Healthy trees: A worthy goal for Santa Fe

February 17, 2019

Watching trees be chopped down is never easy — yet more trees will be dying in Santa Fe and across the West because of climate change and drought. It’s up to all of us to do our darndest to save the trees. We need their beauty, the oxygen they release into the atmosphere and the cooling effects that leafy branches can have on an increasingly warmer urban environment.

In Santa Fe, city workers have begun concerted efforts to start eliminating dead trees on properties. The latest to go were cottonwoods that had been standing at City Hall since it was Santa Fe High School. It’s part of a welcome audit of dead and dying trees by the city Parks and Recreation Department. This is an attempt to get ahead of the problem, and that’s welcome. We do caution, however, that city officials don’t overreact — we want to save trees, not cut them down, whenever possible.

As part of the audit, city workers are searching out trees that are dead or dying. Those that can be saved will be pruned and cared for; chopping them down is a last resort, says John Muñoz, the department’s director. That’s a prudent approach, so long as the chopping advocates do not get carried away.

Tree loss, he pointed out, is a fact of life because of continuing climate change.

That’s not just trees along downtown streets. Trees on the Santa Fe Plaza also could be at risk. The popularity of the Plaza as a gathering space — whether simply for concerts or for big summer markets — can stress out trees. Then there are pests, disease, and weeks and months without rain. It all adds up. And, yes, some summer events can be moved, whether to the Santa Fe Railyard or to south Santa Fe. We do not want to love the Plaza to death.

Removal, of course, is only part of the work that needs to be done. Trees that are taken down must be replaced. Muñoz wants to replace the trees at City Hall with oaks or redbuds. He plans to upgrade irrigation systems, to better water the trees and also use the scarce resource more efficiently.

A new position — and a welcome one — being suggested is a forester for the city and a trees crew. That will focus not just on finding the dying trees but on preventing trees from reaching that critical stage. We could see these experts become community resources, too. All property owners need to save as many trees as possible. That means calling in private experts, of course, but sharing wisdom at forums or online would be a smart use of resources. State, schools and county government should step up to care more for trees on property they manage, too.

We urge the city to think big, too. When former Mayor Javier Gonzales was talking about his Verde Fund — dedicated to green projects — we encouraged its use for such things as building more water catchment systems in parks and for helping property owners better capture runoff. Santa Fe water customers are among the most careful users of water in the nation, but as a city, we can and must do more to save rainwater and better direct stormwater. The water we capture can then be used to keep trees thriving.

Once we get a handle on where trees are damaged, the city can begin planting even more trees — placing them in medians, along sidewalks and closer to buildings for shade, all of which can help lower temperatures. That’s why we need to find more ways to save and reuse water — it will take plenty of moisture for trees to thrive in continued dry times.

That the city is taking a proactive approach to managing the health of its trees should be cheered by all of us. This is important, not just because we all enjoy shade on a summer day, but for the long-term health of our town.