What to do about Wildfires: Prevention vs. Combat

As the 2013 fire season continues, the costs of fighting wildfires have continued to increase. In 2012, fires consumed 40 percent of the Forest Service’s annual budget, compared to only 13 percent in 1991. Many factors have created these rising costs through the years, including worsened drought conditions, continued climate change, and an increased number of homes built near forested areas. These escalating expenses are proving to be so costly, that they are leaving less money for wildfire prevention.


Forest Fires

Drought conditions, climate change, and homes in traditionally forested areas have all contributed to the rising costs of fighting wildfires.

Due to these heightened factors, for fiscal 2014, the federal administration has proposed drastic spending cuts to hazardous fuels reduction, or clearing smaller trees and underbrush through controlled cutting and burns. The idea behind hazardous fuels reduction is that by removing this underbrush, fires will have less fuel to spread rapidly and can then be controlled faster. Donald Smurthwaite, spokesman for the National Interagency Fire Center states, “In a recent study by the Bureau of Land Management, when wildfires burned into fuels treatment areas, they were slowed or stopped about 90 percent of the time. With the decline in fuels funding, we’re worried that saving money today will mean larger and more destructive fires tomorrow.” Limited funding has decreased fire prevention for several years. In 2009, 4.5 million acres were treated to prevent wildfires, and under the proposed budgetary cuts, fewer than 2 million acres would be treated in 2014.While the proposed budget for fiscal 2014 would increase overall funding for wildfires, it would largely cut the hazardous fuels budgets for several agencies. In all, 41 percent of these budgets would fall, reducing the current funds of $502 million to $297 million.  This will be the third consecutive year the administration’s proposed budget includes spending cuts to forest treatment to prevent wildfires. Many of these cuts will greatly affect our tree partners — the U.S. Forest Service and the National Park Service.

As an organization of people that cares deeply about our nation’s forests and trees, the Arbor Day Foundation continues to challenge ourselves to better understand how to collaborate with our partners on the ground as they overcome these budgetary hurdles.  There simply isn’t funding available as there has been in decades past, and that is where our valued members, supporters, corporate donors and partners can help us to heighten our efforts to do more with less. They can help us to see new ways to partner with these groups, to create even more relevant programs, and to provide trees to those areas most in need. As we address each new challenge, we search for ways to better engage our loyal members and tree advocates to keep them involved in the good work our partners accomplish each year with our support.

With the help and generosity of our vast network of tree advocates, we will continue to foster our enduring 25-year partnership with the U.S. Forest Service. With their help, the Arbor Day Foundation will continue to bring new ideas surrounding education, conservation, and tree planting in wildfire-stricken areas.

Two ways you can take action now:
The Backyard Woods Program: Managing Forests Can Save Forests
Donate now to replant trees where they’re needed most

Data cited in this post sourced from NBC News.
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Abbie Eisenhart is a Community Tree Recovery Manager for the Arbor Day Foundation.

Project Blue River Rescue: Improving Kansas City’s Waterways

Every year for the past 20 years, hundreds of volunteers and city workers in metropolitan Kansas City come together in an effort known as Project Blue River Rescue. Their goal: to clean up piles of trash and illegal dumping out of the Blue River which flows through their city.

Blue River Rescue 2013

Kansas City-area boy scouts take to the Blue River to haul out debris as part of the Project Blue River Rescue 2013. Photo: PBRR Facebook.

Partnering with the Kansas City Public Works, the Missouri Department of Conservation and several local businesses and organizations, Project Blue River Rescue has grown to be Missouri’s largest, one-day conservation cleanup.

“Each year, volunteers have cleaned up thousands of pounds of trash, tires, appliances and even cars,” says Wendy Sangster, Urban Forester with the Missouri Department of Conservation.

Blue River Rescue 2013

Volunteers remove several bags of trash and nuisance honeysuckle from the banks of the Blue River in metro Kansas City, as part of the Project Blue River Rescue 2013. Photo: PBRR Facebook.

More recently, Project Blue River Rescue has also focused on habitat restoration along the river. In April 2013, a group of 20 volunteers organized by the Heartland Tree Alliance, a branch of Bridging the Gap, planted 500 tree seedlings along the Blue River near a baseball complex in southern Kansas City. The seedlings included native species — burr oak, sycamore, pecan and shellbark hickory — all which would have normally grown along the Blue River. Volunteers also worked to remove invasive honeysuckle plants along the waterway to ensure the growth of these new seedlings.

