Magazine article American Forests

The Sad State of City Trees

Magazine article American Forests

The Sad State of City Trees

Article excerpt

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. …

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