Automatic federal budget cuts could increase risk of wildfires

Absent resolution this week from Congress, across-the-board spending cuts are slated to hit just about everything the federal government does beginning March 1.

Known in some circles as the “sequester,” the policy – enacted in 2011 as part of a deal to address the nation’s debt payments – will take 5.3 percent from domestic discretionary spending, including the U.S. Forest Service portion of the Department of Agriculture budget.

In Nebraska, the across-the-board agency cuts would result in a $1.3 million reduction in clean air and water programs, among other impacts, wrote the Lincoln Journal Star’s Don Walton.

“The sequester does not target or prioritize,” he added.

As a result of this absence of priorities, programs that support preventive steps against wildfires in our nation’s forests will be affected, with $134 million taken out of the U.S. Forest Service’s Wildland Fire Management Program.

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, in a letter to the Senate Appropriations Committee last week, warned of “increased risk to communities from wildfires, with as much as 200,000 fewer acres treated for hazardous fuels.”

Added Sandra Postel of the National Geographic Society: “That means dead trees, dry brush and other fire-starting materials will not be removed.

“That would be worrisome even in a normal year, but in a severe drought it could prove calamitous,” she continued.

Officials have already struggled to keep up with prevention in Colorado and the Mountain West. Abrupt budget cuts would likely make matters worse.

Here’s hoping for a timely solution that gives our hard-working forest professionals the budget certainty they need to do their jobs.

Retiring U.S. Senator Mike Johanns an Arbor Day ally

Nebraska United States Senator Mike Johanns, who announced his retirement yesterday after more than three decades in public service, has been an ally of the Foundation and our programs in a number of areas.

nebraskaWith his colleague then-Senator Ben Nelson, Johanns introduced a resolution last year to commemorate the 140th anniversary of Arbor Day. The resolution noted the tree-planting holiday’s growing popularity around the world and encouraged Americans to find an event in their own community.

“It’s about more than simply planting a tree,” Johanns said at the time. “Arbor Day highlights the important role every one of us plays in land stewardship.”

We heartily agree. Effective policy – in land use, resource management and environmental protection – is necessary but insufficient absent our own conservation vision and involvement. As Johanns has pointed out, many rural communities in Nebraska and elsewhere rely on natural resources for their livelihoods. That makes long-term, sustainable management of those resources crucial.

Forestry resources are also of growing importance to tourism and economic development in cities and towns of all sizes.

We were fortunate to welcome Johanns and members of his staff to Arbor Day Farm last March. While on the property, the Senator had a chance to tour the Tree Adventure attraction and our greenhouse and hazelnut growing facilities, as well as work alongside crew members as they packed tree seedlings to be mailed to Arbor Day Foundation’s members.

“Recently, I had the opportunity to visit Arbor Farms in Nebraska City, where Morton’s legacy lives on in the important work that is being done there,” Johanns said in an e-news update following his visit. “Staff at Arbor Farms prepare and ship between 30,000 to 50,000 tree seedlings daily to places all around the world. Celebrating Arbor Day is a tradition in our state that appeals to Nebraskans’ natural civic duty and passion for the land. I am proud to share in this celebration today with my fellow Nebraskans.”

Best wishes to Senator Johanns and his wife Stephanie – and we look forward to getting to know his successor in 2015.

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Senator Johanns takes a turn at packaging tree seedlings.

Op-ed pages sound the alarm on proposals to downplay tree care professionals

Facing tight budgets and reduced staff, a number of cities around the country have either floated or are already moving forward with troubling proposals to shift the responsibility for tree care from professionals to homeowners.

By downplaying the numerous benefits of urban trees and putting their care in uncertain hands, these ideas are the textbook definition of penny-wise and pound-foolish. Even responsible homeowners willing and able to do the right thing lack the bargaining power and strategic decision-making ability that is only possible through a comprehensive, citywide approach.

The Foundation’s home here in Lincoln is one community where this is being considered, prompting founder and chief executive John Rosenow to submit this op-ed to the Lincoln Journal Star.

Confronting similar challenges, the San Francisco Chronicle weighed in with a Saturday editorial imploring city leaders to find the money to take care of street trees and criticizing the decision to shift responsibility for 1,200 trees to homeowners:

This policy requires homeowners to maintain trees they didn’t plant, might not even want, possibly can’t afford and probably don’t know how to care for.

The result could spell disaster for the city’s forest. Already, around 4 percent of our trees die every year because of age or lack of proper attention. The city employs only six arborists, down from 19 four years ago. That’s fewer than one trained worker for every 17,000 trees.

The Chronicle also surveyed several ideas for new revenue.

