Portland Heritage Trees 101
The Pacific Northwest is home to an abundance of wonderfully lush, impressive trees with branches reaching toward the sky, flowers that bloom in vibrant colors, and trunks so wide you can’t get your arms around the base. These trees are one of the many things that attract so many people to the area, specifically Portland, Oregon.
To protect and embrace the varied beautiful trees, the City Council established the Portland’s Heritage Tree program in 1993. The trees are celebrated and protected under this ordinance and were chosen based on their “special importance to the city”, as well as age, size, type, historical association, or horticultural value.
While the program is relatively new, which many Portlanders would consider weird given the green nature of the city, it was not the first time trees were protected. In fact, the Heritage Tree Program is just the latest iteration, incorporating the trees previously listed under the Historic Landmark Trees and Historic Trees lists, which were established in 1973.
In order for a tree to join the Heritage Tree list, a qualified tree service Portland arborist must ensure that the tree is healthy and has enough room for its limbs and roots to continue growing. The entire Urban Forestry Commission reviews all proposed designation requests before making final recommendations to the City County each year. The Council will then officially add the tree to the list and a city forester will affix it with the plaque.
There are currently 292 trees in Portland that are official Heritage Trees, with 323 receiving the designation since 1993. The current list includes 125 species and 57 genera, with Southeast Portland claiming the most, followed by northeast and southwest, and fewer in north, northwest, and downtown. The most common trees on the list are fir, maple, birch, cedar, hickory, chestnut, dogwood, beech, walnut, pine, oak, elm, redwood, sequoia, and sycamore.
A Heritage Tree can belong to either the city and located on public property, in parks, or in street rights-of-way, or be privately owned. At the end of 2016, 53% of Heritage Trees were designated as privately owned. In order for a tree to carry this distinction, it has to be approved with a signature by the current property owner and is then grandfathered in regardless of all future owners.
Once a tree is marked as a Heritage Tree, it is against the law for anyone to remove, destroy, injure or cut the tree in any way. In fact, any needed tree service in Portland is more complicated as it must be approved with an official permit granted by the Urban Forestry Commission. Except for emergencies, the Urban Forestry Commission must hold a public hearing regarding the removal of dead, dying, or diseased Heritage Tree before approval is granted. The commission also has to power to remove the designation if it is no longer warranted. The tree must be removed from the list before removal occurs.
Similarly, construction work on or around any Heritage Tree requires the property owner or land developer applicant to schedule an assessment meeting with the City Forester. When developing land in the Portland area, specific measures must be taken as protecting trees during construction helps save both trees and property from damage. However, special care is essential when a Heritage Tree is in the mix. Any permit approvals also must go through the Planning & Zoning committee. It is recommended that this meeting takes place early in the development application process. For questions, or to schedule a meeting with the City Forester, call 503-823-TREE (8733).
If you would like to nominate a tree to the Heritage Tree Program, submit an application by May 1 in any given year. Each approved tree is designated with a small plaque and listed in the Heritage Tree database. Anyone can nominate a tree, but if the tree is located on public property, consent and signature of the property owner are required.
As an example of the trees currently listed as Heritage Trees, the North Portland area is home to many Oregon white oaks, also known as Garry oaks, some of the oldest trees to join the program as they can easily live 200 to 500 years when undisturbed. Trees #198, #199, and #200 are a trio of Oregon white oaks found on public and private property at the former Open Meadow school and stand over the bluff to the Willamette River.
Another one on the list is #7. This is a European beech tree, identified by its eye-catching bark, which is smooth a gray like an elephant. This tree is close to 100 years old and was brought to Portland as a seedling from Missouri by a former resident of a nearby house. It received its designation in 1994.
A favorite tree on the Heritage Tree list to visit is #134 in Lower Macleay Park. A native Douglas-fir, it’s estimated between 300 and 450 years old and towering more than 242 feet as it was last officially measured in 1997. To see this tremendous spectacle in person, park at Lower Macleay Park off of NW Upshur Street and follow the stream-side trail up Balch Creek for less than one mile. If you reach Stone House, you’ve gone 100 yards too far. The plaque will confirm your destination.
If you are looking to check out the Heritage Trees throughout Portland, there are ideal viewing times for each species, most blooming best in spring or fall. However, these species are great to admire year-round:
- Abies spp.
- Araucaria araucana
- Arbutus menziesii
- Calocedrus decurrens
- Castanea sativa
- Catalpa bignonioides
- Cedrus spp.
- Chamaecyparis lawsoniana
- Cryptomeria japonica
- Cunninghamia lanceolata
- Magnolia grandiflora
- Picea sitchensis
- Pinus spp.
- Pseudotsuga menziesii
- Quercus chrysolepis
- Quercus garryana
- Sciadopitys verticillata
- Sequoia sempervirens
- Sequoiadendron giganteum
- Taxus baccata
- Thuja plicata
- Umbellularia californica