A Norway spruce in a Coeur d’Alene park chosen to honor a Vietnam War prisoner 40 years ago will be cut down.
The Freedom Tree, as it’s known, will be removed soon to make way for a new parking structure in a $20 million makeover at McEuen Park downtown.
City officials are taking suggestions on how to use the wood to preserve the history of the tree, which stands alone in a paved lot at the west end of the park.
“We plan to do everything we can to ensure its legacy lives on for decades to come,” Coeur d’Alene Parks Director Doug Eastwood said.
Ideas so far include park benches, chainsaw artwork and keepsake blocks with an inscription of the planting date and species.
“That chainsaw artwork is pretty nice,” Eastwood said, adding that the city will look for suggestions that embody the theme of freedom.
The city also may hold a ceremony prior to the tree’s removal to allow people to gather and remember what it represents.
The city looked at trying to save or relocate the tree, but neither option was practical, Eastwood said. “The construction part of the project will likely do significant damage to that root system,” he said.
Eastwood said he’s surprised the tree has survived where it is. “It’s not in a very good location – completely surrounded and covered with asphalt.”
The spruce was planted in the early to mid-1960s, primarily as a way to prevent Fourth Street from extending south and encroaching onto Tubbs Hill, the city said.
The tree became a symbol of freedom during the Vietnam War. A plaque was placed at its base to honor U.S. Air Force Capt. Fred McMurray, a Coeur d’Alene man who was shot down over Vietnam on Sept. 12, 1972, and who spent 199 days in captivity.
McMurray was released on March 29, 1973, and retired from the Air Force as a lieutenant colonel in 1988. He still lives in the Coeur d’Alene area.
Lisa McLeod, McMurray’s daughter, said the family understands why the tree needs to be removed. She asked the city if the family can have a piece of the wood.
The McEuen Park plan includes a new memorial for veterans, and the city will plant a new Norway spruce near that site and keep the plaque honoring McMurray, Eastwood said.
“All of the history stays with it,” he said.
The memorial will include the American flag, the P.O.W. flag and flags from each branch of the military, plus medallions identifying the branches.
The city has decorated the Freedom Tree for Christmas, including ornaments honoring local veterans. But the tree has grown too tall to easily trim, said Don Riegel, quartermaster for Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 889 in Coeur d’Alene.
Riegel said he’s fine with the city’s plans to remove the spruce. “It’s just my opinion: Chop her down, tear it down … and plant a new one.”
The city will open construction bids on the park makeover Tuesday. Eighty percent of the project will be financed by urban renewal tax dollars.
Construction on the new park could begin about March 18. The city has said it hopes the new park will be finished in November.