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Lincoln’s street trees worth $1.4B cost money to maintain

January 6, 2018

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — From her bathroom window, Sally Gracie could see the big, brown oak just a few feet from her home in Baltimore County, Maryland.

As a child, she watched the squirrels that made a nest in a knothole of the tree. As a teen, she admired the tree while smoking secret cigarettes, blowing the smoke out the window toward the tree.

In the early 1980s, when strong winds uprooted more than 30 trees in her neighborhood, her oak landed right across her son’s bedroom.

Gracie can tell you about the trees she’s loved at her homes across the country: the native dogwoods near her childhood home, lost to a blight; the three scraggly trees that gave shade to her Washington home; the lovely tree outside her apartment balcony in Lincoln, where she’s trying to encourage birds to nest so she can show off their young to her Facebook friends.

Trees, hand-planted across this prairie city, are among the things Gracie likes about her new hometown.

“Trees are beautiful. They provide shade; they clean the air.”

Last spring, Gracie says, she drove around the Country Club area just to look at the pretty trees.

“They cost a lot to keep up. But they help to sell a single home or an entire city to a prospective resident,” she says.

“The trees make Lincoln a nice town.”

The Lincoln Journal Star reports that these words are music to Parks and Recreation Department Director Lynn Johnson, whose $1.5 million forestry budget covers more than 112,600 city trees, including 81,785 along city streets, and are seldom enough to satisfy tree lovers.

His department’s slim staffing — 15 forestry employees, counting community forester Bob Weyhrich — was part of a recent City Council discussion after several residents filed claims for damage caused by limbs, or whole trees, which fell during the late August windstorm.

For street trees that are not considered dangerous, it takes six months — “sometimes longer” — after they’re reported and inspected for the city to get them trimmed, Johnson said.

The City Council agreed to pay at least one resident’s claim because the tree involved was awaiting a trim when its branches fell on a vehicle.

Periodic trimming is important for the health of trees, traffic, power lines and aesthetics, Weyhrich said. But it doesn’t solve all problems.

Many limbs that fell during the August windstorm were healthy branches, full of foliage created by three years of abundant rainfall, he said. The wind caught those branches rather than dead ones.

And sometimes live branches will drop from trees for no apparent reason. It’s called dead drop, and can happen when there’s no indication of anything unhealthy, Weyhrich said.

Trees are not perfect neighbors. They can cause problems. They cost money.

That’s part of having trees — the commitment to taking care of them, Johnson said. Well managed, trees are an asset; poorly managed, they can be a liability.

When Weyhrich came to Lincoln in 1974, there were 44 people working in city forestry in a town of about 124,000. It was at the heart of the Dutch elm disease that killed many of the city’s 60,000 elms.

But the disease faded and budget pressures reduced the city’s forestry staff.

With its current staff, the city is able to trim 3 percent of the city-owned trees a year. That’s one trim every 30 years, far less often than the ideal six to seven years.

Another major tree disease will soon trigger a staffing boost. The city is adding another nine people in anticipation of the emerald ash borer, which is expected to hit Lincoln’s ash trees in the next couple of years.

The city expects to cut about 1,000 ash trees a year, remove their stumps and plant replacement trees to keep ahead of the disease, which kills trees quickly. The budget for the ash tree program will be about $1 million a year.

Lincoln goes to some lengths to encourage planting of new trees.

Developers are required to plant street trees in new subdivisions, adding 1,600 to 2,000 trees each year, Weyhrich said. And the city itself planted 424 street trees last year through its voucher program, and generally replaces three of every five street trees removed each year.

Another 300 to 400 trees are planted each year through the voluntary 2 for Trees program, which allows people to voluntarily add $2 to their water bill every other month. The $55,000 that program raises each year is used to buy new street trees, park trees and equipment such as watering trucks to help make sure young trees survive harsh summers.

All these new trees will grow up, will need pruning in the future and will someday need to be removed, creating a periodic budget conversation about new trees and maintenance.

“From a policy standpoint, it is not sustainable to plant trees if we are not going to maintain them,” Johnson said.

Lincoln is very proactive in programming, with its 2 for Trees program and the Parks Foundation. Very few communities the size of Lincoln have the quality of green space Lincoln has, says Eric Berg, with the Nebraska Forest Service at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

That urban forest is worth about $1.4 billion, taking into account everything from air pollution to stormwater management, carbon storage, energy savings and aesthetics, he said.

“One way to look at that is, if you took away all the trees in Lincoln, you would have to find $1.4 billion to provide all those benefits,” he said.

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Information from: Lincoln Journal Star, http://www.journalstar.com

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