In Sunday’s Journal Star, Rosenow pointed to the Foundation’s experience growing the Tree City USA program into more than 3,400 communities over 36 years. We’ve seen what works and what doesn’t. He also noted that Lincoln’s experience serves as direct evidence of the need for a professional approach:

A well-staffed professional forestry team was crucial to protecting tree canopy and minimizing property damage during Lincoln’s early-fall snow storm in 1997. Other cities sustained much greater damage by banking on a penny-wise and pound-foolish approach that downplayed the importance of professionals — and the damage remains visible today.

Civic and business leaders in Lincoln have recently stepped up marketing toward young professionals and employers. Rosenow concluded:

Increasingly, jobs and the companies and professionals who create jobs are highly mobile. The successful cities of the future will be those who recruit and retain the best jobs by creating an outstanding quality of life for its citizens — including a well-managed urban forest. We would hope that Lincoln will be such a city.

We’re pleased to see the issue of tree care – often lost in budget discussions, as San Francisco Supervisor Scott Wiener and others have pointed out – begin to receive the attention it deserves. We look forward to being part of the continued discussion, both here at home and throughout the country.

Nebraska and Iowa to continue funding recreational trails

UPDATE: All but two states have chosen to continue funding recreational trails, according to Streetsblog.

We’re a little bit late to this story, but thought it was worth mentioning that officials in Nebraska and Iowa have chosen to continue to funding recreational trails for bicyclists and pedestrians.

Why is this important? Two reasons: 1) Recreational space that allows people to enjoy time outdoors is crucial to the Foundation’s vision of green and livable communities; and 2) The new federal transportation law has shifted more discretion over trails funding to the states, so it’s a topic likely to come up in your area even if you don’t live in Nebraska or Iowa.

Lincoln, the home of Arbor Day Foundation headquarters, boosts an extensive and popular trail network that expands 128 miles into rural Lancaster County and a number of neighboring communities. It surely didn’t hurt that Lincoln is also the state capital, meaning key decision-makers in the Department of Roads and the Governor’s office have seen the value of the trails firsthand.

According to the Omaha World-Herald, bicycle enthusiasts in both states lobbied heavily to keep the funding from being diverted to other projects, which is now allowed under the new federal transportation law, MAP-21:

Rick Sanders, president of the 85-member Bellevue Bike Club, said he is grateful. Members of his club, as well as other bicyclers, had lobbied to retain the state programs, as well as federal funding.

“We’re probably one of the most fiscally conservative states in the Union,” Sanders said. “Having our governor step up for trails is good for the cause.”

According to the Great Plains Trails Network, every dollar spent on trails in Lincoln yields nearly $3 in medical savings due to healthier living. The trails also increase property values by up to 20 percent, a similar figure to the estimated increase associated with a robust tree canopy.

Photo courtesy of the Great Plains Trails Network.

On Arbor Day, Nebraska is where it all began

It was 140 years ago that Nebraskan J. Sterling Morton proposed the nation’s first tree-planting holiday. A century later, the Arbor Day Foundation was launched, in large part to bring the spirit of conservation and stewardship to the forefront all year round.

The Foundation has grown and evolved a lot in the past 40 years, but the mission remains the same: we inspire people to plant, nurture and celebrate trees.

Nebraska is still steeped in Arbor Day history. The Foundation continues to make its headquarters in downtown Lincoln. Tomorrow, we will hold the 40th annual Arbor Day Awards at Lied Lodge & Conference on the Arbor Day Farm in Nebraska City. The winners will accept their award on the ground Morton once called his own, the site of his 52-room mansion.

Morton’s politics stressed both conservatism and conservation, a marriage less common in these times. He saw people as earth’s trustees – if we take care of our natural resources, they will take care of us.

Born in Nebraska, Arbor Day is now celebrated in all 50 states and around the world.

Nebraska is currently home to 108 Tree City USA communities, accounting for 1.2 million people. The largest Tree City USA in Nebraska is Omaha, population 440,691; the smallest is Julian, population 71.

Three of Nebraska’s neighbors in the Great Plains are also celebrating today.

Iowa, to the east, is currently home to 87 Tree City USA communities, accounting for 1.4 million people. The largest Tree City USA in Iowa is Des Moines, population 190,000; the smallest is Westphalia, population 160.

Kansas, to Nebraska’s immediate south, is currently home to 104 Tree City USA communities, accounting for nearly two million people. The largest Tree City USA in Kansas is Wichita, population 346,000; the smallest is Formoso, population 100.

And, South Dakota, to the north, is currently home to 36 Tree City USA communities, accounting for about half a million people. The largest Tree City USA in South Dakota is Sioux Falls, population 157,937; the smallest is Buffalo Gap, population 125.

Image courtesy of the Nebraska Department of Roads.