CEDAR RAPIDS — Two six-figure contracts to plant new trees in Cedar Rapids derailed during a City Council meeting last week in debate over whether to allow substitutions for the preferred tree species.
Cedar Rapids has been planting hundreds of trees each year to replenish its stock after years without a planting program. Flooding also has killed off hundreds of trees and emerald ash borer looms as a threat with 17 percent of the city’s 42,150 trees in the ash family, according to officials. Oaks, tulip trees, dawn redwoods and Amur corktrees taking root today will color the backdrop of the city for years to come.
“Long term, there’s so many benefits of trees for our urban environment,” said Sven Leff, the Cedar Rapids parks and recreation director. “Whether it’s to provide shade or help with stormwater run off, the long term goal is to have a diverse and healthy tree canopy throughout the city. It provides beauty, reduced electric bills, healthy air, you name it.”
For its 2017 planting season, Cedar Rapids sought a vendor to source and plant 790 trees from 45 species across the city’s four quadrants, primarily along city streets, in new residential neighborhoods and at the police shooting range. Staff recommended splitting the contract between two vendors — Bladeworks of Cedar Rapids and Meyer Landscape & Design of Moline — which proposed planting trees from 35 species for a total price tag of $269,356.
The proposal was upended during Tuesday’s meeting when a runner-up pointed out 40 percent of the preferred trees had been substituted.
“If these trees are not replaced with a good diversity of hardwoods — as was called for in the original bid specs — and are replaced with a variety of softwood substitutions, which aren’t even the same species or genus, which were submitted by the winning contractors, the city stands to lose many of these trees in the future due to environmental issues, insects and disease,” Darin Chamberlin, of Greg’s Lawn and Landscaping, testified in urging the City Council to reject the contracts.
Greg’s had submitted a proposal meeting 100 percent of the diversity request, but the bid was also more expensive at $327,928.
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The City Council voted 4-4, failing to reach a majority needed to approve the contracts. Pat Shey, Ann Poe, Susie Weinacht and Mayor Ron Corbett voted in favor, while Scott Olson, Kris Gulick, Justin Shields and Ralph Russell opposed. Scott Overland left the meeting early and didn’t vote.
“I certainly understand why you might have some substitution of tree species, but 40 percent seems a little extreme,” Gulick said. “That seems like a lot of substitution and I want to make sure we are not cutting ourselves short for the long term.”
More than 1,000 trees a year are being chopped down in Cedar Rapids, while $150,000 or more is being spent to plant 800 new trees a year on average, Leff said. Additional trees also are being planted through housing developments or private grants.
A 2016 inventory identified 2,251 trees in poor, dead or critical condition, and recommended 17,996 new plantings. The city has set out to diversify its new crop to not include any more than 5 percent of one type of tree, Leff said.
“The more variety of species you have the less effect a disease will have on your forest,” Leff said. “We are far ahead in being ambitious in pursuing a diverse canopy.”
However, the availability of trees has gone down and costs have gone up, since the housing crash of the late 2000s took out a number of nurseries. Since then, nurseries have taken less risk in the volume and variety of trees they’ve grown, making substitutions more common, according to city staff and vendors.
Last year, for example, Cedar Rapids approved a contract with 33 percent substitution, Leff said. That contract drew little attention.
The potential for substitutions is even acknowledged as part of the tree planting program.
“If certain species are not available substitutions may be recommended,” according to a city memo. But, “It is the sole discretion of the city arborist to make the determination if a substitution is acceptable.”
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Leff acknowledged no substitutions would be ideal and 40 percent is high, but defended the contracts, noting all 35 varieties proposed by Bladeworks and Meyer are on the city’s list of 72 acceptable tree species. The savings was a benefit, but not the primary factor in recommending the contract, he said.
“That’s about a $50,000 savings for 35 species of trees, which still presents us some diversity,” Leff told the City Council on Tuesday. “And when it comes to the total budget available for the trees and how many more trees we can purchase with the price break, there’s a judgment call.”
Substitutions have become fairly common, and whether or not it’s a concern depends on what is being substituted for what, said Emma Hanigan, the state urban forester for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. Substitutions should provide similar properties, such as shade and life span, she said.
“This has definitely been a challenge we’ve seen,” Hanigan said of substitutions. “I think it is great this conversation is happening. Our communities are seeing an over-planting of certain species. It is important to diversify, so there’s not an invasion from an insect or disease.”
The tree broad diversity goals of Cedar Rapids, “shows the city is really trying to manage their trees,” she added.
Cedar Rapids plans to retool the language of the project to make the expectations more clear, and to provide more flexibility by including preferences for genus, which is a broader category than species, Leff said.
The hope is to get the contract awarded in time to plant this spring, but if not the trees will be planted in the fall, Leff said.
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