View is clear for Aspen’s aspen, cottonwood tree killer
October 7, 2018
It may have taken some time, but it appears the person who poisoned scores of trees three years ago at the Hunter Creek Apartments — possibly for a better view of Aspen Mountain — finally got their way.
That's because Sept. 28 contractors hired by the city cut down the last poisoned tree on the property — a 60-foot-tall, double-stem cottonwood on the south side of Building 6 — after determining it was going to die because it was so saturated with a powerful herbicide not generally available to the public, said Aspen city forester Ian Gray.
"Yeah, that's the unfortunate thing about it," Gray said late last week of the possible view-plane motivation. "There's not a lot we can do about it. It's frustrating."
Ben Carlsen, the former city forester, first reported to Aspen police in October 2015 that 36 cottonwood and aspen trees around the Hunter Creek property and across Miner's Trail Road tested positive for an herbicide called Hexazinone, according to an Aspen police report. Plant tissue from the stricken trees and surrounding soil tested positive for the chemical, the report states.
It was not the first time trees at Hunter Creek had been poisoned, either, Carlsen told police at the time.
"(The Hunter Creek Homeowners Association) had a few trees that had died from a similar incident three years ago," Carlsen said at the time, according to the police report.
Recommended Stories For You
Those first few trees also were poisoned with Hexazinone, Carlsen said last week. The second poisoning in 2015, however, involved far more trees and was more significant, he said.
"It was clear it was a poisoning," said Carlsen, now the city's open space and natural resources manager. "Not only because of the product used, but it totally marked the grasses (around the trees), as well.
"It was clearly poured on the base of the trees."
That, however, was not the last time the Hunter Creek tree killer struck.
Hexazinone was applied at the beginning of this year or in the spring to two previously unpoisoned aspen trees on the west side of Building 7, Gray said last week. The double-stem cottonwood removed Sept. 28 was re-poisoned as well, he said.
"I'm of the opinion it was reapplied this year," Gray said, noting that scorch marks on grass at the base of the trees and testing indicated the presence of the chemical. "It certainly looked like it had been attempted again."
The two poisoned aspen trees this year were removed in June, he said.
In July 2016, the city cut down 30 of the 36 cottonwood and aspen trees reported poisoned in October 2015, Carlsen told the Aspen Daily News at the time. The mitigation costs for those trees exceeded $275,000 when applying a city forestry formula, according to the 2015 police report and Gray. The double-stem cottonwood removed Sept. 28, with two trunks that were each 22 inches in diameter, was valued at about $42,000, Gray said.
Finding the person or persons responsible has been a tall order.
"It's tough because unless you catch someone red-handed, it's really hard to prove," Gray said.
In 2015, the president of the Hunter Creek Homeowners Association told police he didn't have any suspects because the trees "were in so many different areas, thus not blocking the view of Aspen Mountain from one specific location," according to then Aspen police detective Rick Magnuson's report.
Magnuson decided to post signs on the trees asking the public and area residents to call him with information about the poisonings, the report states. Those signs remained up for several months, Magnuson said Friday, but he received no tips.
The HOA president did not return a phone message Friday seeking further comment.
A look at the view planes disturbed by many of the poisoned trees, and assuming that Aspen Mountain is the yearned-for view, points to someone in Buildings 3 or 4 on the complex's north side as the perpetrator, Gray said last week. He admitted, however, that the theory was pure speculation and he had no proof directly implicating anyone in particular.
Another intriguing aspect of the case is the chemical used in the poisonings.
Hexazinone is not a commonly available herbicide, Carlsen told police in 2015. Back then, an officer called around the Aspen area to four hardware and lumber supply businesses, including the Miner's Building, and discovered that none carried Hexazinone products, according to police reports.
An employee at a Carbondale-based farm and ranch supply store told an Aspen police officer in 2015 he would need a permit to be able to order Hexazinone products, the report states.
Magnuson said Friday he might reopen the investigation based on Gray's information that the chemical was recently reapplied.
"It's pretty upsetting to me," Magnuson said of the tree losses. "I'm a tree-hugger."