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It was time for Willie to go

Willie will be missed.

The big cottonwood known as Willie is shown here in 2015 towering over downtown Santa Fe’s Sena Plaza and outdoor restaurant tables. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

The big cottonwood – beloved enough to have a name – that had shaded the historic Sena Plaza for decades was chopped down last week, amid some controversy.

One arborist who maintained the tree was healthy and tried to stop the felling was arrested. Others also chimed in that the tree was healthy enough to save.

But the property owners said limbs had continued to fall from the tree, endangering diners at the outdoor tables of La Casa Sena restaurant and others passing through what has been, in part because of Willie’s huge canopy and stately presence, probably Santa Fe’s most spectacular public courtyard.

But in 2015, a limb from the tree fell and shattered a Casa Sena diner’s table. A woman was trapped under the branch, but wasn’t seriously hurt. Sena Plaza’s owner tried to cut down the tree then. But the city Land Use Department – under an ordinance that allows city government to block the destruction of certain “significant” trees – refused to let Willie be demolished.

That changed this year.

The operator of a local tree service submitted a report saying the tree, over 65 feet tall and 53 inches in diameter near the bottom, had been excessively pruned and lacked sufficient canopy to continue to safely support its remaining branches and trunk. There were pockets of decay in the trunk.

Steve Thomas, the tree doctor who was arrested, says there were ways to save the tree.

But in this case, safety trumps all. With limbs falling, it was time to move on. Willie served Sena Plaza and Santa Fe long and well, and now it’s time for new trees – some already growing and others the city is requiring to be planted – to be nurtured until they provide something like a replacement for the grand old cottonwood.

There appear to be lessons that should be learned from Willie’s story. If excessive pruning was a problem, owners who want to save other majestic trees around our high-desert town should take note.

The controversy over Willie may be seen by some as just a goofy, Santa Fe-only issue, akin to whether banners promoting the Guadalupe Street business district are “too red” or what shades of brown are historic enough.

But loving trees, particularly one as beautiful and well-placed as Willie, is a good thing. As is realizing when it’s time to let go.

Editor’s note: The Journal North previously has referred to the Plaza Sena cottonwood as “Willy,” but a former Plaza Sena gardener who named the tree provided the correct spelling last week.