By Clark Fair
Steve Stenga had finally had enough.
The Soldotna-based owner of Stenga Real Estate Group had fielded more phone calls earlier this month from drivers concerned and complaining about kids emerging suddenly from the small copse of conifers in the parking lot of the Central Peninsula Mall along the Sterling Highway. He said he knew he had to take action to avert a disaster.
“I had three separate calls telling me how close of a call that a truck or a vehicle had of running over a kid — within inches,” Stenga said. “One of them was the driver of a pickup, and he was so upset because he almost hit this kid.”
Stenga made some calls of his own, and on the night of Monday, June 7, he oversaw the chainsaw-driven toppling of the trees that had stood for almost 30 years near the center of the parking lot. After the trees were down, their stumps and root balls were ripped out with the help of a front-end loader, and fresh gravel was dumped into the ragged circle to prepare the area for paving.
The trees were dragged around to the back of the mall and limbed. The logs were hauled away. By the morning of June 8, passersby and motorists began to notice a striking vacancy in the mall lot, made all the more apparent by the orange plastic traffic cones and surveying tape marking the pavement break.
“It just came down to a really simple concern, and that was safety,” Stenga said. “There’s kids that ride their bicycles in that parking lot, and we had tried for years to keep these kids from doing acrobatics in that tree area. They’d make jumps, they’d do wheelies and they’d come flying off that hump down into the traffic.”
Stenga felt he had no choice, he said.
“To save a kid’s life, I’ll cut a tree down,” he said.
Stenga had attempted to solve the problem in the past in other ways, such as building up the berm around the circle of trees, but those efforts had failed to avert the traffic hazard and the possibility of a serious accident.
After the recent opening of Sportsman’s Warehouse, the traffic in the lot increased markedly. Stenga said he knew that the problem had to be eliminated. He understood that the trees had a long history in front of the mall, but even as a lifetime Soldotna resident, he couldn’t allow nostalgia to get in the way of his personal responsibility.
Al Hershberger, who has lived in Soldotna since the late 1940s and actually planted
some of those trees, also understood the logic of Stenga’s actions, but understanding didn’t mean he had to like what happened.
“It was not a good feeling,” Hershberger said. “There goes a little bit of me and my family, and also a little bit of Soldotna history.”
Hershberger and his family once lived in a home that was located just off the
northern edge of that circle of trees. Hershberger sold his property — as did a handful of other nearby landowners — to the McLane Group in 1981 to allow for the building of the mall and other nearby businesses, such as Godfather’s Pizza (now occupied by Kaladi Brothers and a Subway restaurant).
Construction began in 1982, and Hershberger, without much hope that his request would be honored, asked that his favorite cluster of trees be spared from the blade of Caterpillar.
The trees — a few local spruce and a number of lodgepole pines — were, indeed, spared. A few of them died over the course of the intervening years, but a small core of them survived and grew tall and thick.
The full story of the pine trees and their existence in the heart of town goes back more than half a century.
“In the early 1950s I was a pilot for BLM’s Division of Forestry,” Hershberger said.
“It was a full-time job and I flew BLM airplanes — a Cessna 170, Cessna 180 and a Grumman G21 Goose. I flew over most of Alaska, primarily as support for forest fire suppression and pre-suppression. I flew a lot of foresters around Alaska and was always pestering them with questions about trees.
“They were doing some experimental planting of pine trees in Fairbanks. My curiosity of pines was piqued, since they are not indigenous north of the Lynn Canal (near Haines), except for a few isolated spots where they grow in the Interior.”
Hershberger’s fascination with these trees prompted him in 1964 to bring home a few lodgepole pines during a trip Outside with his family.
“I watched carefully (on the way out) to see where the northernmost pine trees grew, assuming these would be the hardiest. This happened to be Mile 777.7, Morley River. On the way back we stopped and dug them up — sorry about stealing your trees, Canada. In 1965 my wife and kids drove Outside, and on the way back stopped at the same place and got a few more.”
Altogether, the Hershbergers gathered less than a dozen of the pine saplings, ranging in height from 10 to 18 inches, wrapped them in clumps of damp moss and placed them in plastic bags for transport up the highway. Once planted in front of the Hershberger home, most took root and began to grow tall, although one or two did not survive their first winter in Alaska.
The closest of the trees stood about 10 to 12 feet from the Hershberger home, which Hershberger had begun to build in 1950, and were visible from the living room window. As the years went by, the family watched the trees grow.
By the time of the sale, at least one of the trees was at least 20 feet tall.
Hershberger, who still lives in Soldotna, said that he had long taken heart in the knowledge that some of his old trees had remained standing, serving as reminders of his earlier days in town. Now, even as he joins Stenga in hoping that the mall parking lot will be a safer place, he tries to take a longer view of the situation, using the word “progress” with more than a hint of irony in his voice.