Cities see the forest through the trees
Putting a dollar value on a tree’s benefits may seem difficult. Yet, communities across the nation, from Boulder, Colo., to Houston, have valued their trees at millions — even billions — of dollars annually based on their roles in stormwater management, energy savings and pollution control. But, despite those estimates, some urban foresters have found that drumming up public support for tree canopy programs is not easy.
Washington-based American Forests has found that the nation’s largest cities lack the 634 million trees needed to provide residents with sufficient tree cover for shading houses, controlling runoff and other factors. Last year, the Dallas City Council created the Urban Forest Advisory Committee, the first citywide effort to manage Dallas’ trees. Steve Houser, chairman of the committee, blames the region’s focus on development for its previous lack of tree management. “It doesn’t want to lose development to other areas, even if [the city loses trees],” he says.
The committee began a GIS tree survey in January that will help the city determine how many trees exist, as well as their general condition and average age. Houser estimates that the survey will cost up to $700,000. To defray some of the cost, the city is recruiting volunteers to assist in the survey as “citizen foresters.” Last August, Dallas also hired an urban forester — who is working to establish an urban forestry department — using a four-year, $400,000 grant from the Texas Forest Service.
Houser says the gradual shift toward valuing tree management is part of Dallas’ increasing focus on the need for better planning. “You realize a lot of trees are lost because of poor planning,” Houser says.
Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa launched a Million Tree LA initiative in September 2006. With an estimated 18 percent of the city covered by trees, Villaraigosa wants an increase in the tree canopy over the next several years to help turn Los Angeles into one of the nation’s greenest and healthiest large cities. Funding for the initiative is coming from private donations, state and federal grants, and the city coffers.
So far, 50,000 trees have been planted as part of the Million Tree LA initiative. The city has had to address some residents’ concerns about long-term maintenance and potential liability. In response, the city created a Web site dedicated solely to the project and is holding monthly workshops on planting and caring for trees.
A recent report from American Forests stating that Leesburg, Va., had lost approximately 71 percent of its tree cover between 1992 and 2001 grabbed the attention of the Leesburg council, says Jay Banks, the town’s urban forester.
In response, the town adopted a 130-page Urban Forestry Management Plan initiated by Leesburg’s Tree Commission and urban forester with the goal of increasing the town’s tree canopy from 8 percent to 40 percent. One part of the plan requires developers to preserve and plant more trees on private property because space on public land is limited.
In November, Leesburg joined the state-federal Chesapeake Bay Program urban tree canopy goal, in which Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania and the District of Columbia will work with five communities to assess and improve their tree canopies. To qualify for funding, towns have to set goals for increasing their tree canopies and create 10-year schedules for achieving them.
Banks is encouraged by such interest in urban forestry issues. “It’s a big pendulum that needs to be pushed from tree loss to tree canopy increase,” he says.
— Jennifer Grzeskowiak is a Laguna Beach, Calif.-based freelance writer.