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A Lifeline For City Trees

By Adrian Higgins

Thursday, November 25, 1999; Page T16

Look at a windblown street tree after the next gale and observe the root ball. It will be tiny in comparison to the plant's above-ground mass.

"Most of the trees are put in concrete coffins," said Sarah Boasberg, a landscape designer in Northwest Washington. "They are bound to die."

Trees and death have been on Boasberg's mind lately, as well as on the minds of many other District residents who have seen the urban forest die back in recent years. As the representative of the Committee of 100 on the Federal City, she joined top city officials and heads of the environmental group American Forests at a news conference last week. The bad news: Washington's urban forest has declined markedly since 1973. Of the city's 116,000 spaces for street trees, up to 30,000 are empty or contain dead or dying trees. Their canopy has shrunk from 37 percent to 21 percent as shade trees have fallen victim to disease, development and neglect. Areas with heavy tree cover and big trees declined 64 percent.

The good news: As the city emerges from its financial crises of the 1990s, it has found the money--$9 million--and the expertise to reverse the decline, greatly expanding the number of contractors to plant new trees and trim and fell sick ones.

But Boasberg's committee says long-term survival of the urban forest also depends on new attitudes and actions, not least from residents of sylvan neighborhoods. At the most basic level, they should water trees, especially during droughts; and be careful when planting little gardens at the base of trees. The city limits what can be done in these tree boxes, but the public isn't aware of the restrictions and sometimes damages tree roots through excessive digging and planting.

Survival also depends on residents supporting fundamental changes in the way trees are planted, Boasberg says. The committee recommends a shift from the classic American streetscape of avenues of matching shade trees. Historically, this was accomplished with the elm tree (since devastated by Dutch elm disease) and now is achieved with various maples, oaks and the zelkova tree. But the habit of planting only a single species has led to disease epidemics. It would be better, she said, to plant a mix of species, using those that have similar shapes. Trees near power lines should be under 30 feet to reduce the amount of mutilation by power companies, even if this means there are short trees on one side of the street and tall ones on the other. The city should plant trees every 25 feet instead of 40 feet to increase the canopy.

Other recommendations include increasing the city's numbers of professional arborists and horticulturists; starting an intensive program to care for the remaining old elm trees; and forming a central tree office to coordinate "all aspects of working with the public," including volunteer efforts. It also urges closer monitoring of power-company contractors and builders to reduce damage to trees.

Mayor Anthony Williams said the recommendations would be considered. He also wondered if street trees could be planted on private property where there would be more room for root zones to develop.

During the city's recent financial crisis, dead and dying trees were left to fall apart and the city's replacement tree program virtually stopped. Local residents with failing trees on their streets were left to throw up their hands or get permits to take down and replant trees themselves.

The committee said, too, that "residents need to be informed that trees should be watered regularly, that no nails or staples should be driven into the tree bark, and that posters may be attached to trees only with string."

In other words, now that the city has got its act together, everyone should pull together to preserve and replenish the urban forest. Trees and other elements of open space must be regarded as much a part of a city's infrastructure as its highways--and as valuable, said James R. Lyons, undersecretary for natural resources and the environment at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. "Basically, if we take trees for granted we are going to lose them," he said.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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