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Needed: Rx for historic trees.

Strolling the cobblestone streets of historic Savannah, Georgia, an observer is immediately struck by the size of the trees that shade the way Giant live oaks draped with Spanish moss create deep shadows fringed by flowering dogwoods, azaleas, and crapemyrtles. The effect is a fragrant, cool respite from the steaming southern summer.

Landscaping like this in front of elegant 18th-century rowhouses and downtown estates creates yesterday visions of bustling streets filled with horse-drawn carriages and street vendors. This is the image striven for by many of the 6,000 historic districts nestled in municipalities throughout North America.

To the casual observer, nothing seems amiss with this image-a romantic snapshot of the way our ancestors lived, worked, and played on tree-lined streets. To the dedicated tree enthusiast, however, historic districts pose a mystery. In fact, those seemingly ancient live oaks in Savannah are no more than 80 to 100 years old and are declining in health. What trees did they replace? What caused the earlier ones to die? And what species will succeed these ailing monuments to our past?

These are some of the questions now being asked by the property owners who fought for the historic designations that protect their investments. Though these preservationists are rightfully proud of their accomplishments in restoring the grandeur of our architectural heritage, many are disturbed by the changes occurring in the landscapes of historic districts. Old landmark trees are dying or being removed at a steady and disheartening pace.

Individual trees have long been given recognition as monuments marking historic events, people, or places-sometimes even after they are long gone. The Liberty Tree of Boston, felled by British soldiers in 1776, still lives on as a symbol of colonial resistance to British dominion. Nearly every state and community in America has a tree that in some way symbolizes its early development.

Local preservationists have come to realize that the beauty of our old established neighborhoods-indeed our cultural heritage-is not invested solely in buildings and rustic stone walls but includes the surrounding landscape and especially the old trees.

Beyond the environmental benefits of maintaining trees in communities (i.e., energy conservation, wildlife habitat, and soil stabilization), a liberal sprinkling of greenery provides a strong spatially unifying element in historic districts. Also, to many laymen unfamiliar with architectural history, ancient trees-more than old houses-are the elements that create a sense of the passage of time. Indeed," says Robert Stipe, trustee emeritus of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, "trees are often the oldest and most historic element in many of these communities."

Today's grassroot efforts to protect and preserve old trees on private property are akin to the early days of the historic preservation movement. Prior to 1966, communities such as Charleston, New Orleans, and Williamsburg struggled to find the means to preserve their old town heritage. They succeeded through zoning legislation and architectural review boards in controlling the uses private citizens make of their properties because the roadside views of classical facades were determined in the courts to be a public asset worthy of protection. Today tree commissions are relying on tree-protection ordinances and have seldom used zoning laws.

In 1966, the National Historic Preservation Act gave a major boost to the burgeoning historic preservation movement. Signed into law by President johnson, the new law created a comprehensive National Register of Historic Places, authorized a grants program for planning as well as property acquisition, and established an environmental review process Section 106) that requires local governments to consider the effect on historic resources of any proposed project using federal funds.

By 1986, almost 2,000 historic districts (special land-use zones that overlay standard zoning maps) had been designated by local governments.

Responsible for the explosion of new districts was a growing appreciation of a sense of continuity with the past, and, of course, the fact that property investments are preserved by historic designation, which prohibits destruction of the status quo.

The preservation movement has long emphasized the contribution of trees to the livability of historic districts, but in efforts to protect these areas, trees are often grouped into the Amorphous category of landscaping, for which no approval for alterations is required during new construction, remodeling, or rehabilitation.

Urban street trees live in a hostile world. Their roots are embedded in small patches of hard-packed soil or compacted gravel, where they lack oxygen and receive little rainwater or groundwater unless they tap a leaking water main.

Trees in historic districts are survivors of the great curbing and paving movement of the 1950s, when their stabilizing roots were severed in favor of wider rights-of-way. A conservative estimate would indicate that more than 30 percent of the fine absorptive roots were compacted and lost to the automobile. The continued existence of the largest trees is mainly the result of favorable setbacks (wide front lawns).

