Cedar Rapids doubles spending on new trees

Some funds needed to replace threatened elm trees

Urban forester Joe Werling operates a loader a city of Cedar Rapids crew cuts down a tree on Norwick Road SW in Cedar Ra
Urban forester Joe Werling operates a loader a city of Cedar Rapids crew cuts down a tree on Norwick Road SW in Cedar Rapids on Thursday. The tree was damaged in a recent storm (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)

Few four-syllable words are used more at City Hall than infrastructure.

Even so, City Council member Monica Vernon wonders if a city can get lost in the talk about concrete and asphalt and the sewer and water pipes under it and forget all about another piece of a city’s infrastructure — the natural kind comprised of the trees the city plants, maintains and removes in the right of way along city streets.

“We are caretakers of all the infrastructure, and I don’t think we always talk about the green infrastructure,” she says.

There the news is mixed.

In the fiscal year that began July 1, the City Council has agreed to spend more than twice as much to plant trees along city streets than in the previous year or in any previous year in recent history.

This year it will spend $150,000, which will allow the city to purchase and plant 800 to 900 trees. That’s up from $70,000 in spending in the fiscal year that ended June 30.

The uptick in spending is not a gigantic sum in relation, for instance, to the $15 million or so a year the city spends on building new streets and fixing the ones it has.

At the same time, more tree-planting money won’t change another fact of municipal arithmetic: The city will still remove more trees from city streets this year than it will plant with the additional funding.

In calendar year 2011, the city removed 1,220 trees from the street right of way, while planting trees at a rate of between 400 and 500 trees a year. In 2010, the city removed about 1,100, reports Craig Hanson, the city’s public works maintenance manager.

“We’re at a net loss, so we’re going in the wrong direction,” says Vernon.

Todd Fagan, the city’s arborist, notes that the city probably sees on average an additional 100 trees planted in the right of way as part of new development, and Hanson says another 50 trees go in the city right of way each year because private-property owners buy them.

Fagan says he’s shooting for 1,000 newly planted trees a year in the future in the hope of planting more trees than the city removes.

“We’d at least like to see our heads above water,” he says.

Fagan and Hanson say the city tree removal program, which removes dead, dying and declining trees and those damaged in storms, has seen more tree removals in the last few years as the city has targeted ash trees to take down and replace in preparation for the expected arrival of the ash-tree killer, the emerald ash borer. The emerald ash borer, which has killed tens of millions of ash trees and prompted the removal of millions more in more than a dozen states, has shown up in far northeast Iowa.

A 2006-2007 tree survey of Cedar Rapids’ 40,000 to 50,000 street trees found that 28 percent of those trees were ash trees and 27 percent were maple trees. Maple trees face their own threat from the Asian long-horned beetle, though the threat is less than that of ash trees, notes Fagan.

Of the 1,220 trees removed in 2011, 308 were ash trees, though some of those were storm-damaged trees, the city’s Hanson reports.

Fagan says removing 300 ash trees a year in a city in which nearly 30 percent of as many as 50,000 trees are ash trees is “not making much of a dent” in the potential for a great loss of the city’s street trees should the emerald ash borer arrive in Cedar Rapids in the next couple of years. Even so, replacing a few hundred ash trees a year with trees of different species moves the city slowly in the right direction toward a more diverse makeup of tree species, he says.

City Council member Scott Olson says he is a strong supporter of planting more trees and having a more diverse mix of trees along city streets, but he adds it doesn’t make much sense to plant more trees if the city can’t take care of them.

Olson points to about 40 new trees planted on Edgewood Road SW south of Highway 30 and some 150 or so trees planted on 33rd Avenue SW west of 18th Street SW as part of major highway viaduct projects. Nearly all the trees are dead in the Edgewood Road SW group, and some number are also dead on 33rd Avenue SW, he says.

“I want to see more trees, but as we continue to add street trees, we need to increase our maintenance budget,” says Olson. “My concern is we don’t overcommit if we don’t have the maintenance money.”

He wonders, too, if part of the problem is the city’s need to accept the lowest of bids, which he says might mean the city is buying cheap trees from out of state rather than more expensive trees better acclimated to Iowa’s climate.

Fagan calls the tree losses on Edgewood Road SW near 60th Avenue SW and on 33rd Avenue SW west of 18th Street SW “anomalies.” This year, he says, has featured early leafing followed by a frost and then a drought. The spot on Edgewood Road SW open to strong winds makes that area particularly tough to sustain new trees, he adds.

Fagan says the city may need to look to change some of its bid specifications for trees, such as requiring two-year warranties, not just a one-year warranties and requiring contractors who plant trees to follow up with a watering program. The dead trees on 33rd Avenue SW are covered by a one-year warranty, he notes.

The city’s Hanson says the city’s tree maintenance budget has not seen an increase for a number of years, and Fagan says “in a perfect world,” it would be nice to have more staff dedicated to tree watering and maintenance, “but we don’t have that.” “So we have to find other ways to increase and improve longevity,” he says.

Fagan estimates that the city may have 20,000 spots along city streets that could have a spot for a new tree. The city’s ordinance for new street trees calls for one tree per residential lot and one tree every 40 feet for apartment and commercial buildings.

Many of the new trees that the city plants go into places where the city has removed trees, though most residents who call the city and ask for a tree in front of their house can get one of the ones the city plants each year, says Fagan. He adds that a few people object when the city asks to plant a tree in front of their house, but most don’t.

“Most prefer it,” says Fagan, who has been the city’s arborist for the last two years. “They like the look of it. When they walk down the street, it’s nice and cool. It’s just a quality of life thing.”

In the near-term, the city continues to face the “two big bullies” — the emerald ash borer and the less fearsome Asian long-horned beetle — which Fagan says can “potentially cause a lot of damage.” At the same time, city arborists always are focused farther into the future, he says.

“We’re not planting trees for ourselves,” explains Fagan. “The trees we’re putting in the ground we’re imaging are for people 50, 60 and 70 years from now and what they’re going to enjoy. I’m enjoying what was planted 50 and 60 years ago.“It’s great now, but how are we going to make sure my grandkids are going to be looking at the same thing? And that’s what we kind of have to look to address.”

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.