Love of trees in the District seems to be at a high point

In Northeast, volunteers with the nonprofit group Casey Trees dig in.
In Northeast, volunteers with the nonprofit group Casey Trees dig in. (Courtesy Of Casey Trees)
By John Kelly
Sunday, August 8, 2010

In 1971, Congress cut Washington's appropriation for tree planting from $60,000 to $5,000. A year later, one observer estimated that the city was suffering a net loss of 1,700 trees a year. Another put the figure closer to 3,500. The arboreal neglect continued into the '80s and '90s. The City of Trees -- the leafy nickname the District had earned in the 19th century -- was in danger of becoming the City of Stumps.

But Washington's trees have weathered many ups and downs, surviving alternating cycles of affection and neglect. Answer Man is happy to say we seem to be at a high point in our tree love. Future generations will decide whether we kept it up.

Last week, Answer Man traced the roots of Washington's urban forest. This week, he looks at the green buds of future growth. Here's the math: About 35 percent of the District is covered with forest canopy. The goal is to increase it to 40 percent by 2035, a feat that will require planting 8,600 trees a year. The goal is both aesthetic and environmental: Trees help keep pollutants from reaching our streams, rivers and bays.

Among those on the front lines is John Thomas, associate director of the city's Urban Forestry Administration, who oversees a staff of 47 and a budget of $7.5 million. His agency is responsible for the city's 146,000 street trees.

Life is not easy for a city tree, whose average life span can be as short as seven years. Washington typically gets 15 to 25 years out of its street trees, John said. (Why are street trees bigger than you might expect? As punishing as an urban environment is, all that carbon dioxide and heat actually promote rapid growth.)

The city won't get to 8,600 trees a year simply with street trees from John's office, which plants about 3,400 annually. Here's where residents and nonprofit and community groups come in.

In 2001, discouraged by aerial photos that showed the effects of deforestation in Washington, philanthropist Betty Brown Casey donated $50 million to start Casey Trees, a nonprofit that focuses on planting trees on private property, training citizen foresters and acting as a tree-info clearinghouse. It works with groups including Restore Mass Ave, founded in 2006 by Deborah Shapley. "I was just so steamed up at watching the city plant these little saplings then watching them die and new ones get planted," Deborah said.

It was a wasteful cycle. Restore Mass Ave now monitors street trees from Dupont Circle to the Naval Observatory. The city is not responsible for watering new trees, so Deborah entreats homeowners and businesses to take stewardship of the ones outside their doors. That includes embassies, whose employees dutifully stretch hoses out to water trees. You might also see volunteers pulling bucket-laden red wagons along the street to bring sustenance to parched trees.

"It's not hard to care about a tree," Deborah said. "They're like babies or kittens."

Deborah's group has been instrumental in planting a second row of lindens along Massachusetts Avenue on the other side of the sidewalk, a step toward restoring the grand, tree-lined look for which the thoroughfare was once known.

John of the Urban Forestry Administration says these public-private partnerships are essential.

The city has 900 tree stewards, each keeping tabs on at least one tree and making sure the green bag at its base is full of water. A tree needs 25 gallons of water a week during the summer. If a sapling can survive its first three years, it usually has a chance at a long life of providing shade.

Said John: "The difference between a tree and almost anything else a city does in the form of public space is there's an emotional charge to it. It's this living thing that's trying to make its way."

And what of the city's nickname?

Said John: "It's definitely the City of Trees and will be for a long time."

If you're a D.C. resident interested in adopting a tree, call 202-671-5133. For information on tours of Washington trees with expert and author Melanie Choukas-Bradley, visit And if you have a question about the area, write to

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