These survivors have adapted to the modernization of our urban infrastructure but they are not especially healthy. The majority of our oldest community trees remain highly susceptible to insects and disease. Their widespread destruction during windstorms highlights the structural damage caused by poor construction and pruning practices that result in severed roots and rotting branches and trunks.

The expansion of adjacent business districts-accompanied by growing need for parking, housing, and traffic outlets-increases the forces of change in our historic districts and helps to paint a picture of decline. Heavy construction equipment and new construction techniques are contributing factors.

If trees are to remain a positive unifying element in America's historic districts, they must be preserved with much the same tools used to protect historic structures. just as architectural resources are inventoried, the first step in a historic tree preservation program is to catalog present resources.

Many communities that have active tree-management programs have already completed inventories of all trees in their jurisdiction. In these lists, each tree regardless of size is described as to its location, species, diameter, and height and evaluated as to its present age, condition, current dollar value, and future maintenance needs.

To protect trees with particular historic value, the next step is to do a listing of those meeting a set of predetermined criteria, as established by the local historic district commission (or a newly established tree commission). The purpose would be to make a count of the older, most unique, or historically significant trees in the district.

Those eligible would be listed in a special Landmark Tree Register-similar to AFA's National Register of Big Trees. Properties with healthy trees determined to have sprouted or been planted before 1900, for example, could become candidates for preservation incentives.

Though many communities have active tree-management programs, few have systematically required tree protection on private property. The city of Takoma Park, Maryland, as one exception, has established that all trees in its jurisdiction greater than 24 inches in diameter are public assets worthy of protection. Permits or certificates of approval are required for any activities that might lead to their demise. Similarly, the state of Maryland has included language in its zoning legislation that requires permits for any construction activities that may affect trees in historic districts.

The criteria for acceptance of a tree in a register could be similar to those in historic-landmark ordinances:

* The tree's value as part of the development or heritage of the community;

* Its location at the site of a significant historical event;

* Its identification with a person or persons who significantly contributed to the development of the community;

* Its embodiment of distinguishing characteristics of its species;

* Its relationship to distinctive areas or structures that are eligible for preservation;

* Its unique physical characteristics representing an established and familiar visual feature of the community.

(Adapted from the Chicago Landmarks Ordinance.)

In 1940 the National Register of Big Trees was established by the American Forestry Association (AFA). This register maintains all the pertinent details of the largest specimens of some 850 species of native and naturalized trees in the United States. Despite the honor of official recognition, inclusion does not automatically mean protection by a federal program, such as exists to preserve historic homes. The Historic Preservation Act of 1966 should be amended to include trees certified in the National Register of Big Trees, as a trigger for the Section 106 process that protects endangered historic properties.

For the past 60 years, preservationists have been developing strategies for protecting our nation's historical and cultural treasures. We could tap no better community resources than these dedicated professionals versed in the science of preserving neighborhoods. The tree enthusiast need only look to the preservation movement to find the language and unique strategies-successes and failures-that have brought life to stagnating communities.

Though public trees are protected by local ordinances in most communities, local governments are often restricted in their authority to preserve trees on private property by a lack of specific enabling legislation. Apart from tree-protection ordinances, a few of the methods that can be gleaned from the preservationist's stockpile include establishing funds for preservation, acquiring conservation easements, integrating trees into the community's comprehensive plan, and actively promoting preservation through public education.

Revolving funds can be established, with interest from the funds used to plant, preserve, and rehabilitate trees in historic districts. Grants or loans could be offered to owners desiring to invest in a preapproved tree-rehabilitation program.

Alternatively, property tax credits, deductions, or deferrals could be offered to owners for the same purposes, after state legislative approval.

Money can also be spent to purchase the rights to tree preservation (i.e., conservation easements), allowing the town to plant and preserve trees on private property. Preferable, however, would be acquisition by gift in return for tree maintenance in perpetuity. Acquisition could also be achieved through the transfer of development rights-by dedicating a conservation easement to preserve trees on a property, a developer building in a historic district would be eligible for density credits on other properties.

Further, an adoption catalog (much like a listing of properties available for preservation) could be created whereby trees that owners wish to remove could be made available to interested parties for the cost of transplanting.

