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Clear-cutting woods for Philadelphia’s Cobbs Creek Golf Course project angers local group and birders

The Cobbs Creek Foundation said about one-quarter of trees had to come down to restore the course to its original 1916 design and help control flooding and erosion.

Hundreds of mature trees have been cut down for renovations of the city-owned Cobbs Creek Golf Course in Philadelphia. The 105-year-old Cobbs Creek Golf Course is in the process of a $65 million restoration.
Hundreds of mature trees have been cut down for renovations of the city-owned Cobbs Creek Golf Course in Philadelphia. The 105-year-old Cobbs Creek Golf Course is in the process of a $65 million restoration.Read moreMONICA HERNDON / Staff Photographer

Rochelle Maurer and Larry Szmulowicz adjusted a tape measure at Philadelphia’s Cobbs Creek Golf Course across the diameter of a large-felled tree to find its widest part.

The sycamore measured about 4½ feet across, and rings indicated it could be about 75 years old, though they were difficult to count with exactness. Two old golf balls nested in the ground nearby.

The tree is one of hundreds, if not more than a thousand trees clear-cut along Cobbs and Indian Creeks at the course. The newly cut swath runs in pockets along a length of about one-half mile and hundreds of feet deep. In total, the cutting spans parts of 88 acres.

Entire groves that once rimmed Cardington Road are now gone as part of the city’s restoration of the golf course, closed in 2020 after repeated flooding and a clubhouse fire years before.

Officials say trees had to be felled to renovate the course and for flood control and wetlands restoration.

“Philadelphia Parks and Recreation recognizes that much of the site is in poor environmental condition as a result of years of neglect and deferred maintenance,” the department said in a statement. “The rampant spread of invasive species and overgrowth along with creek deterioration and heavy flooding create an unstable environment for any natural landscape to thrive.”

Maurer and Szmulowicz are part of a local community group, Cobbs Creek Ambassadors, which, along with birders, questions why so many trees had to be removed. The trees abutted Haddington Woods, so many people used the city-owned property as part of local open space.

“I’m devastated,” said Maurer, who works in customer service and is a member of the Cobbs Creek Ambassadors, a group dedicated to cleanups and guided nature tours of the area.

Szmulowicz, a lawyer and Cobbs Creek resident, called the scene “post apocalyptic.”

The group has been active on social media about the trees, as have local birders.

The 105-year-old course is undergoing a $65 million restoration, which includes a new clubhouse and a community and education center.

» READ MORE: Shuttered Cobbs Creek Golf Course to get a $65 million makeover and community center

The money was raised by the nonprofit Cobbs Creek Foundation, and construction is planned for spring for a “championship course capable of hosting PGA Tour events” and expected to open by 2024.

As part of the renovations, the foundation also said it planned to spend $15 million to restore three miles of Cobbs and Indian Creeks, which would create up to 37 acres of wetlands to help with flood control.

So it came as a surprise to local residents when they noticed large healthy trees, which they say are normally part of flood control strategies, being taken down en masse starting in mid-February.

“You feel like you’re standing in a burial ground for thousands of trees,” said Temwa Wright, coleader of the ambassadors, “What kind of restoration requires this? It’s really just hard to understand.”

The group supports renovation of the course and has no issue with the return of golf. All expected some trees would have to be removed, but they don’t understand the need for the extent, especially along the creek beds, where trees help prevent erosion and provide wildlife habitat.

Wright noted the city has created an urban forestry plan to increase tree canopy by 30% because it has lost so many trees in recent decades.

» READ MORE: Why Philly trees cast more shade on the wealthier

“It’s just so incongruous to cut down all these trees,” Wright said. “It doesn’t make sense.”

Wright said the group has requested a meeting with Parks and Rec Commissioner Kathryn Ott Lovell and the Cobbs Creek Foundation, spearheaded by Chris Maguire, an insurance executive.

“The work now underway to restore the Cobbs Creek Golf Course represents years of advocacy from the Overbrook community to restore this historic public golf course, which was one of the first courses in the country where Black and female golfers were able to play,” Parks and Rec said in a statement in response to several emails from The Inquirer.

The statement said the department has worked with the Cobbs Creek Foundation on a development plan that returns the course to its original 1916 historical design “while ensuring all efforts are made to leave high-quality vegetation intact and avoid tree clearing unless necessary.”

The Cobbs Creek Foundation said in a statement that the trees came down as part of the effort to restore the course to its original 1916 design.

“This includes plans to remove some, but not all, of the trees on approximately 25% of the 350 acres of the site,” the statement said. “All efforts are being made to leave high-quality vegetation intact and avoid tree clearing unless necessary.”

The foundation said most trees and wood harvested would be used as part of ecological restoration “to provide vertical stability, aid in the development of floodplain wetland, and to add large wood debris and habitat diversity to the restored complex. The landscape will also be restored with new trees and woody plants. The project areas would be permanently protected and would develop into a mature forested buffer with substantially higher quality vegetation than the site currently supports.”

The foundation said that Cobbs Creek and its tributaries were badly eroded, distributing tons of sediment downstream.

“The stream is fed largely by high energy pulses of storm water, and given the extremely poor existing condition of the stream banks, the stream will continue to be a sediment source for the watershed for the foreseeable future,” its statement said.

The project will “holistically repair the eroded creek and prevent very substantial and long-term sedimentation, while preventing further pollution and restoring the ecosystem,” it said.

Meanwhile, the Cobbs Creek Ambassadors say at least some trees were cleared for a large parking lot. They hope to save what trees they can.

The trees were within the Atlantic Flyway, an important migratory path for dozens of bird species, and a haven for people and wildlife in the dense urban area that also borders Upper Darby, Maurer said.

“This was part of a local conversation, or environmental scene, for five or six years now to try to get more people of color involved in conservation and learning about the environment,” Maurer said. “And I feel like this space in particular is extremely invaluable as a living classroom for people who live in a Philadelphia area to get them involved and engaged on the environment.”

She said crews not only felled trees, but tore out other habitat, such as bulrushes that lined the banks.

“Much of this was a mature forest,” she said, noting a mix of hardwoods including sycamore, oak, maple, and cherry. “Some of the trees cut down here were in excess of 50 inches in diameter, which indicates that they were nearing 75 to 100 years of age.”