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U.S. Forest Service researchers conclude that properly cared for municipal trees can be worth three times their investment. Neglected, these trees can become liabilities.
Yet, urban forestry is not a priority for many communities, and their green infrastructure is typically in disrepair as a result. Without programs or policies to protect and replenish trees, canopy declines and tree benefits are sacrificed. Life is tough on trees in people-dominated settings. The American Forests reports that the average life expectancy for an urban tree is only 32 years compared to the 150 years or more that same tree could expect to live in its native habitat.
Tree management budgets are rarely sufficient and many municipal tree workers do not have adequate training. This training is important because it helps staff properly plant, protect and maintain trees, leading to longer tree life and greater benefits to the community.
A study of urban forestry by James Kielbaso and Vincent Cotrone of Michigan State University concluded that only 23 percent of the cities surveyed had a city forester and cities typically devoted less than half of one percent of their budgets to tree care.
"Urban forestry is often seen as a luxury, rather than infrastructure development and maintenance," says Cindy Casey, DNR's West Central Region urban forestry coordinator. "The issue should not be about choosing between police and trees. It should be about how to achieve both."
The onslaught of Dutch elm disease in the 1930s was a wake up call to some communities to the need for a municipal tree care program. Nearly all Midwest communities were ravaged by the disease and many lost elms that arched over the streets and yards. Milwaukee lost 128,000 elms from 1956 to 1988 due to the disease. There was little shade and fewer places to play hide-and-seek.
Even today, our urban forests continue to be threatened by the introduction of exotic insects and diseases. Asian long horned beetle, sudden oak death and the emerald ash borer are examples of newly introduced pests which lack the natural controls found in their native habitat, which would assist in keeping these pests in check in their new environment.
Competition for space causes the demise of many urban trees. According to the National Arbor Day Foundation, the utility industry spends $1.5 billion a year trying to keep tree limbs and power lines apart. Road widening, construction and redevelopment projects, and similar public improvements take more trees. Many street trees are doomed to early destruction because they were poorly chosen for the amount of space available, eventually leading to sidewalk damage, obstructed views, clearance problems, poor tree health, excessive maintenance and similar concerns.
Development takes a large toll on trees, according to American Forests. An estimated 630 million trees are currently missing from metropolitan areas across the United States as the result of urban and suburban development.
Hazardous trees can kill and injure people, and damage property. When damage, injury or death occurs because of a defective tree, the law usually holds the tree's owner responsible. In a public place, responsibility shifts to the tree manager. The best defense against litigation is a sound and comprehensive community forestry program.