Planning is a key element to the success of a tree-preservation program. Landmark street trees must be protected from road expansion, utility work, and other forms of development, and plans must be made for planting and maintaining new trees that will not conflict with the current infrastructure (sewers, roads, and utility lines) or be threatened by insects and disease-the right tree must be planted in the right place.

On public or private property, any construction activity with a potential negative impact should be subject to environmental review by the historic-district commission; this is one means for delaying such impacts until the community can mobilize to protect or purchase the threatened trees. Development plans should be reviewed by an urban forester, whose role would be to suggest alternatives and mitigate the impacts of construction.

Rather than attempting to adopt a comprehensive tree-protection ordinance, a community may find it more practical to amend current zoning ordinances. A special tax-assessment area, called a Tree Preservation District, could be established-or the ordinance may simply require committee review and a certificate permitting the removal or planting of a tree within the historic district.

As most tree activists know, trees will not preserve themselves. An organized effort is necessary to mobilize communities and stimulate citizen awareness of the contribution of trees to the community. The historic preservation movement has long understood the role of education in its efforts to preserve cultural resources. Tree activists have already used many of the same promotional tools preservationists use, such as walking tours. Most tours focus on famous and historic trees, but they should also point out the diversity of species, their uniqueness, the effect of trees on the quality of life in the district, and the losses that have occurred over the years.

The American Forestry Association has led the way in cataloging and preserving historic trees since 1976, when AFA published Famous and Historic Trees by Charles E. Randall and Henry Clepper. This book is still considered the primary reference work for scholars and historic-tree enthusiasts.

Randall and Clepper's work sparked the concept of planting direct descendants of trees planted by America's founding fathers. With the help of Dr. Frank Santamour of the U.S. National Arboretum, AFA has succeeded in producing viable seed from such trees as the George Washington tulip poplar, located at Mount Vernon (AMERICAN FORESTS September/October 1989).

Now, as part of AFA's Classic Tree Program, the Classic Tree Nursery of jacksonville, Florida, is under contract to propagate and grow trees from seeds and cuttings of famous and historic trees and certified champion trees. These special trees will be planted in historic tree preserves established by community groups throughout the country.

Translating preservation plans into realities requires community support and good timing both politically and economically. At the local level, it generally takes a tragedy of tree loss to stimulate the necessary political environment. This certainly was the case for the preservation movement. Many famous and historic structures were destroyed before Congress enacted the Historic Preservation Act.

On the national level, it will require a critical mass of grassroots citizen support in order to amend the federal law. Urban forest coalitions such as the American Forestry Association and the International Society of Arboriculture, in conjunction with local tree groups and preservation foundations, will have to work together to educate the public about the historic role trees have played in our urban landscapes.

Historic-district commissions have worked hard to bring back the past grandeur of our early settlements. However, when a home or building is certified as a faithful restoration, is the hard-won historic designation warranted if the surrounding environment is not true to the period?

The urban forester can tell you what the original species were. (Most likely you won't be very impressed.) He or she can probably tell you what killed those trees. In most cases it was the same disease that is killing today's treasures: progress.

To preserve the sense of place we call home, we must plan for the community forests of the future. We can do so by adopting the Global ReLeaf strategy-plant a tree today that will be a living memorial to the Historic ReLeaf movement of the 90s.


The term tree preservation can be used only in a generic sense. A tree cannot be preserved in the same way as a building can. A living and growing organism cannot be maintained in an unchanging, virtually frozen form. (A bonsai is an exception, at least to an extent.)

Tree preservation should instead be defined as the process of halting further deterioration of a tree and its site. The term is meant to encompass rehabilitation: the pruning, watering, and fertilization necessary to encourage growth and return a tree to a state of usefulness in the urban landscape (i.e., shade tree, street tree, fruit tree).

Restoration and reconstruction are terms better applied to landscapes or gardens than trees. However, entire urban forests can be restored to a healthy and vigorous state through the removal of hazardous trees and the planting of new trees better suited to the urban environment, Restoration of individual trees is best and most safely accomplished through the planting of a new individual of the same species, allowing time to perform the miracle of restoration.-PHILLIP RODBELL
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Title Annotation:includes related information
Author:Rodbell, Phillip
Publication:American Forests
Date:Jul 1, 1990
Previous Article:RC&D forestry: good ideas close to home.
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