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The sad state of city trees.

Our 20-city survey reveals that the budget ax is felling tree programs nationwide, and our streets are sure to get meaner as a result.

Despite an all-time increase last year in citizen and business action in support of urban trees, most city programs to plant and maintain the urban forest are in deep decline. An American Forestry Association survey of 20 U.S. cities, completed late last year and showcased before the 1,000 participants in the Fifth National Urban Forestry Conference in Los Angeles, found that though the average number of street trees planted was up almost 4 percent in 1991, it will decline by 14 percent in 1992. And the problem will be compounded as the mortality of existing trees increases.

Though trees are a fundamental building block of a healthy urban environment, nearly half of the cities surveyed do not have routine street-tree maintenance programs that are critical to the health of the urban forest. The survey also revealed that more than half of the suitable treeplanting spaces along city streets are empty, and that the average life of a downtown street tree is just 13 years.

Data from the 20-city survey gives a detailed profile of the health of urban forests across the country. This sampling method does not provide all the answers, but it shows some clear trends. And it proves without a doubt that urban forests need our help.

It's important to understand the conditions revealed by the survey. Tree-maintenance programs have been cut in 70 percent of the cities surveyed. Routine maintenance programs do not even exist in 45 percent of the cities, and crisis management is the normal operating procedure. That means the tree-care crews respond only to emergency calls and citizen complaints. Managers do not have the funds they need to care for the basic health needs of their trees. They can't remove dead or damaged branches before they cause damage--they can clean up only after problems occur. What they are managing is the slow demise of their urban forest.

There were some positive signs, including a modest increase in new trees planted along city streets in 1991, but a review of the budget plans for next year shows that cities will do less on many fronts, and tree-care programs will receive more than their share of cuts. As one city forester put it, "Once the trees are planted, they are basically on their own."

Ironically, this decline in urban forest programs comes at a time when public concern for trees is at an all-time high. More than ever before, people are volunteering time or working for local tree groups at a minimum wage in an effort to help build better urban forests. Interest in AFA's Global ReLeaf campaign is soaring, and even electric utility customers, when asked about their concerns, put trees and the environment at the top of the list.

People see trees as an indicator of the quality of their communities. Yet the publicly supported tree programs took a beating from the budget ax last year, and this trend is certain to continue at least through 1992. In rationalizing their decisions, public officials often have suggested that people have a choice between funding such activities as police and firefighting or funding tree programs. That kind of non-choice does not address the issue--it is a political tactic designed to derail a difficult question. Dozens of other budget line items can be considered in finding dollars for trees. Because many city administrators aren't aware of the value, importance, or potential of trees in their communities, we should not let them off the hook when they try to give us limited options.

Cutting trees from a community's budget is misguided, especially in light of the many valuable benefits trees provide. Making budget decisions without data on the environmental values of urban forests is tantamount to killing the trees. Perhaps you've seen the T-shirts and coffee mugs that say "40 isn't old for a tree;" in truth, the average street tree lives just 32 years. Studies show that city trees substantially reduce energy costs and help lower pollution. Investing in them is good business; neglecting them is costly. If your community has cut its tree-care budget, you can be assured that the trees on your streets will live shorter lives.

Data supporting the ecological and social values produced by trees has been mounting. Nationwide, the annual energy savings alone are about $2 billion, and that figure is climbing as people learn how to plant the right tree in the right place and in the right way. Some estimates suggest we could double those energy savings if we could shuffle the locations of the nation's existing urban trees.

Add to those values trees, ability to soak up pollution, control stormwater, and contribute to physical and mental health, and you have a strong case to have more trees in our communities. Public opinion and good old common sense agree overwhelmingly that we can grow healthy urban forests if we try, and that communities will be much better off if we do. Yet many city administrators have cut the heart out of their tree-management programs at budget time, and helped fuel the decline of their urban forests.

The 1991 survey marked the third time in the last five years that the American Forestry Association has surveyed the nation's urban forests, and we don,t lose track of the cities between surveys. By working with the National Urban Forest Council, Global ReLeaf, and the readers of Urban Forests magazine, we are constantly monitoring the conditions of city forests.

