Cedar Rapids loses half its tree canopy in derecho

TaxAct pledges $100K toward replacement that will cost millions

 

CEDAR RAPIDS — Trees bring air to our lungs and shape to our world, filtering pollution, buffering sound and harboring birds, squirrels and insects.

We fall in love with trees in our yards or trees we pass on our daily travels. As we sit in their shade, press our palms to their bark or look up at their foliage, trees reduce our blood pressure and stress-producing hormones.

All this makes many residents of Cedar Rapids — a city whose logo is a tree — wonder what the community will look like after half of its tree canopy was destroyed by last week’s hurricane-force storm. The cost of replacing the damaged city-owned trees alone could be tens of millions of dollars.

“After Katrina, people planted trees,” Shannon Ramsey, founding president and chief executive officer of Trees Forever, said about the 2005 hurricane that struck New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. “One neighborhood leader said, ‘We are planting hope.’ It symbolizes that we all still care about this community and about this neighborhood. We’re here to stay, so we will keep planting.”

 
 

Todd Fagan, Cedar Rapids city arborist, said the city’s municipal tree population has a structural value of $112 million. He has estimated about half its tree canopy is gone after last Monday’s storm. In coming weeks and months, the city will document each damaged or fallen tree in its inventory to determine total loss and figure out how to replant.

Marion lost at least half of its tree canopy, too, City Arborist Mike Cimprich estimated. Included among the multitude are a historic hackberry in City Square and a line of maples on Eighth Avenue.

“It’s definitely the most devastating thing I’ve seen,” he said.

Iowa City didn’t bear the worst of the derecho winds, but officials there estimate about 1,000 city-owned trees have significant damage. State champion trees on the University of Iowa campus remain standing.

‘It won’t be the same’

Older neighborhoods felt the storm’s toll more acutely because of the large number of mature trees. On F Avenue NW in Cedar Rapids, where maples, oaks, birches and lindens formed a green tunnel over the road, the sky now shows through jagged branches and snapped limbs.

One of those trees, a heritage river birch planted in the 900 block of F Avenue NW, has a special place in Kellie Schilling’s heart.

Schilling, 61, asked the city in 2003 to plant a tree in front of her house to shade the porch and provide a home for birds and other critters.

She still has the door placard the city left when workers planted the tree in the city right of way.

“I am your tree,” the sign says. “Help me grow by watering the soil immediately around the trunk once a week during the first two years to help me get a good healthy start when the weather is dry.”

 
 

From a narrow sapling, the river birch has grown 30 feet and now is surrounded by a ring of stones, annuals, a garden flag, bird feeder and squirrel feeder — all signs of Schilling’s love.

“It won’t be the same,” Schilling said, choking up about the tree whose two largest branches snapped in the storm. She means the river birch and her street, where it will take many years for the tree branches to join again in a green tunnel.

Mark Gukeisen, 43, used a chain saw Wednesday to cut down branches from his neighbor’s tree that had fallen on his law in the 1500 block of Sixth Avenue SE. Some of his trees fell on another neighbor’s lawn. All of this caused a cascading need to work together to clear sidewalks and remove branches from garages and fences, Gukeisen said.

“This is a very old neighborhood and the trees give it a lot of character,” he said. “I hope it doesn’t lose that character with the loss of trees.”

So what will it take to restore the green canopy over Cedar Rapids?

Restoring the canopy

A September 2014 snowstorm dumped 17 inches of wet, heavy snow on Calgary, a city of 1.3 million people in Alberta, Canada. The three-day storm, dubbed “Snowtember,” damaged about half the city’s 500,000 trees and many more private trees, said Julie Guimond, Calgary Urban Forestry lead.

“It sat on the trees and it pulled our trees down,” Guimond told The Gazette. “We had the peeled-back look on a lot of our trees, especially the broader canopy trees — the elms, ashes, apples — the ones with wide-reaching branches.”

Urban Forestry gave Calgary officials the options of just cleaning up or pruning and replanting some trees. A third option was rethinking how Calgary tracks its tree inventory with a plan for greater long-term resilience.

Calgary officials chose the third option, spending $35 million over three years to plant 25,000 new trees, create a digital inventory of all city-owned trees and develop educational materials to help residents understand how to plant and care for their own trees.

The city also formed partnerships with tree nurseries to give discounts on trees for private landowners.

As a result, “the trees in Calgary are more resilient,” Guimond said. “We are not seeing the damage when we have subsequent storms.”

This is what Ramsey wants for Cedar Rapids’ tree canopy — resilience.

“It’s an opportunity to continue to preach more diversity,” she said. “We want to look at more native trees, in general, because they have proved the test of time and they support the pollinators. One large oak can support over 400 species. Everything from birds, squirrels to a hoard of insects.”

A major question is how the community will pay for recovering the tree canopy — especially with all the human needs after the devastation.

Cedar Rapids announced Friday a $100,000 pledge from TaxAct, a Cedar Rapids-based tax software company, that will go toward tree replanting.

Trees Forever, which helped Parkersburg replant trees after the 2008 tornado and launched the Recover, Replant, Restore! program after the 2008 floods in Eastern Iowa, also will do what it can, Ramsey said.

“I’m hoping we really have a lot of help come forward,” she said. “It is going to take decades to recover our canopy loss.”

Comments: (319) 339-3157; erin.jordan@thegazette.com