By Robert Knox, Globe correspondent
Environmentalists are asking why the City of Quincy cannot save an American elm tree they call a ‘‘community resource’’ that is more than 100 years old and has deep roots in the city’s history.
The tree is scheduled to be cut down to make room for the parking lot of the new Central Middle School to be built on Hancock Street in Wollaston. Called a ‘‘heritage tree’’ by the Wollaston Garden Club because of its size, species, age, historical significance, and ecological value, the elm is located on property the city has purchased to build a new school.
Quincy officials say the tree has been examined by an arborist working for Tishman Construction, the city’s project manager, who concluded the tree has a degenerative disease, is dying, and cannot be saved.
‘‘Our initial thought would be to save a majestic tree like that,’’ said Chris Walker, spokesman for Mayor Thomas Koch. ‘‘But if we leave it there, as the disease moves its way up through the tree it weakens the tree from the insides and the tree becomes a fall hazard.’’
Walker said the arborist determined the tree has ‘‘heart rot, a degenerative fungal disease that will eventually lead to the tree’s death.’’ He said the arborist also found visible damage, ‘‘a large wound in the middle of the trunk,’’ that might be the source of the disease.
But Walker said he did not know how long the tree might last while the disease progresses. Those seeking to save the tree point out that it appeared hale and fully leafed during the summer. Tishman spokesman John Gallagher said the arborist’s report could not be released without first getting permission from its client, the city.
Critics of the decision say the city should try to save the tree, called the Winfield elm, planted on the property of the 1880 Winfield House. The house, a Queen Anne Victorian named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1989, was demolished in 1998 by its owners, Eastern Nazarene College, for a campus expansion, according to the garden club.
‘‘In many communities the Winfield elm would be considered an important community resource and a ‘heritage’ tree,’’ the club’s president, Pat Artis, and member Elaine McGrail wrote in a prepared statement. Active in city beautification projects, the club frequently works in conjunction with city officials.
In addition to its age of at least 100 years and its rarity as a mature, surviving American elm — Dutch elm disease decimated what had been the most widely planted New England urban shade tree before the 1950s — the tree deserves the title ‘‘heritage tree’’ because of its location as a Wollaston landmark and its ecological value, the club said.
‘‘It serves significant ecological and aesthetic value to an area and a side of a street not particularly ‘green’ or visually appealing,’’ the club said. The Winfield elm is a large spreading shade tree, with gray flaky bark and light green leaves.
‘‘Here we are, a tree city,’’ Artis said last week, referring to Quincy’s designation as a Tree City USA. ‘‘Let’s survey our heritage and inventory our old trees. And let’s have some clause [in city bylaws] to protect them.’’
Tree lover Millicent Broderick of Hingham, who noticed the tree while visiting her brother in Wollaston, said she was impressed by its history and saddened by the city’s unwillingness to save it. She said her brother attended meetings to urge officials to preserve the tree, but got nowhere, and her own calls to officials proved fruitless.
‘‘I don’t think we’ve done very much to preserve that tree,’’ Broderick said. ‘‘It goes back a long way. It has not succumbed to Dutch elm disease or to winds or weather.’’
Supporters note that the tree also draws significance from a connection — whether genetic or merely symbolic — to the ‘‘Tree of Reconciliation’’ planted on the White House grounds by John Quincy Adams, one of Quincy’s two most famous sons, in 1826.
According to the late Hugh Sidey, a longtime White House correspondent, the tree was planted to celebrate the reconciliation of American founding fathers Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, who became political enemies after their earlier collaboration had produced the Declaration of Independence. In their last years, the two former presidents reconciled through a famous correspondence.
The elm tree John Quincy Adams transported from Quincy to Washington was admired by both Senator Edward Kennedy and President John Kennedy, and survived into the 1970s. Descendants grown from its seed continue to be planted in the capital, including one on the grounds of the White House in 1992 by Barbara Bush. Whether the Winfield elm has a genetic connection to the tree that Adams took to Washington is not known.
The garden club has encouraged members of the new school’s community — students, parents, teachers — to contact the School Committee, the City Council, and the mayor to support saving it. Artis said elm trees can live a couple hundred years.
‘‘Even if it had 25 to 30 years left, it would still have some value as a source of shade and of history for students in their own schoolyard,’’ Broderick said. The new Central Middle School is expected to cost $41.2 million and be completed in spring 2013.
Tree lovers in neighboring Milton recently had little luck in saving a 200-year-old oak tree from removal by the owner of the Hendries Ice Cream factory site. The tree was cut down in March by developer Steve Connelly, who said it was a safety hazard.
Arborist Matthew Largess, hired by the town, had said the tree was still mostly healthy even though it too had heart rot.
Robert Knox can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.