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Examining Arbor Day through the lens of Colorado Springs' urban forest




It's understandable if you don't know what day is National Arbor Day. Or that people hug trees on that day at all, for that matter, since you don't get off work for it or cook a turkey or anything.

Though the civic holiday actually falls annually on the last Friday in April, many states and cities mark the occasion sometime nearby on dates that make sense with their respective weather or event calendars. In Colorado Springs, that's Saturday, May 2, just 10 days after Earth Day.

"Overall, spring is the best time to plant trees," notes city forester Jay Hein. "We usually have decent moisture, the ground's not frozen, and trees are dormant or close to dormancy, so they recover quickly from the planting shock."

So that explains the when. But what about the why? (Beyond, that is, the obvious benefits of giving cats somewhere to get stuck, and slackliners some sturdy hitching posts.)

In a press release, Arbor Day Foundation president Dan Lambe notes, "it is important that we recognize that trees are vital infrastructure just like our roads and our bridges. ... let's appreciate the trees for their important role in helping to establish a sense of place, meaning and belonging; for serving as both physical and emotional landmarks that define important milestones along life's journey."

So go ahead, get a little nostalgic about it all. Remember the first time you read Shel Silverstein's The Giving Tree (and cried, if you were like that one kid in my kindergarten class). Or maybe think back to Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha, and the Bodhi tree under which Gautama Buddha achieved enlightenment.

Yes, roots run deep, but all that's just beginning to peel the bark off the matter, here and now. In a world concerned with climate change, trees aid in carbon cap and sequestration; help reduce energy consumption via shading; and defend against erosion while providing food and wildlife habitat, says Hein. Even in their death, their chipped mulch provides moisture retention.

Non-environmentally speaking, trees increase property values and "lift people's moods, creating a calming effect," Hein says. More-mature trees are appraised by forestry crews at up to $10,000 to $15,000 each. That figure accounts for all of the above listed benefits over their lifespan, and citywide Hein projects our urban forest, viewed through the lens of critical infrastructure, is worth roughly $800 million.

So let's take a closer look at the state of our trees locally. Are we budding and blooming, or slowly root-rotting?

Earlier this week, the folks at the Pike National Forest received one of 13 national awards from the Arbor Day Foundation: the Forest Lands Leadership Award, for its Rocky Mountain Watershed Protection Project. That initiative aims to restore "forest resiliency within 40,000 acres of critical watersheds on National Forest and private lands."

The Pike team was recognized in particular for its impressive assembly and leadership of a 10-organization partnership that includes Colorado Springs Utilities and the Coalition for the Upper South Platte. En masse, they are rehabilitating areas burnt by the Hayman and Waldo Canyon fires, fighting the pine beetle infestation and defending water quality. Denver's metropolitan drinking water, for example, largely comes from the South Platte River, located mostly on Pike land.

Between 2011 and 2015, $22 million has been invested in Pike, resulting in more than 700,000 planted trees, nearly 3,000 acres of prescribed burns, around 350 acres of improved wetlands, and 80 miles of trail and road restoration. Some of that investment has come from the federal government, but some has come from private sources. This year, for instance, the Arbor Day Foundation will team with the Enterprise Rent-A-Car Foundation to plant 20,000 trees in the Pike forest.

Sad to say, the city of Colorado Springs can't post as impressive numbers when accounting for our urban forest, even though we're in our 38th year of achieving Tree City USA status by the Arbor Day Foundation. (That designation is based on having a tree department, a care program, a forestry budget with at least $2 per capita, and public observance of Arbor Day.) Our municipal tree inventory hasn't been updated since 2008, and Hein can only hope to fund a new assessment in 2016.

"The downfall without an accurate inventory," he says, "is we don't know what we have. How many of each species and their condition, age, and size-class, which would allow us to better manage and schedule maintenance. Without that we remain reaction-based. We don't know about problems until a citizen calls."

His forestry division is currently backlogged with about 400 work-orders. Sometimes, a tree that could have been saved by an earlier pruning becomes a removal, and if we're lucky, a re-planting. But that also means costly stump grinding followed by three to four years of regular watering by the city to help properly birth a new tree.

Trees that reach the end of their lifespan can easily become safety hazards. After the recent thunder-snow storm that lit up social media pages, 80 crabapple trees occupied Hein's crew for a whole Friday of repair cuts, road clearing and a few removals.

To employ six full-time and three seasonal staff in the urban forest division; three full-timers who oversee non-irrigated street medians and residential rights-of-way; one forester who splits time between urban tasks and open-space management; and regular contract crews who aid with pruning and removals, city forestry's budget is $800,000 — one thousandth of our urban forest's value.

Citizens can help, says Hein, in various ways.

On a political level, they can contact city councilors and urge our incoming mayor to see the urban forest for its trees, to "protect and preserve the resource." Hein says the city's Parks and Recreation Advisory Board did pose "thoughtful" questions during his early April annual report, one good sign.

Springs denizens may also obtain free permits to plant in the rights-of-way in front of their residences out of their own pocket, or they can request a work order to have a dead tree removed and possibly another healthy tree planted in its place. (Visit coloradosprings.gov/forestry for info.) Also, they can donate trees to city parks — the forestry office will schedule a planting time with them.

At the May 2 Arbor Day celebration in Stratton Open Space, Hein's department will host Forest Service and local officials as well as a group of Cheyenne Mountain School District 12 students for a ceremonial tree planting of a batch of more-developed trees. In addition, 200 saplings will go in the ground in that area and along Cheyenne Creek, where the September 2013 floods caused significant damage.

The Colorado State Forest Service — whose nursery is also donating 10,000 trees to those affected by the Black Forest Fire and Big Thompson Canyon flooding near Estes Park — has provided the funding, around $500, for the saplings, via a Project Learning Tree grant that Cheyenne Mountain middle school science teacher David Eick won. Eick has run the Cheyenne Creek Conservation Club, or "Stream Team," in district schools for the last 19 years, to encourage local ecological engagement.

Hein says the saplings will be a mix of ponderosa pine, Douglas-fir, piñon pine, Gamble oak, chokecherry, currant, and mountain mahogany. All are species with a heartiness that defines our sense of place, and as they grow, they'll certainly act as physical landmarks. As for the emotional part, that's up to you.

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