011
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The slashing of more than 35 trees and shrubs by a poorly supervised work crew in McLaughlin Playground on Sept. 28 has sparked the Boston Parks Department to create new citywide guidelines for such work.

“We are very disturbed about what happened,” said Parks Department spokesperson Jacque Goddard. “It is a very serious issue and we’re just taking steps now so that type of mistake will not happen again.”

Alison Pultinas of McLaughlin Stewards alerted the city to the slashings and proposed that new rules be created in a letter to Parks Commissioner Antonia Pollak. She blamed a “citywide phenomenon of [lack of] transparency and guidelines” for the problem.

The Parks Department initially was not even sure who did the cutting, at first telling the Gazette that it was a crew of prison inmates, then later clarifying that it was people performing community service for minor court convictions. And Parks still cannot say exactly who was in charge and directed the crew to cut, Goddard said, calling that “unclear.”

Despite its “playground” name, McLaughlin is a large park atop Parker Hill that also includes an urban wild. The slashings were done in that area, along pathways from the Bucknam Street and Little League stairs. The cutting left skinny stumps ranging from a few inches to a couple of feet high. Many of the plants were planted and tended by the city and residents.

One of the victims was a 3-foot hickory tree surrounded by a small fence and marked with a maintenance tag. The sloppy hacking also affected mature apple trees and plants in the butterfly garden.

The Parks Department will replant at least some of those areas in the spring, Goddard said.

The cuttings “went too far” but were not accidental, Goddard said. She said the paths had become “overgrown” and were intended to be trimmed back as part of the Parks Department’s standard anti-crime efforts.

In a Nov. 4 letter to Pultinas—which Pultinas read over the phone to the Gazette—Pollak said that Parks Department officials “continue to get complaints from park users and abutters that this area is dirty and unsafe.” But Goddard said Pollak was not referring to any specific incidents.

Pultinas said that amounts to “cultural bias” against forested areas, when open parks like the Esplanade have known crime incidents.

But the real issue is how the cutting went out of control. The answer seems to involve a funding-strapped Parks Department that relies heavily on volunteers with overlapping responsibilities and little cross-communication.

McLaughlin is overseen by two local friends groups: the Stewards, who watch over the urban wild and coordinate volunteers; and Friends of McLaughlin Playground, which oversees the active-use areas and capital improvements. No one from the Friends group had immediate comment.

Some of the urban wild maintenance is also given to two nonprofit organizations: Boston Natural Areas Network and the recently dissolved EarthWorks.

Much of the actual work is done by prisoners, community service crews and corporate volunteer groups. Supervision can be too small for the size of the corporate groups, Pultinas said.

The Stewards group often does not hear about these groups coming to the park, she said. It was not notified about the Sept. 28 plant-cutting ahead of time, she said.

In an Oct. 12 letter to Pollak, Pultinas recommended creating guidelines for better communication and supervision. Pollak has ordered Urban Wilds program head Paul Sutton to do just that, Goddard said. The exact rules are yet to be determined, but they are on the way.

“We’re going forward with guidelines so this doesn’t happen again,” she said.

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