This is a story—a true one—of a few people who made an unpopular decision, and a much greater number of passionate people opposed. How a little piece of blog news exploded. And how we can still find heroes. It’s also a story of what we stand to lose if we’re not careful: The National Arboretum.
If you’re outside the mid-Atlantic metropolitan area, you may have missed this unfolding drama that has been hovering over the National Arboretum for the past four months—an arboretum visited each spring by 100,000 people, 446 vivid acres in northeast D.C. It is the only federally funded arboretum in the United States and it’s been having problems in spite of itself. Read on.
Back in mid-November, 2010 a nationally recognized authority and grower of azaleas, Don Hyatt, did a guest blog at the Washington (D.C.) Gardener blogspot.
Hyatt spoke of having gotten disturbing information two weeks prior from Aaron Cook (President of the Azalea Society of America). In the summer of 2011 the National Arboretum management was planning the destruction of a major portion of its azalea collection—to be “cut back, and stumps painted with herbicide.” Cue the fireworks.
To confirm the story, which by now had hit other blogs and newswires, I asked Kathy Horan, executive director of the Friends of the National Arboretum about it. Her confirmation came with a request to spread the news that “The Arboretum can use support as it is tremendously underfunded. This crisis allows some critical issues to surface and hopefully get some scrutiny.”
This news of “de-accessioning”—and the “reasoning” behind the decision— went viral as they say. “Disbelief and utter outrage being the two most commonly shared reactions.” Here, at the National Arboretum is the most complete azalea collection in the world. A campaign ensued. Impromptu websites set up, increased Facebook activity, Washington Post columns, members of Congress contacted.
So what was the “reasoning” behind the destruction of the azalea collection? Interim National Arboretum director Dr. Ramon Jordan and Scott Aker, garden unit leader, are reported to have defended early on in the drama: “There has been a loss of funding for two gardener positions” and “the [azalea] display is too popular with the public, and the Arboretum doesn’t have the parking or the restroom facilities to handle the crowds” and ‘the origins of the huge azaleas are not documented.’
Don Hyatt went on to refute the sense and validity of these claims (and put in many hours doing so). He said “The azaleas are among the oldest and most spectacular specimens in the U.S. . .a national treasure . . .they represent the top 2-3% of the 50 to 75,000 seedlings Benjamin Morrison raised. [Morrison was the Arboretum’s first director.] Morrison’s breeding project produced the first large flowered azaleas hardy in the mid-Atlantic region. The mature azaleas occupy 3 – 6 acres of the Arboretum, many 65 years old. Also scheduled for removal or transfer were boxwood, daylily and daffodil collections. Don Hyatt also found it curious that the Arboretum eliminated its Advisory Board in 1994.
A letter, dated November 24, 2010 from the Chair of the Board of Directors, Friends of the National Arboretum was sent to Interim N.A. director Dr. Jordan and read: “We believe that the decision will cause irreparable harm that could not be undone if additional funds were later found. . . apply[ing] herbicide so that they cannot return will leave a barren eyesore in one of the most visible and frequently visited locations in the Arboretum. . . We are concerned that these decisions were made without any input from stakeholders with a long-abiding interest in and relationship with the Arboretum. These stakeholders have also provided significant financial support to USNA over many years. . .”
Meanwhile in the spirit of balanced journalism, Kathy Jentz of the Washington Gardener interviewed Dr. Jordan, well-inundated by complaints by now. He said “In the past the USNA has had to announce de-accessioning of collections due to severe budget cuts. . .The problem is . . . one-time fundraising is not sustainable and in a year or so we’d be back to making the same tough de-accession decisions. What we need is a sustained solution to keep these two garden positions funded ‘permanently.’ . . . We need the ground to be maintained at a level to our standards. We cannot just let a section go to weeds, disease and invasives.”
Still, how would a $110,000 annual trust which expires in February, 2012 be replaced? Successive arboretum directors have struggled with chronic underfunding that has led to deferred maintenance of gardens and infrastructure.
And now some good news: February 15, 2011, the Washington Post reports:
The plan to destroy the azalea shrubs has been halted.
New USNA director Dr. Colien Hefferan will seek to improve the long-term picture of the financially strapped federal institution and will immediately collect experts together to devise long-term plans.
An anonymous donor has come forward to pledge a $1 million endowment (which will generate $50,000 a year) to be used toward preserving the azaleas and world-class boxwood collection. It is the largest donation in the group’s history. FONA has started a fundraising campaign to match the donation.
Kathy Horan of the Friends of the National Arboretum is quoted in the article to say “This generous donation, offered in the Arboretum’s hour of greatest need, reflects not only the donor’s passion for this national treasure, but also confidence that the Arboretum leadership will make sound decisions in relation to the collections in the future.” The arboretum’s new director, Dr. Colien Hefferan, acknowledged “that the intensity and breadth of the concern did surprise everyone here.” The decision to suspend the removal of the displays “was linked to the outcry” rather than the donation. There was this incredible backlash,” she said. Don Hyatt: “We are very thankful for the wide support this issue has brought forth.”
Just think if every U.S. state’s Garden Club association gave a donation!
Washington Gardener http://washingtongardener.blogspot.com
Friends of the National Arboretum www.fona.org
Garden Club of Virginia blog http://gcvhorticulture.wordpress.com/2011/02/18/azaleas-granted-a-stay-of-execution/
Azalea Society of America http://azaleas.org/
The United States National Arboretum http://www.usna.usda.gov/
and last but not least
Save the Azaleas http://savetheazaleas.org
FONA has launched an urgent campaign to raise $1 million from individuals, families and organizations who enjoy and value one of nature’s most magnificent and scientifically important displays. This $1 million goal, together with an earlier gift of the same amount, is needed to permanently preserve these collections.
The National Arboretum without the azaleas, or boxwood, for that matter, is like the Tidal Basin without the cherry trees. Here’s a chance for those of us who have enjoyed one of Washington’s premier spring attractions year after year to make sure these quintessential collections are still around 100 years from now or even next spring.
Nancy R. Peck