Sangster firmly believes in the longevity of this project and the positive impact it has on the local community. By getting community members involved in the planting, she feels it instills a connection to nature and provides a foundation for advancing environmental stewardship in the greater Kansas City area.

“If a volunteer can do the physical, hard work of planting a tree,” Sangster says, “they are more likely to become ambassadors and tree stewards in their own communities.”
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Mary Sweeney is a program manager at the Arbor Day Foundation.


Oregon Department of Forestry: Trees benefit business districts

State foresters often have their hands full with managing public woodlands miles away from the nearest home or business. But it’s becoming more common to hear them tout the numerous benefits of urban forestry, whether they work directly with cities or not.

Downtown-EugeneCynthia Orlando, a certified arborist with the Oregon Department of Forestry, makes the case for urban forestry in general and the pluses to commercial areas in particular in an op-ed in the Statesman Journal.

The research points to substantial long-term gains in commercial areas with ample street trees. U.S. Forest Service studies have found $2.70 in benefits for every $1 invested in city trees, and Orlando also points to University of Washington research showing increased foot-traffic in tree-lined commercial areas.

There’s also the qualitative element. What kind of attributes are people looking for in a business district? Orlando writes:

Healthy trees send positive messages about the appeal of a district, the quality of products there and what customer service a shopper can expect — they’re an important component of any program to attract shoppers and visitors

Portland received well-deserved attention for its growing tree canopy, but many of Oregon’s smaller cities have exciting programs as well. Oregon State University in Corvalis is the first and only Tree Campus USA in the state. Salem and Eugene (pictured above) are both drawing new housing and business to their forested downtown.

Find out more about urban and community forestry in Oregon here.

Photo courtesy of Oregon Attractions

Looking back and looking forward in urban forestry

The Arbor Day Foundation was launched in 1972 during the tree-planting holiday’s centennial year. Much has happened in the 40 years since, and much work remains.

We have seen great progress, for example, in the spread of effective urban forest management. For many years, tree care at the municipal level was haphazard to non-existent. The standards and recognition of the Tree City USA program has helped to change that, due in large part to the partnership of the U.S. Forest Service and National Association of State Foresters.

The increased attention to urban trees care was alive at this year’s Partners in Community Forestry Conference, where a number of panelists pointed to street trees as central to creating great cities where people want to live.

In Richmond, California, and Baltimore, Maryland, and Camden, New Jersey, the beauty of newly-planted trees and community pride they inspire has strengthened neighborhoods and begun to put a dent in crime. Experts in planning and design say trees help attract new residents and commercial development. Trees are also central to the fight against climate change, with some communities finding innovative ways to include trees in cap-and-trade programs.

But urban forestry has also suffered from some setbacks. Heavy drought during the past two summers have killed or severely damaged millions of trees, with the U.S. Forest Service estimating that urban tree cover has been declining by 0.9 percent annually. Major storms have presented challenges for communities that contain both mature trees and above-ground power lines. And, declining resources have led some cities to pursue misguided policies that would transfer the responsibility for street trees from professionals to individual homeowners.

Solutions exist to all of these challenges, but they require continued management and resources. The Foundation will continue to advocate for both.

But some creativity may also be required. For example, rather than shifting tree care responsibility to people who not seek it, cities could follow the example of Chico, California, in pursuing voluntary tree care partnerships. With a declining tax base and abandoned neighborhoods, Detroit leaders opted for a controversial land purchase to allow for urban farming, an approach that has already found success in Chicago, Newark and elsewhere.

We look forward to your continued support and partnership as we continue to inspire people to plant, nurture and celebrate trees – both in our nation’s cities and throughout the country.

Tree-planting in Richmond improves public safety through beautification

Trees are being planted in Richmond, California faster than landscape architects can track, count, and map to assess the city’s further arbor needs.

Photo Credit: Richmond Confidential

Over the past month alone, scores of volunteers have come together to plant more than one hundred trees in Richmond soil.

In exchange for learning proper planting practices and weekly watering efforts, the Richmond community is rewarded with shade, increased property value, reduced pollution, slowing traffic, and lower crime.

For a community that has struggled with crime over the years, these benefits are significant. In a recent news article, Richmond’s Police Chief Chris Magnus commended young volunteers for improving community and neighborhood safety through beautification. Magnus advocates:

An attractive neighborhood enhanced by the natural beauty of trees sends a message that the people who live there care and are engaged with what’s going on around them. This helps decrease crime and improves safety for all residents.

