Moab Community Development Director David Olsen looks out onto the Lions Park site, where state contractors accidentally removed mature trees last week. [Photo by Rudy Herndon / Moab Sun News]

Years of careful planning went into a joint effort to bring Lions Park back to life, but a tiny mistake brought some of the site’s oldest surviving treasures crashing down last week.

A state contractor accidentally removed decades-old cottonwood and mulberry trees from the site on Tuesday, March 31 because the project plans it received were missing key details, city and state officials say.

“Even after all that effort, it just went amok,” Moab Community Development Director David Olsen said.

The Utah Division of Facilities Construction and Management, The Archiplex Group and Advance Solutions Group accept full responsibility for the mistake and plan to make up for it, Utah Department of Administrative Services Public Information Officer Marilee Richins said.

“Everybody is joining together,” she said. “We just want to make it right. It’s just an unfortunate situation.”

Acting Moab City Engineer Eric Johanson, who is concerned that some people will hold city officials responsible for a project they have no final control over, is reaching out to local residents to let them know what happened. When he speaks with someone, he reminds them that the work was not done at the city’s behest.

“We don’t want to be blamed unjustifiably,” Johanson said.

According to Olsen’s estimates, some of the eight trees were 80 to 100 years old, and perhaps even older.

Every detail of work at the Lions Park reconstruction project is supposed to be clearly mapped out in layers of The Archiplex Group’s plans. However, both Olsen and Johanson said those plans were missing a tree-protection layer.

“We were shocked, because for years, we’ve been meeting with the architects and engineers,” Johanson said.

“Everyone is very aggrieved,” he added. “It saddens everyone.”

Although Advanced Solutions Group was working with flawed plans, Johanson said he and other city officials believe that someone from the contractor should have double-checked everything before its crew went ahead with the demolition work.

“Ultimately, we thought that given the complexity, it should have at least elicited a phone call to the architect or the city before they started cutting everything down,” he said. “It is a park, after all.”

A representative from the Salt Lake City-based Archiplex Group declined to speak about the issue and referred all questions to Richins’ office, which oversees the Utah Division of Facilities and Construction Management.

Richins said that Archiplex failed to include the tree-protection layer in its plans “for some reason.”

“That’s hugely unfortunate, because full-grown trees – particularly full-grown shade trees – are a treasure,” she said.

Johanson and Moab City Public Works Director Jeff Foster first arrived at the scene near the intersection of U.S. Highway 191 and state Route 128 some time around noon on March 31. By then, however, it was too late for either one of them to intervene.

“The damage was done before we could stop it,” Olsen said.

Richins said the state and its contractors hope to make up for the error by planting about twice as many trees at the park, which remains an active construction site. However, it will leave the decision about where and when to plant them up to Olsen, who serves as the city’s arborist.

“We’re going to go with his recommendation,” Richins said. “Whatever he tells us to plant, we will plant.”

Olsen would like to go with a combination of Bur oaks and Austrian pines, although he thinks it’s unlikely that crews will transplant them until some time this fall, once cooler weather returns to the area.

Although stately Fremont cottonwoods are native to Utah and much of the West, Olsen said they aren’t the best choice for the site.

“To me, Fremonts are rickety,” he said. “They’ve got a lot of character and they’re neat to look at.”

But their loose limbs also pose potential hazards in recreational park settings, he said – especially if they’re situated above benches, picnic tables, playground areas and other “targets.”

“(If) you’re a guy who has to sleep at night knowing the tree is going to fall down some day, it’s easier to see a tree go than it is for the general public,” Olsen said.

Once he had the chance to take a closer look at the now-lifeless stumps, Olsen found signs of decay, including hollowed-out trunks.

“They have a substantial amount of rot,” he said. “Termites and carpenter ants have been doing their job to decompose them over time.”

Based on everything he knows today, Olsen suspects that it would have been just a matter of time before he made a recommendation to remove the trees. However, that’s not to say that he would have given the go-ahead to get rid of them at once within three months of the park’s grand reopening.

“I just think that in the long run, it’s probably better, but in the short run, it’s not,” he said. “You’re just leaving a place without any shade, and that’s just not cool.”

“We wanted to make sure that it looked like a park, and not a barren desert,” he added.

The revamped park is set to open some time around the Fourth of July, and unless someone foots the bill for temporary shade structures, people who attend the ceremony should plan on bringing plenty of sunscreen along with them.

“When we have our grand opening, we’re probably going to roast in the sun like bacon,” Olsen said.

Richins said her agency appreciates how much local residents care about their environment, and she said the project’s partners are committed to mitigating the aesthetic damage along Moab’s northern gateway.

“Moab is a beautiful little community, and we just want to make sure that we don’t take anything away from that,” she said.

City says architect failed to include tree-protection layer in documents

We wanted to make sure that it looked like a park, and not a barren desert.