Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Oh, Wouldn't You Like To Beat Your Neighbour?

Only Cash Will Save Old Tree:

The Rev. Johnnie B. Wilson II has an offer for the people of Centralia, Ill.: Come up with $75,000 and he'll spare a 200-year-old bur oak tree on his church's property.

"I want them to start spending their money if they want to save this tree," Wilson said Monday. "We're giving them time to show they want it. But in 30 days, baby, 30 days is up."

Unless the residents or city government of Centralia, a city of 14,000 about 60 miles east of St. Louis, meet the deadline, Wilson will have the tree axed and will build a church parking lot on the land where it sits, he says. If Wilson gets the $75,000, he says, he will use it to buy adjacent property and put the parking lot there.

But some residents of Centralia - which happens to have been designated a Tree City USA by the National Arbor Day Foundation - say they are outraged that Wilson would threaten to cut down a tree that's older than the city itself.

Can't they simply build the lot around the tree?

Look, as my few readers know, I've cut a few trees in my life. But I'd never cut down a tree that old and that massive, not even in the deep woods.

This story pisses me off for other reasons as well. One, of course, is the pastor's attitude. Another is that people like him remember the church & state bargain only when it's to their advantage.

When the great wall was erected by Thomas Jefferson, the bargain went like this: the US will not establish a religion officially, thus no sect will be favored or others marginalised by the state's power. The US will agree not to tax the property of the church, which in that day meant the church building proper, the grounds, the parsonage. The church agreed, quid pro quo, to stay the fuck out of politics.

But they, like the businessmen they essentially are, have welched on the deal as much as possible. Thus cities die as churches buy property to sit on, as investments, etc. The Roman Catholic Church has a bazillion-dollar stock portfolio. The LDS buy farmground everywhere as a tax-free investment. And everyone knows good and well they don't stay the fuck out of politics.

Okay, so if they can welch on the deal, why can't we? "Public domain" and "public interest" can be overdone, but this tree (and a Bur Oak is an especially nicely-formed species), I think, justifies a public interest.

I love how the preacher appeals to posterity:

Centralia City Manager Grant Kleinhenz says he's offered Wilson alternatives - including the possibility of leasing a strip of city-owned land for angled parking just outside the church. Kleinhenz has also suggested that Wilson talk to the state about using a state-owned lot two doors down from the church. The lot is not used on Sundays.

But Wilson says those options won't work: He says the state-owned lot is too far away, and the city's lease offer would present too many complications. Who, he wonders, would pay the tab if the city needs to dig up the asphalt to access water pipes under the leased land? And what happens when the 99-year lease the city is offering expires?

"Our children, and their children, shouldn't have to worry about this," Wilson said.

If that tree is saved, I promise it will give more pleasure to more people over the next 99 years than your church will. Sorry.

PS - Libertarian nutjobs, whose dreamworld's vistas include El Capitan turned into a billboard, the Sequoia forests turned into matchsticks, and Yellowstone sponsored by Wal-Mart, are disqualified from this argument, of course.