April 27, 2012
‘Lorax’ takes trees to heart
Mike Dexter works to keep city flush under canopy of green
Joe McIntyre/staff photographer
Mike Dexter plants a Japanese Katsura tree Thursday in observance of Arbor Day today.
All his life, Mike Dexter has been cultivating stories about trees.
On Thursday, as he planted a Japanese Katsura tree on Church Street, Dexter talked about 12 locust trees. In 2003, the former utility company Niagara Mohawk planned on removing the trees on Church Street because they were getting in the way of its power lines.
Dexter and other city residents complained to the city Common Council. The 65-year-old lifelong Cortland resident even rushed a letter to the Niagara Mohawk’s Syracuse office, asking it to reconsider.
“I would have hand-delivered the note but I couldn’t get by the security guard,” Dexter said.
The company eventually relented, but Dexter has served as the de facto spokesman for Cortland’s trees ever since.
Dexter is a member of the city’s Landscape and Design Commission, which re-formed in 2003 after the Church Street tree incident and other complaints about “aggressive tree trimming” throughout the city.
“It’s just incredibly important,” Dexter said of maintaining the city’s trees, while working with officials from National Grid and fellow landscape commission member Diane Batzing to plant the Katsura tree.
For Dexter, planting new trees and taking care of older ones is more than simple lawn maintenance, but also an issue of community pride. Since 2003, Dexter has attended dozens of Common Council meetings to talk about the state of the city’s trees. He’s been a part of the city’s tree planting program, which gives free trees to city residents, and he also canvasses the city, making sure trees are being properly trimmed.
“Mike, you are the Lorax of Cortland County,” said Jim Maloney, an arborist for National Grid Thursday as they planted the Church Street tree in preparation for Arbor Day today. “He speaks for the trees in Cortland.” Maloney said.
The Lorax is a character from the Dr. Seuss book of the same name who “speaks for the trees” because they cannot speak for themselves.
Maloney and Dexter have worked together on tree issues since the 2003 Church Street incident. The two say they have a common interest in the health of the city’s trees.
The power company has to routinely trim or remove trees to prevent them from obstructing its power lines.
Dexter has lived in the same house on Cedar Street all his life. He worked as a meter reader at the city Water Works before retiring in 2003, when his interest in advocating for the city’s trees began.
He still works part time handling cleanup and maintenance at the Water Works for the city.
A lot has changed since his childhood, Dexter said. The trees are older and fewer in number as the city is removing more trees than it is planting. Residents aren’t as excited to have them, either.
“When I was younger, people used to plant trees all the time,” Dexter said. “Now they look for excuses not to have them.”
He said people worry about the cleanup or maintenance that comes with having trees. He said there are a lot of bonuses to having them, like more shade and increased property values.
Since 2007, Cortland has been a Tree City USA, a recognition from the national Arbor Day Foundation. For five years, the city has met the standards to receive the honor by having an Arbor Day proclamation and observance, a tree care ordinance, a comprehensive community forestry program and a tree committee — the Landscape and Design Commission.
Dexter said he will continue to look after trees in the city he has always called home.
Mayor Brian Tobin said Dexter fills an important role.
“People like Mike Dexter help make Cortland a pretty place to live,” Tobin said.
“He really takes great pride in the work,” the mayor added. “He has a genuine concern for our environment and our city, and he wants things to look as good as they can.”
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