Flathead County Commissioner apologizes for intentionally killing trees in county park

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A group of cottonwood trees on the edge of Flathead County’s Lake Park Addition park on Whitefish Lake appear to be dead. (Heidi Desch/Whitefish Pilot)

By HILARY MATHESON

Daily Inter Lake

Flathead County Commissioner Phil Mitchell has issued letters of apology following a recent charge of felony criminal mischief for allegedly killing six cottonwood trees on a county-owned public park on Whitefish Lake.

Both letters were faxed by Mitchell to the Daily Inter Lake on Thursday morning following a request for a statement by phone on Wednesday.

One of the letters was a general statement dated Aug. 3 and the other was addressed to Jed Fisher, director of Flathead County Parks and Recreation dated July 24.

In the letter to Fisher, Mitchell stated, “I recently girdled five remaining cottonwoods in the county parkland and put Roundup on one. I was wrong to harm the trees without county permission.”

Girdling is a method where a ring of bark is removed from a tree trunk. According to the U.S. Forest Service, if the ring is wide enough and deep enough, the tree cannot heal, nor can it transport nutrients to leaves or roots.

Mitchell continued, “I have offered to make restitution to the county, including doing whatever the Park Board requests. I am prepared to remove the dead trees at my expense, and replace each one with at least two trees of a species the Park Board suggests.

“I regret my actions and I apologize to everyone in Flathead County for my wrongful conduct. I will work with you and the Park Board to ensure that the parkland is improved beyond its prior condition at my expense.”

While the general statement had a similar tone, Mitchell also described cottonwood trees as a “substantial nuisance,” citing his career in landscaping.

“They frequently drop limbs, endangering people, and they are dirty, dropping cotton, pods and sticky sap, depending on the time of year,” Mitchell said of cottonwood trees. “But even with this knowledge, I was wrong to kill the trees without permission.”

Mitchell also requested no preferential treatment because of his position as commissioner.

“I realize that because of my elected position, I may have put county officials in an awkward position. I have urged them to treat me no differently than they would treat any other citizen.”

According to court documents, the dead or dying cottonwood trees were discovered in Lake Park Addition on Whitefish Lake on July 11. The park is in a location adjacent to a residence and property owned by Mitchell. Court documents stated that Mitchell may be trying to sell that property.

An arborist retained by Flathead County Sheriff’s Office evaluated the trees and assessed the cost to remove and replace them. Flathead County Sheriff Chuck Curry said the cost amounts to more than $30,000.

Mitchell’s initial appearance in Flathead District Court is set Aug. 31.

The half-acre public park was established in 1913 and features mature trees, benches and a floating dock. The park is accessible by West Lakeshore Drive and a 60-foot-wide county easement that runs to the lakeshore — but also along Mitchell’s lot line.

The county park is one of six public access sites on the shore of Whitefish Lake.

Reporter Hilary Matheson may be reached at 758-4431 or hmatheson@dailyinterlake.com.

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