Some call painted trees at Oregon Ridge Park an unwelcome surprise

The decision to allow about 50 trees at Oregon Ridge Park, in Cockeysville, to be partially painted as part of a drug and alcohol recovery celebration and fundraiser in September has drawn the ire of some members of the park’s volunteer citizens’ advisory council.

“Our woods have been desecrated,” council member Ralph Brown, of the Oregon Ridge Nature Center Council, said of the project, which resulted in the trees being painted with water-soluble primer and paint. Each painted tree is marked with a plaque featuring a quote, poem, song lyrics or words. “Many of us at the park are outraged about what has happened there.”

In September, participants in an event who were celebrating their recoveries from addiction, along with friends and family members, painted mature trees along the Baltimore County-owned park’s 3-mile Marble Quarry Loop trail with murals depicting their recovery journeys. The event benefited the Baltimore-based Nikki Perlow Foundation, which provides financial, emotional and logistical support to people who are battling addiction.

The foundation is named after foundation president Gary Perlow’s 21-year-old niece who died in 2007 after a battle with drug addiction, according to its website.

Baltimore County Parks and Recreation officials approved the event and have touted the painted trees as a public art installation known as Forest of Hope. The trees are located behind the Oregon Ridge Nature Center, near a children’s play area.

However, Brown and some members of Oregon Ridge Nature Center Council, a non-regulatory volunteer group that acts as an advisory group to county park officials, say they were not consulted prior to the September painting event and that they worry the paint is a hazard to the trees.

Brown, who saw the trees for the first time while walking the Marble Quarry Loop two weeks ago, said the trees were painted without the consultation of anyone on the council.

“It’s sort of like selling the rights to Ravens stadium,” Brown said. “The rights were sold to this very worthwhile, high-ideal organization but [Baltimore County] didn’t have the right to do that. Most people don’t go to the park to learn about drug addiction. They go because they want a quiet, serene place. To think that the park should be the place to put your message about drug addiction is just horrible.”

Baltimore County spokeswoman Ellen Kobler said the county supports the art installation and continues to work to preserve green space throughout Baltimore County.

In an emailed statement, Kobler said Baltimore County Parks and Recreation officials chose Oregon Ridge for the project because only 50 trees of those growing within the park’s 1,100 forested acres would be affected.

“Parks are for everyone to enjoy and given the severity of the opioid crisis, we support this art display that honors people who are recovering from addiction and those who have been lost,” Kobler said.

The county does not require the council’s approval to move forward on park projects, said Chris McCollum, executive director of agriculture, nature and special faculties for the county parks and recreation department, adding that he remembers dropping off a brochure about the installation for council members in April 2016.

McCollum said he met with Oregon Ridge Nature Center director Justine Schaeffer in late August, before the project started, to discuss it.

Officials at Oregon Ridge directed calls about the installation to parks and recreation officials.

“It wasn’t like it was out of the blue,” McCollum said, adding that when he visited the installation last week he encountered about 20 people enjoying the trail who made no negative remarks about the painted trees.

Oregon Ridge Nature Center Council board president Patricia Ghingher said she believes in the mission of the foundation but is disappointed with what she said is a “lack of concern” for nature.

“I feel the intent with the tree painting was well meaning, but the fact that trees in a public natural area were painted is an outrage,” Ghingher said in an Oct. 25 email. “What does this tell visitors to the park? That it is OK to desecrate the living organisms in the park? If someone else can paint trees, why can’t they?”

Ghingher said she would like to meet with Perlow to discuss the concerns and less harmful methods for the foundation to pursue.

Perlow said the group underwent a six-month application process in 2016 before county parks and recreation officials approved the project.

The foundation used water-soluble paint and primer under the direction of agriculture experts contacted through the “Ask an Expert” portion of the University of Maryland Extension website, Perlow said. In an Oct. 19, 2016 response, someone representing the extension told foundation officials that the project would not harm the tree bark so long as the group avoided oil-based paints, Perlow said.

A spokesman for the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, which oversees the University of Maryland Extension and the Baltimore County Extension office, said he could not immediately confirm who responded to the foundation. Several University of Maryland Extension master gardeners typically respond to questions through the online portal, he added.

Perlow said the feedback he has received about the painted trees has so far been “overwhelmingly positive.”

“Some people just believe nature should be left alone,” Perlow said. “I respect their opinion. I, for one, as well as many others, believe combining art with nature is a beautiful and powerful way to educate our youth and send a message.”

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