Mundane as it sounds, pruning dead and overgrown branches is the number-one goal of the city’s first-ever urban forestry plan. The trees lining city streets and in parks have “been under a tremendous amount of stress,” says Christopher Taylor, council’s representative on the Parks Advisory Commission and Democratic mayoral candidate. “The emerald ash borer and the Great Recession resulted in a devastating confluence of unprecedented need with unprecedented lack of resources.”
Too true: between 2004 and 2008 the forestry department and a host of contractors focused all their efforts on removing 10,000 infested ash trees. Then spending cuts during the Great Recession reduced the money available for the remaining 44,000 city street trees to $1 million a year–down 29 percent from 2007.
Work on the urban forestry plan started in 2010. “When I was there we didn’t have a plan, although we had a lot of funding,” recalls Paul Bairley, retired city forester now doing the same job full time at U-M. “But the plan makes more sense now and would have made more sense then. Getting funding for trees in this economy is not easy, and it’s a huge investment on the city’s part.”
The plan’s first recommendation is to “implement proactive tree maintenance program for Ann Arbor’s publicly-managed trees, emphasizing routine pruning, removals and care to improve the health and sustainability of the canopy.”
The department’s been primarily reactive in the past, responding to everything from citizen complaints to storm-downed trees. “The purpose of the first recommendation is to transition from reactive to proactive,” emails city urban forestry and natural resource planning coordinator Kerry Gray. “Proactive programs are more efficient, cost effective and improve the quality, condition and value of the urban and community forest. Trees pruned on a routine basis develop proper form and structure which reduces storm-related tree damage, lowers future maintenance costs, reduces tree-related service requests and provides for early identification and correction of insect/disease, or structural problems leading to fewer tree mortalities.”
“The quickest ways to bring health back to woody plants is proper pruning,” says Ingrid Ault, until recently chair of the Parks Advisory Commission. “The recommendation merits its number-one position.”
Ultimately, the plan calls for expanding the canopy of trees over the city. “The goal is 40 percent coverage,” says Bairley. “The city did a study in 2010, and citywide we’re at 32 percent. And we’re pretty good at 32 percent. A lot of places are at fifteen.
“The U-M also has a 40 percent goal, so that’ll help,” Bairley continues. “But there’s not a lot of plantable public property available, so 40 percent on public land may not be doable, and we may have incentives for the private sector.” The plan calls for increasing tree cover in commercially zoned districts from its current 10 to 15 percent, industrial zones from 14 to 25 percent, and residential from 37 to 60 percent. It also calls for improving the average condition of city-managed street and park trees from fair to good in fifteen years, or two pruning cycles.
If council fully implements the plan, Bairley figures in fifteen years “the average person will notice that trees are looking better, neater ,and safer. They’ll see a lot less storm damage because there won’t be dead trees and limbs. And there’ll be better clearance for bikes and pedestrians.”
To achieve that, though, the department will need more than a one-time boost of $1 million–and more than the current staff. It had fifteen full-time and ten seasonal workers in 2001, but since 2008, it’s had just eight full-timers, plus contractors for tree planting and emergency storm work. To implement the plan beyond year one, Gray reckons, staffing levels need to be increased to twelve full-timers.
What are the chances of that? “Council will evaluate it next year,” says Taylor. “I hope there will be a good chance, and as mayor, I’d advocate for it. Restoration and expansion of urban forest is a top priority.”