Research has linked increased tree-planting to decreased crime rates in other communities as well. Baltimore, Md., experienced a 12 percent drop in crime after a ten percent tree canopy increase and neighborhoods in Camden, N.J., are now considered highly desirable places to live thanks to newly-planted trees.

Photo Credit: Richmond Confidential

The benefits of tree planting extend from a broad environmental level to a personal, human level as well. Richmond volunteers express a sense of pride and ownership seeing trees in the community that exist thanks to their planting efforts. A student volunteer described the satisfaction of walking past trees she planted at a local high school as, “I did that, that’s my tree.”

Richmond Parks and Recreation officials honor volunteers for their individual roles as “guardian of the forest,” encouraging them to cherish the positive impact each person’s efforts has on the city of Richmond.

After receiving a $10,000 grant over the summer, tree-planting groups and volunteers in Richmond are continuing to positively change the future of the city, improving the social and environmental state of the community by planting trees.

Leading urban design expert says tree canopy “makes all the difference” for fighting climate change

America’s cities have many tools for combating climate change and reducing the heat island effect – but leading urban designer and author Peter Calthorpe told the PBS NewsHour that nothing comes close to cooling effect of well-maintained street trees.

“You can do white roofs and green roofs, but believe me, it’s that street canopy that makes all the difference,” Calthorpe (right) said, in a wide-ranging interview on cities, conducted during the Aspen Environment Forum.

Speaking more broadly about trends in urban design, Calthorpe said that we are “returning to some timeless qualities,” with demographic and cultural shifts causing Americans to take another look at more urban lifestyle.

Policies over the last several decades helped build the middle class, but also fueled dependence on the automobile and increased suburban sprawl, Calthorpe says, and some of those trends have begun to reverse as a result of the housing bubble bursting.

“It’s not that everybody is going to move back to the city. That’s a little bit of a misnomer that people get very excited about,” he said, adding: “We need to rethink how we build our cities, so it can’t be this ‘one-size-fits-all’ paradigm that we’ve had for so long.”

Calthorpe cites Sacramento as a city that is moving in the right direction, pointing in part to a tree canopy that reduces temperature in forested areas by as much as 10 degrees, a point few who have spent time in Sacramento would dispute.

Regardless of the local context, citizens and policymakers trying to bring people back into cities are encouraged to make urban forestry central to their cause.

“You can’t have a great street without street trees,” Calthorpe concluded.

100-year-old oak tree relocated instead of destroyed

The saying, “Out with the old, in with the new” usually signifies a refreshing change.  In some cases, however, the “old” should be treasured.

Photo Credit: Grist.org

Instead of cutting down a hundred-year-old oak tree to make room for improvements, the city council in League City, Texas voted to relocate the tree 1,500 feet from its original location to neighboring parkland.

It took contractors just under a month to properly prepare and transport the 56-foot tree weighing nearly 260 tons to its new location.

The process involved pruning, fertilizing, and hydrating the oak tree, sampling soil, and creating a large, hand carved, planter-box at the base of the tree to contain and protect its roots.

Photo Credit: Leaguecity.com

Once the tree box was completed, four steel beams were placed underneath the box and two cranes lifted the apparatus onto a steel plate.  It took three bulldozers and two excavators to then pull and guide the oak tree along a grass corridor to its home.

Moving can cause a lot of stress for a tree but so far, the old oak tree has been doing well in its new location.

Older trees are often mistakenly labeled as hazard trees and subsequently chopped down.  In a public place such as a park, it is the responsibility of city officials or tree  managers to exercise care, good judgment, caution, and foresight when inspecting trees and determining them necessary for removal.

By relocating, instead of destroying a healthy, older tree, League City shows its commitment to its urban forest and has honored the value and history that trees bring to a community.

You can read more about moving the 100-year-old oak here.

Check out the incredible video of the moving process below.

San Francisco supervisor seeks hearing on tree care

San Francisco boosts a healthy tree canopy and strong support for new tree planting. But the city’s urban forest is at risk due to a recent policy change that shifts responsible for street tree care from the Department of Public Works to property owners.

It’s a policy Supervisor Scott Wiener, one of the city’s eleven district-level representatives, hopes to address, according to the San Francisco Examiner.

There are currently close to 700,000 trees in San Francisco on public or private property; 110,000 of those are street trees that would be affected if the new policy is fully implemented. Because of budget cuts, city officials say they may only be able to prune those trees every 50 years, absent a new funding source.

