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Washington, D.C.'s cherry trees will be removed after this season's festival

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Sometimes, in order to truly love something, you have to let it go. And for the National Park Service, that means uprooting about 150 cherry trees from the Tidal Basin around the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C., and turning them into mulch. That's because the trees are at risk from the water they ring around.

MIKE LITTERST: The seawalls have been failing for, in some places, decades now.

SIMON: That's National Mall spokesperson, Mike Litterst.

LITTERST: Originally constructed in the late 19th century, early 20th century, we have seen considerable settlement in some places. The seawalls in some places have settled more than five feet. At the same time, we have seen the effects of climate change in the form of sea level rise as much as a foot in the tidal basin. So there is now water six feet above where the original seawall was intended to keep it out.

SIMON: And it's obvious if you visit. Every day, the tides cover the current seawall and reach the sidewalk, turning some of the trees into islands.

LITTERST: The water is not just coming over the seawall. It's going, in some places, so far, about 10 feet beyond where that seawall is.

SIMON: The cherry trees were donated by the mayor of Tokyo to Washington, D.C., in 1912 and have since become a symbol of D.C. More than a million visitors come to see them each year, especially when they're in peak bloom, which will be next week. One of the stars of the show is a jagged tree with only a couple of branches hanging off the side. It is called, with affection, Stumpy.

LITTERST: The arboretum is going to take clippings of Stumpy, propagate those clippings and provide us with genetic matches of that specific tree so that, in spirit, anyway, Stumpy can live on elsewhere on the mall.

SIMON: The park service is still figuring out the rest of their replanting strategy. Jan Herd visits the cherry blossoms often. On this trip, she noticed the rising water levels.

JAN HERD: The water level is much higher than ever remember it. I've been here since 1969, and I brought my granddaughter this morning to take pictures of cherry blossoms. And I was very surprised to see so much water, even under the trees.

SIMON: Christine Senter came from Stafford, Va., to see the cherry blossoms with her sister. She understood why the trees needed to be removed, but was still cautious.

CHRISTINE SENTER: Because it was a gift from the Japanese, those trees should not be removed. And I believe that that would be an insult to the country of Japan. But if there's newer ones or ones that are sick, then I'm OK with that.

SIMON: But Mike Litterst of the National Mall says the Japanese Embassy's been involved.

LITTERST: This is not a decision that we made last Tuesday and said, hey, I know, let's go. And we have been in touch with the embassy, talking to them about the need to do this project and, of course, stressing the fact that we are going to replace far more trees in the end than we're taking out.

SIMON: The park service announced the project before next week's peak bloom, so the Tidal Basin's many visitors can say goodbye until the new blooms premiere in 2027.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BARR BROTHERS' "STATIC ORPHANS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
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