I-Team: Old Neighborhood Trees in Danger of Dying - 8 News NOW

I-Team: Old Neighborhood Trees in Danger of Dying

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For decades, this is where the Ernie Cragin housing projects stood, 250 units that provided shelter to low income families. For decades, this is where the Ernie Cragin housing projects stood, 250 units that provided shelter to low income families.

LAS VEGAS -- In the Las Vegas valley, there are dozens of tall pines that are a half-century old, but they are in danger of dying because they are not getting enough water.

Residents think it is a terrible waste to allow the trees to die, especially since the trees are already owned by the public. From the air, the three mini-forests of tall pine trees stand out as islands of green that tower over pretty much everything around them. But from the ground level, the trees are less impressive because it is obvious they are struggling to survive.

"Their immune systems are getting lower and lower and lower. Pretty soon, you know, nature takes over," said Arthur Earl, a long time Las Vegas resident.

He gets disgusted every time he walks through the neighborhood and sees another dead or dying tree.

"In here alone, over 100 trees, at least," Earl said. "Because there was at least twice as many here. They were just driving around, knocking them over with tractors."

The trees live on 25 acres, three tracts of land east of downtown, in the area around Bonanza Road and N. 28th Street. The land is managed by the Southern Nevada Regional Housing Authority.

For decades, this is where the Ernie Cragin housing projects stood, 250 units that provided shelter to low income families. Later, the area became notorious for crime and drugs and is the birthplace of a still feared street gang. Back in 2009, then-housing director Carl Rowe decided to demolish the projects, but he specifically ordered that the trees be saved.

Rowe hoped to partner with a private developer to build a mixed development. He knew that whatever the new project might be, it would be better if shaded by mature trees. But since then, the trees have been dying one at a time.

"They are just standing dead, basically, without the water they need," Earl said.

Another long time local who has taken an interest in the trees is Las Vegas city councilman Bob Coffin, who started writing to the housing authority as soon as he was elected.

Coffin said what has happened to the trees is tragic.

"This grove of trees are hard to find. You can't replicate them, 50 years of growth will maybe give you that," Coffin said.

The housing authority told Coffin that a contractor had taken out much of the irrigation equipment during the demolition, and that the same contractor was being paid to water the trees by hand. But it turns out, the contractor is the housing authority itself -- its own maintenance department, which has a facility directly across the street from where the trees are shriveling into toothpicks.

A memo to Coffin admits the agency started removing "damaged trees" for fear they might fall over in the wind. Coffin was originally told that only three trees had been removed, but from the cut stumps and holes in the ground, it's clear more were taken, and it looks like many that are standing are all but dead because of lack of water.

A recent evaluation by a UNLV arborist says every one of the remaining trees is stressed for lack of water, and the only trees that are getting enough water are the ones fed accidentally by busted irrigation pipes.

Coffin thinks the trees and land would make for an excellent park or community garden but, for now, the housing authority has fenced off the properties and has allowed trees to wither.

"When you have a single purpose agency running a piece of land, and their only purpose is housing, they don't think about parks. They don't think about open space," Coffin said.

 "We soak that ground on a weekly basis," said Dwayne Alexander, deputy administrator of the regional housing authority. "We'd like to get it fixed, but sometimes we fix it and the next day it is vandalized."

Alexander said part of the problem is because vandals mess with the irrigation system, but he admits he has not been out to see the properties and has taken the word of employees that the trees are being watered. The regional housing authority is regarded as one of the best in the country, but has a lot to learn about trees.

"We have property experts but not tree experts. Hopefully someone will see this segment and can give us tips on how to take care of trees better because we would like to revive those trees," Alexander said.

The housing authority admits it has no money and no plans for any development on that property. The land is deeded to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, a federal agency.

Councilman Coffin said he is going to start the ball rolling to see if the land could be given back to the city, its previous owner, so it could be turned into a park or garden. Both he and the housing officials say they welcome ideas and input from the public about what to do with the land, and the trees.

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