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An iconic Fairmount Park tree featured in countless Philly skyline photos is dying — and being cut down

Planted almost a century ago to honor World War I veterans, the tree — a victim of age and climate change — now poses a public danger.

The sugar maple tree atop the Belmont Plateau with the city skyline in the distance. The tree is dying and needs to be cut down.
The sugar maple tree atop the Belmont Plateau with the city skyline in the distance. The tree is dying and needs to be cut down.Read moreTYGER WILLIAMS / Staff Photographer

One of Philadelphia’s most iconic trees, a sugar maple rooted atop Belmont Plateau in West Fairmount Park that has been a fixture in skyline photos for decades, is slowly dying.

Even from a distance, the tree looks ill. It failed to fully leaf-out this year. A massive bottom limb dangles broken like an unset bone. The trunk has hollowed, leaving an opening for crawling insects and clambering animals. Someone sprayed graffiti around its peeling trunk — a final indignity.

Parks and Recreation says the tree will be cut down soon, probably before Christmas. Officials say the decision to take out the tree was difficult, but it needs to be removed for public safety.

The sugar maple evokes strong memories for many Philadelphians and is already drawing visitors making a final paean. Pictures of the tree are often tagged on Instagram as the location of picnics, weddings, first dates, and other milestone events.

Sculptor Roger Wing of Powelton Village and his dog, Atlas, took a five-mile round-trip walk to say goodbye to the tree Wednesday after learning of its fate on social media.

“I’ve lived in Philadelphia for 20 years and come here all the time,” Wing said. “All the neighbors bring their kids here sledding. It’s the quintessential sugar maple. I’ll be very sorry to see it go.”

Lori Hayes, urban forestry director for Parks and Rec, said the tree is challenged not only by age, which she estimated at 90 years, but also climate change. She says sugar maples need to go dormant in winter, and snowpack helps protect their roots.

“It’s not as cold as it used to be,” Hayes said, running her hands along the trunk of the tree. “He’s suffering.”

Indeed, Pennsylvania’s forest action plan notes, “Climate change will increase the loss of species that already appear stressed, such as black cherry and sugar maple, and likely limit habitat for other northern hardwood species in Pennsylvania.” The plan says sugar maples are also stressed by disease and pests.

Hayes says the tree may have been planted as part of a tribute to World War I veterans. She said she won’t know the precise age until its rings can be counted.

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

Greg Hubbard, an arborist at Parks and Rec, said he expects the tree will be taken down within the next week or two, depending on the weather. The ground needs to dry over several consecutive days for crews to operate safely.

Hayes said the department has been discussing the tree’s condition for about three months. She finally made the decision that it needed to be cut down. Workers cordoned it off with snow fencing this week.

“I’m getting sad today,” she said. “It’s part of the city. But it’s a popular sledding hill.”

Hayes said officials are planning to plant three black gum trees around the site to commemorate the sugar maple on Arbor Day, April 29. Black gums are more resistant to climate change, she said.

She said the black gums have remarkable foliage and birds love their fruit.

Maita Soukup, a spokesperson for Parks and Rec, said the goal is to reuse the tree’s trunk and bigger limbs, milling them into lumber if possible.

Amber Grant, a graduate student at Ryerson University in Toronto who has been researching trees in Philadelphia as part of her Ph.D. dissertation, made her first visit to the park Wednesday.

“I’ve never been here before,” she said, walking toward the sugar maple. “I thought I should come see it before it’s gone. It’s sad. I imagine it’s provided a lot of joy.”

Photos and memories of the sugar maple shared on social media with the hashtag #belmontmaple will be considered for inclusion in the tribute to the tree. Another way to express affection for the tree: a donation to Fairmount Park Conservancy’s programs and projects.