About 40 percent of the city’s 108 square miles is covered by trees, providing residents with shade, healthier air and beauty.
To keep that arboreal canopy intact, Durham needs to plant an estimated 1,680 new trees every year for the next 20 years, according to a study (nando.com/1ai) by the city’s Environmental Affairs Board.
“Durham’s urban forest is at a critical juncture,” board Chairwoman Elizabeth Chan told the City Council recently, “due to the impending death of 13,000 large trees that were all planted at the same time in the 1930s.”
The precarious state of the willow and water oaks in inner-city neighborhoods such as Watts Hospital-Hillandale and Trinity Park is a familiar concern.
An urban environment with root-constricting construction and traffic, vehicle exhaust, over-zealous pruning and, most recently, canker worms has weakened trees’ health even as they close in on the ends of their natural lifespans, around 90 years.
Alex Johnson, the city’s urban forestry manager, estimates Durham will lose an average of 650 of those large trees per year over the next 20, plus another 100 smaller trees such as maples and crepe myrtles due to storm damage, accident and natural attrition.
So, in addition to planting trees, the city needs to be taking out an average of 750 dead and dying trees every year – or more, if a hurricane, disease or pest infestation intervenes.
“We don’t know how much it’s going to cost,” Chan said.
“This is very useful,” said Councilman Eugene Brown. “What should be our goal?”
Not every 100-foot willow oak can be replaced with another, because power lines, sidewalks and other built environmental elements put restrictions on root spread and height. Also, according to experience in other cities, only about 80 percent of new-planted trees will survive to maturity.
So, the Environmental Affairs report estimates that Durham needs, on average, 260 large trees (70-100 feet tall at maturity), 580 “medium” trees (40-60 feet) and 840 “small” trees (20-30 feet) planted per year – total 1,680 – to maintain a 40 percent canopy.
“Daunting numbers,” Chan said, considering that the current city budget provides for removing about 300 trees a year and planting about 500, and planting money may be shifted to removal as more trees pass away.
Estimating costs is “a problematic situation,” Johnson said, because there are “multiple variables” involved: which species to buy, different survival rates between large and small, native and imported trees, and what’s available on the market. Nurseries let their stocks dwindle during the recession, Johnson said, meaning less on hand to sell now, meaning higher prices.
Besides the city, private groups such as Keep Durham Beautiful and the Ellerbe Creek Watershed Association carry out tree-planting programs and Durham County has put money into a Trees Across Durham program for planting and promoting the urban forest’s benefits.
But, the report says, where trees get planted is generally “based on requests from and the financial support of economically-advantaged residents,” meaning low-income areas are to some extent left out and trees may not be getting planted where they would do the most good.
The report advises appropriating city money for planting and removing, a master plan for maintaining the 40 percent canopy and an inventory of trees and their condition to find out just where new trees should go to get the most overall benefit.
“Thank you for beating the drum,” Councilman Don Moffitt said. “I’ll jump on your bandwagon for the study.
“It’s not just like we all love trees, there’s actual real economic, environmental and social benefits,” he said. “The neighborhood I live in can afford to pay their share to help replace trees, but not all the neighborhoods can. It think it’s a critical environmental, social-justice issue.”
Councilman Steve Schewel said he was “definitely convinced” the plan and inventory need doing.
“We need to get started on it and it would be great if we could do that this year,” he said. “I appreciate the equity issue. ...
“It’s the kind of problem that kind of gets hidden,” Schewel said. “There are still plenty of trees around. But we are losing our tree canopy ... and it is important to the identity of our city and the quality of life in this city.”
Anticipating some “sticker shock” ahead, Councilwoman Diane Catotti said the city “might be creative in the way we approach things” – looking for foundation grants and public donations and engaging private organizations to help.
“Chances are, we really aren’t going to be able to fully fund this any time soon,” Catotti said. “The list of things we need to spend money on is long. I definitely think this is a priority, but ... there’s a lot we can do to leverage money, time and resources.
“Boy Scouts et cetera plant trees all the time,” she said.
“We can do some private mobilization,” Schewel said. “When I was a kid and I went to Sunday school, we brought a dime every week to plant a tree in Israel. We planted a lot of trees.”
About the board
The Environmental Affairs Board is a volunteer group the city and county created in 1991 to advise the local governments on environmental matters.
It has 11 voting members and seven non-voting ex-officio members, five of whom are appointed by the City Council representing the fields of law, water resources, biological sciences, solid and hazardous waste and energy.
Meetings are usually ta 6:30 p.m. the first Wednesday of every month in the Committee Room on the second floor of City Hall.