- Laura Eurich
City forester Jay Hein hesitates before he uses the cliché, "It was a perfect storm." But there's no better way to describe the late-season snow that hit our city in early April.
Perfect, that is, to cause significant damage to trees all over town. Hein says the trees had started to bud out, and the combination of heavy wet snow with no wind resulted in branches and trees down seemingly everywhere.
With that heavy snow, and the January wind storm that ripped limbs from trees, Hein's department of just nine full-time employees is taxed. It's not often we have a fair comparison with the City of Denver, but here we do: If you consider the city of Denver (not the surrounding areas), they have fewer square miles of space and about the same number of trees. But Denver has 38 full-time forestry employees. Hein says even when his department did have about a dozen arborists, they couldn't keep up. After Great Recession-era budget cuts, they only have four arborists on staff.
With two destructive weather events in a matter of four months, the department has been playing catch-up while keeping an eye on the weather. Another heavy spring snow could bring down limbs already compromised in the earlier storms.
Driving along Nevada Avenue from south of downtown toward Fillmore Street, one can easily spot the impact to the historic trees that line the curbs and medians. Hein says about 100 trees have been removed along that stretch alone. Some have all branches removed, leaving just the trunk; some are left as stumps, even with the ground; and some have been replaced with young trees. Someday these young saplings will grow to stand tall like their predecessors, but for now, they look like twigs in comparison to the surviving trees.
We can thank (or blame) the city's founders, who insisted on planting trees in our semi-arid climate. The iconic trees that line the streets and medians of the Old North End were planted when canals lined those streets, Hein notes. Prairie grasses and yucca are native to our area — and they don't exactly provide a shady spot on a summer afternoon. Don't even try to hang your hammock from them.
At a city celebration and tree-planting marking Arbor Day, held on May 6 in the Old North End, nearly 100 people, including a Cub Scout troop, gathered in the Nevada Avenue median between Espanola and Fontanero streets. They honored Colorado Springs' 40th year holding the Tree City USA designation.
Neighbors, who walked over with shovels in hand, helped plant 13 trees on that median. (Another volunteer work day is scheduled for May 16 in the median to the north.)
Mayor John Suthers related to attendees how city founder Gen. William Jackson Palmer imported 600 cottonwood trees and hired a forester to care for them at his own expense. Our forestry department dates back to 1910, making it the oldest west of the Mississippi.
But a rich history can't compete with budget cuts and drought. Some of the damage we're seeing now started with the cuts in 2009, when watering of city parks and trees halted. Shut off the water and the grass quickly turns brown. Turn the water back on and the grass generally bounces back easily. In contrast, the impact on trees doesn't show up right away. Trees instead suffer a steady decline.
Hein, who has been with the city for just a few years, says his department had to make the very difficult decision to start removing trees. "It's not just some flippant desire to start cutting trees," he says.
As just one focus point, the Old North End has a lot to lose: About 500 trees line the 3.7 miles of roads in the neighborhood. With the formation of North End Woodlands, neighbors are working to replant trees and build a cash reserve to be able to water the trees should we find ourselves in another drought.
"We hope to see this replicated in other neighborhoods," the mayor said.
Though it's hard to say a model like this will work in all neighborhoods. Trees, while contributing many quality-of-life benefits, are a luxury that not everyone can afford to support.
"It will look worse before it looks better," Hein warns. "I'm never going to see the shade from the trees we're planting now."