This latest survey selected 20 cities for review, and provided what you might call a snapshot of the conditions during a three-year period. This sampling method is not a sophisticated research project, but it does provide enough data to show important trends and simplify the technical issues so that more of us can understand them and be better able to take part in the battle to overcome the problems involved. The survey reveals answers to straightforward questions like: How may potential tree places exist along your streets, and how many trees are growing there? How many trees are planted each year, and how many are removed? How long does a tree live, and what kind of care does it receive?

Obviously, if more trees die than are replaced, your urban forest is in trouble. If that trend continues for a decade or so, the trouble mushrooms. The most accurate measure of the health of a forest would track tree mortality over an entire generation. Our estimates of the average age of urban trees and overall planting needs of urban forests combined information from this recent survey with one we did over a 10-year period from 1975 to 1985. By combining information gathered in both surveys, we were able to extend the measuring period closer to a full generation.

AFA measures urban tree conditions by collecting data on some basic health indicators, including the number of trees planted versus the number of trees removed, the average lifespan of trees, the number of potential street-tree planting spaces filled, and the budgetary conditions of each city's tree-care department. Program budgets, staffing, and management information can provide a great deal of data about a tree-care program. For example, we have found a direct correlation between the lifespan of urban trees and the health of the management programs. In cities with a trained professional urban forestry staff that has been on the job for a couple of decades or so, and that have an established management and care program, street trees live twice as long as those in cities lacking these necessities.

In the future we hope to find a way to gather information on all of a city's trees, including those in parks, yards, and other open spaces. But for now, trees along the transportation corridors provide the best information. The ground they grow on is called the public right of way, and it is used by many public agencies. The health of the trees there is directly related to the changing conditions. For example, if the transportation department replaces a curb or sidewalk, it is very likely to cut tree roots and change the soil conditions, often for the worse. So if a community wants its trees to survive, it needs urban forest managers who can work on an equal footing with the managers of the rest of the city's infrastructure.

In the 20 cities surveyed last year, 56 percent of the potential planting spaces were found to be vacant. In 1991 those cities planted only about 27 percent of the number of trees required to merely maintain the existing tree population.

Most cities are removing more trees than they are planting, and the removal of dead trees is backlogged in 80 percent of the communities. Leaving dead and dying trees on the streets increases the hazards posed to city residents. All of the cities in the survey had damage claims pending as a result of trees or their parts falling on property. Damage claims can cost any city dearly. Compounding the bad situation is the fact that 75 percent of the cities did not have the ability to routinely survey the condition of their trees, so they lack the information needed to prevent future problems.

Trees growing in optimal conditions are the oldest living things on earth. But for street trees in the cities surveyed, the average ripe old age in downtown areas is 13 years; in residential areas it's 37 years. Our earlier 20-city survey, completed in 1987, showed similar data, and determined the average of a city tree (in all areas) to be 32 years.

Not all of the survey's findings are grim news. There are a few glimmers of hope. For one, organized citizen tree planting is on the increase. Every city surveyed had at least one local citizen organization solidly involved in planting and caring for trees. In a couple of cities, including Boston, the tree management programs showed improvement since the last survey, which means they are moving in the right direction, even though much more momentum is needed.

On the national front, campaigns like AFA's Global ReLeaf and President Bush's America The Beautiful effort have generated widespread public support for trees. The U.S. Congress has placed a special focus on trees in new legislation, and business and industry have shown they are willing to support citizen groups in tree planting and care. Unfortunately, local governments are not making good use of these innovative efforts, and the results are shown dramatically in the 20-city survey.

Who are the real losers? Here's the way Neil Sampson, executive vice president of the American Forestry Association, put it: "These budget cuts that are now killing tree programs are killing trees as well; but the real losers are city residents who will breathe more polluted air, find their overly hot cities become even hotter, and who will pay more to cool their homes and businesses."


Bob Skiera retired recently as the City Forester for Milwaukee, and gary Moll is AFA's vice president for urban forestry.
COPYRIGHT 1992 American Forests
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Moll, Gary
Publication:American Forests
Date:Mar 1, 1992
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