Talking about Trees
by Mike Paulus
(originally published in the June 9, 2011 issue of Volume One)
I have a tree in my backyard that’s almost dead. Roughly one quarter of its branches are sporting leaves this summer, while the rest are barren and brittle. There’s a huge crack down the trunk and ants have moved into it like its a giant hotel for … ants. I fear this is the last summer we’ll be enjoying its partial shade. And once it’s gone, our yard will have precious few trees left.
Most of the rest of our neighborhood – Eau Claire’s Eastside Hill – enjoys the sun-blocking power of ginormous trees. Not me. My wife and I assume a rogue windstorm came along sometime before we bought our house, and it took out all the trees planted on our side of the street, and nothing else. It’s just kind of an odd, no-tree zone. We, along with out neighbors, have since planted young trees in the boulevard, but still harbor some serious tree-envy.
A friend of mine claims to have it on good authority that many of the Eastside Hill’s big ol’ trees will be hitting the end of their life cycle at roughly the same time and soon we’ll all be in the same sun-baked boat. Wondering if this was true, and fearing the worst, I went to the horse’s mouth. And by “horse’s mouth” I mean a guy named Todd Chwala, who doesn’t resemble a horse all that much, but totally resembles the City of Eau Claire’s Superintendent of Parks, Forestry, and Cemeteries.
And Todd told me, “The Eastside Hill forest is not in danger of dying off any time soon. Yes, a good percent of the trees are reaching maturity, and some may even be over mature, but natural mortality in that area is not excessive.”
Whew. Basically, Todd says our neighborhood’s trees are diverse enough in age that mass die-offs are pretty unlikely. However, I do know of another Eau Claire “forest” just as close to home that could possibly be in peril – the one downtown.
See, downtown Eau Claire is about to get totally ripped up and remade (next summer), and one thing that seems to have been overlooked by people discussing the new downtown street designs is all the gorgeous trees currently growing down there. I’m no expert, but it would appear that new two-way designs could slice away the bump-outs and other areas in which our leafy friends are planted.
I know these issues concern downtown business owners. Some of them have gotten out their tape measures and chalk to help visualize how wide new sidewalks will be (I’m looking at you, Purple Petunia), and it looks pretty narrow. It’s hard to imagine room for the nice big trees we’ve got in place – not to mention all those terrific, freshly installed sculptures from Sculpture Tour Eau Claire.
Unless the new plans can find room for at least the same amount of foliage, I’d be pretty disappointed. As Todd Chwala tell me, “In addition to softening urban hardscape, providing shade, reducing energy consumption, and generally adding to the quality of life, studies have shown that shoppers tend to spend more time in shopping areas with tree-lined streets.”
He’s citing a report titled “The Benefits of Trees” from the US Forest Service, which has a whole section on how an “urban forest” can increase a community’s economic stability, positing that trees attract businesses and tourists, cause people to linger longer on shop-filled streets, and even produce higher occupancy rates for apartments and offices.
Heck, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources even claims businesses leasing office space in wooded developments “find their workers are more productive and absenteeism is reduced.” And if Maryland says it’s so, I believe it. At any rate, Chwala says the “benefit /cost ratio of Eau Claire’s public trees is about $4.88 in benefits returned for each $1 of cost for the life of a tree.” Seems like a nice return.
However, while all these concepts are awesome, I’d hope there’d be a tendency to preserve and add trees to any city street – downtown, residential, or otherwise – with or without documented economic kickback. Trees look great, and great-looking streets produce pride in where you live which leads to all kinds of great stuff, the greatest of which is a general sense of ownership and togetherness. Great, great, great!
So I guess I’m dealing with a major case of tree paranoia this summer. We really need to take good care of the trees we have or who knows what could happen? Perhaps they’ll rise up against us, proving to be the greatest threat to mankind in the history of the world, releasing mind-controlling toxic spores into the atmosphere. Hey, wait, that could be the plot to an awesome movie. Right?