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Uprooted Cherry Trees In Nashville Spark Protest Against NFL Draft

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The NFL player draft takes place later this month in Nashville, home to the Tennessee Titans. But the city, in preparing to receive huge crowds from out of town, made a misstep. Officials decided to remove rows of cherry trees to make room for an outdoor stage. Tony Gonzalez of member station WPLN reports self-described tree-huggers in the city are taking action.

JIM GREGORY: Fellow tree-huggers and fellow Loraxes, we are gathered as a group of citizens committed to change.

TONY GONZALEZ, BYLINE: Jim Gregory, on the steps of Nashville City Hall, riles up a couple dozen defenders of the cherry trees.

GREGORY: And we are here today because all of us have witnessed the largest trees in our city be cut down in our neighborhood without a single thing we can do.

GONZALEZ: Gregory is well-known here as the Lorax of Nashville, an homage to the Dr. Seuss character who, all by himself, fought and failed to protect a forest. In Nashville, though, Jim Gregory is far from being alone. Some 66,000 people signed an online petition to try to stop the removal. At first, the city planned to chop down 21 trees. And then word got out. The head of the city tourism agency apologized. The mayor backtracked, eventually deciding to move and replant 10 trees.

HEATHER LOSE: You know, it just kind of felt like they were pulling a fast one on us.

GONZALEZ: Heather Lose is editor of Tennessee Conservationist magazine. Her father designed Nashville's Riverfront Park, a brick walkway with tiered seating for concerts. The park overlooks the Cumberland River with the Titans football stadium on the opposite bank. Lose says the outrage is about more than a couple rows of trees. It's because many more trees have already been chopped down to make way for housing.

LOSE: I think we're all a little chapped right now. You know, we're all having this experience as Nashvillians where you're driving home, and you round a curve, and they have clear-cut a whole beautiful wooded lot.

GONZALEZ: Nashville has lost thousands of trees in its development boom. Activists documented more than a hundred construction sites that ignored rules meant to protect the canopy. So people are on guard. Add to that Nashville's rise as a red-hot tourist destination.

LOSE: We made this city cool. We made this city a place that people want to come.

(SOUNDBITE OF PEOPLE YELLING)

GONZALEZ: Down by the riverfront, rowdy tourists ride on rolling taverns. Drinks flow. Music blares. They putter past the cherry trees. More than a thousand have been planted citywide since the 1980s. That's when the consulate general of Japan set up office here thanks to Tennessee's business ties with the likes of Nissan and Bridgestone. There's also an annual Cherry Blossom Festival, this year just two weeks before the draft.

Terri Didato, visiting from Panama City, Fla., makes a point to pose for a photo in front of the trees.

TERRI DIDATO: The trees are beautiful. I love all the blooms. We don't get to see this kind of stuff in Panama City. We got pine trees (laughter).

GONZALEZ: She glances across the water to the stadium.

DIDATO: I mean, I love the NFL. They don't need to be messing with this over here, I mean, in my opinion, or cutting down these beautiful trees.

GONZALEZ: Those trees have been uprooted now. Arborists note bloom time is a terrible time for a transplant. These trees may not survive. The city tourism agency and the NFL have now promised to plant more than 200 additional trees but only after the league's draft is done. For NPR News, I'm Tony Gonzalez in Nashville. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.