As North Common rehab nears, discussions underway about removing Merry Maple tree

  • Alan Snow, the Amherst tree warden and division director of tree and grounds with the Department of Public Works, talks about one of the three maple trees on the common which is being considered for removal as part of a project to rehabilitate the common. The tree is nearing the end of its life, and the town must decide whether to tear it down or let it live out the rest of its life. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • This well-known Norway maple tree on the North Common, known as the Merry Maple, is one of three such trees that are being considered for removal as part of a project to rehabilitate the common. The tree is nearing the end of its life. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Alan Snow, the Amherst tree warden, talks about one of the three maple trees on the North Common that is being considered for removal as part of a project to rehabilitate the common. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • This Norway maple tree on the North Common is one of three maples being considered for removal by the town. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 10, 2022

AMHERST — For nearly a half-century, the Norway maple tree at the center of the North Common has served as the focal point of the Merry Maple celebration that kicks off the holiday season. But its time may soon come to an end as the town prepares to undertake an extensive renovation of the common.

With lights restrung on its branches by the Amherst Business Improvement District in 2015, the large tree continues to lend its name to the event, begun in 1976 after the Vietnam War ended, that brings out the University of Massachusetts Minuteman Marching Band, the Amherst Regional High School Chorale and Santa Claus.

For Tree Warden Alan Snow, the Merry Maple is a remarkably long-lived tree.

“It’s probably the largest Norway maple I’ve ever seen in my travels across the state,” Snow said during a Tuesday evening site visit on the North Common that brought out about a dozen residents.

But the Merry Maple is in its decline phase and likely a few years from being declared a safety hazard, Snow said. The tree’s central leader, or main trunk that grows up in the center, has lost about 40% of its live crown, a leader to the left is also in decline, and other elements of the tree have been cabled back to the central leader.

“We don’t often install cables in a public shade tree,” Snow said, adding that he is concerned about parts of the tree potentially falling on picnic tables and seating areas below.

“Not enough energy is being created up there to keep this tree alive,” Snow said as he pointed skyward.

There is also decline in the main trunk, with little new healthy tissue replacing the decay. “I can’t stop decay, it’s working its way through the tree,” Snow said.

Some want tree to live

The decision to mark one of the town’s best-known trees as one of three Norway maples tagged for potential removal from the North Common — in advance of a $1.8 million upgrade to the common anticipated to begin next year — is already drawing objections from residents who would prefer to see live out its natural life.

“You’re taking down an icon. It’s the great-grandfather,” Adrian Stair of Lessey Street said at a site visit on Aug. 2 hosted by the Public Shade Tree Committee. The committee was scheduled hold a public hearing this past Tuesday to discuss what to do with the Merry Maple and the two other trees.

Stair also notes that the tree presides over the North Common and, if it is gone, will reduce needed shade.

“Since it’s still alive and not a risk, it’s like euthanasia on the heart of this town,” said Craig Awmiller of Boltwood Walk.

Ultimately, the decision over what to do with the tree — cut it down or let it live out the rest of its life — rests with Town Manager Paul Bockelman. Once objections, written or oral, are made and Snow and the Public Shade Tree Committee weigh in, Bockelman will make the final call.

Norway maples are considered invasive trees. While the Merry Maple is the best known, the other two are closer to South Pleasant Street, one across from the former Hastings store, and the other at the intersection of South Pleasant and Spring streets, near the parking payment kiosk. One of those maples has damage to its roots and is in generally poor health.

“It’s not going to get better,” Snow said. The other has been pruned extensively and will not make it much longer, he said.

Snow said he and Paul Dethier, a town engineer, examined the plans for overhaul of the North Common before deciding on which trees might need to go.

The project includes removing the Main Street parking lot and replacing it with a plaza, with additional landscaping and renovation of the existing greenspace that will eliminate tripping hazards and end the periodic washouts that have plagued the common. 

“It’s been quite a process,” Snow said, adding that all other trees will be preserved, and their root zones will be better protected.

Other Norway maples, including one that has been dubbed the mini Merry Maple and which continues to have lights strung on it from when it served as the main tree from 1995 to 2014, will continue to stand, alongside other trees, including lindens and a river birch.

Shade Tree Committee Chairman Henry Lappen said he is conflicted about the decision, noting that the Merry Maple is a 50-inch caliper tree, meaning that 25 2-inch caliper trees would need to be planted to offset the loss of its benefits. There are 13 new trees to be planted in the North Common revitalization plan, and Lappen said he worries that if the Merry Maple stays, that project will be compromised.

Like Snow, District 3 Councilor Dorothy Pam said she is nervous about the dangers to the public from a possibly failing tree.

Clare Bertrand of Bay Road said that from the sentiment she is hearing, if the Merry Maple needs to come down, she wants town officials to provide assurances that the revitalization project will move ahead quickly.