As Supervisor Wiener points out, some property owners may be unwilling or lack the technical skills to take proper care of street trees, whose benefits are enjoyed broadly by the public. The Examiner quoted him as saying:

“We have hundreds of thousands of trees in the public realm in The City and it’s one of our greatest assets. It makes our city green, cleans our air and beautifies our streets. Yet, for a number of years, budget cuts have severely reduced DPW and Rec and Park’s urban forestry budget and their ability to maintain these trees.”

Declining resources for tree care is a problem facing cities across the country, even when local officials recognize the importance of investment in pruning and care. To fill the revenue hole, Wiener has suggested the potential for a small parcel tax, though a public hearing offers the opportunity for other solutions to be explored as well.

Photo is © Ingrid Taylar

Greening of Detroit singles out potential for urban trees to revitalize local ecosystem

The environment is playing a significant role in the resurgence of Detroit and Rebecca Salminen Witt, president of the nonprofit agency, Greening of Detroit, is a big part of the movement.

Greening’s mission statement has evolved over the years from specifically addressing replanting needs, to addressing the various needs of Detroit’s ecosystem.  The Greening of Detroit has filled several needs by creating planting and educational programs and encouraging environmental leadership and advocacy in the area.

In a recent interview with the Detroit Free Press, Witt explains that Greening’s forestry department has progressed to a green infrastructure department.  “Tree planting obviously is always going to be at the heart of what [this department] does,” stated Witt, “but they’re looking much more broadly at the ecosystem services that trees and forestry can provide, and they’re doing a lot of other things as well.”

Photo Credit: Greening of Detroit

The Greening of Detroit has broadened its methods from “classic tree planting,” to planting that will better utilize  the benefits of every tree; such as planting for stormwater retention and planting large, dense blocks of trees to remediate soil contamination.

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal highlighted a new campaign for Detroit to repurpose vacant parcels of land into urban farmland.  Rebecca Witt is enthusiastic and prepared for the Greening of Detroit to take on similar opportunities for securing Detroit’s ecosystem, asserting:

That’s a pretty incredible thing to be able to think of a major American city that really could have an ecosystem that could support itself and all of its people in a way that is sustainable for the long term.

Some potential plans for Detroit include planting oak trees and maybe fruit orchards.

The Arbor Day Foundation avidly promotes the intrinsic benefits of urban trees. The work going on in Detroit isolates the potential of urban trees to revitalize a struggling community and establish a sustainable industry.

The Arbor Day Foundation agrees with research that explains the benefits of trees for stormwater retention. Rain refreshes and nourishes green landscape.  But as cities grow and tree cover is lost, so is the absorbing effect of plant life and soil.  Trees and vegetated infrastructure prevent costly stormwater runoff from polluting waterways with oil, heavy metal particles and other harmful substances.

Click here for a visual depiction of a city water system with few trees, and one with abundant trees.

Nonprofits like the Greening of Detroit are making huge impact and filling the inherent need for effective urban forestry tree planting and environmental care in communities nationwide.

Relationship between trees and neighborhood affluence offers important lessons for local leaders

A U.S. Forest Service survey of the San Francisco Bay Area found that neighborhoods with robust communities trees are usually more economically prosperous than areas lacking in trees.

Trees are scant in lower-income West Oakland and plentiful in affluent Piedmont just four miles away, according to the San Jose Mercury News. A similar contrast is evident when comparing Palo Alto to East Palo Alto in the South Bay.

“If you have a tree-lined street, people are more likely to shop there,” said Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell. “If you have a tree-lined street, property values go up. … The more trees we have, the cleaner the air.”

Tidwell, a good friend of the Foundation, was in the Bay Area in person last month to announce a grant worth $181,000 for the locally-based Urban Releaf, which has planted more than 10,000 trees in Oakland and Richmond and recruits young people to help.

The Mercury-News also cites the work of environmental writer Tim De Chant, whose use of satellite images present a stark portrait of what he calls “Income equality, as seen from space.”

Of course, planting trees is just the beginning. In order to survive, urban trees require continued maintenance and care, an area where resource-starved cities often fall short. This is a question of long-term priorities and investment that local decision-makers across the country must face. San Francisco’s decision to shift the responsibility for tree care to property owners is an example of a troubling step in the wrong direction, one which we hope will be halted as the economy continues to recover and municipalities reclaim some of their lost revenue base.

Image: USDA via Bay Area News Group