January 11, 2008

Urban Tree Farms Have Taken Root in Many Cities

Among the many victims of a 1994 tornado in Lancaster were the trees.

Winds of more than 200 mph stripped thousands of them from the downtown area and neighborhoods.

In the 14 years since, city officials and residents have planted thousands of trees to replenish the urban forest. And they hit a milestone on that front last month when they transplanted about three dozen trees from the city's 5-year-old tree farm behind Veterans Memorial Library.

"This is the first year that anything has been mature enough to try any harvesting," said Joel McKnight, the parks operations manager.

Lancaster is among a handful of area cities that operate their own tree farms.

Flower Mound planted one in 2004 on an old cotton field near Forest Vista Elementary School. The first trees were transplanted to parks and other public areas this week. Rockwall and Rowlett both have tree farms in their long-term parks plans.

Pete Smith, urban forestry partnership coordinator for the Texas Forest Service, said municipal tree farms are becoming more popular.

"When you've got the land, water and personnel to manage them, tree farms are a good way for cities to have an ongoing program," Mr. Smith said.

Other cities are moving slower. Dallas hired its first urban forester in 2006. It does not operate a tree farm, but city property has benefited from projects by the Texas Tree Foundation and its two urban tree farms. Plano has abandoned its city-run tree farm.

"I think some cities closed their tree farms, thinking they could get them cheaper somewhere else," said Melinda Adams, Fort Worth's urban forester. "But we're finding it's very cost-effective for us."

Fort Worth's tree-hugging attitude started in the city's earliest days.

"Within the city charter, there is an ordinance making it illegal to deface or hitch a horse to a tree," Ms. Adams said. "I think early on, the councils and the city have always had a commitment to trees."

Fort Worth's urban forestry program started in 1920, and its tree farm, dating to the 1980s, has grown into the area's most expansive to be run by a city.

About 5,000 trees ranging from seedlings to fully grown occupy the farm at any given time. The trees are grown from seeds collected around the city.

The city transplants about 1,800 annually, all onto public land. And residents can apply in groups to plant them in neighborhood parkways.

Most of the trees from Allen's tree farm, which started in 2001, end up on private property, said urban forester Susan Campbell. The city has narrow medians and parkways, so it makes more sense to let residents plant the trees in their yards, she said.

"I think Allen as a whole is pretty educated, and they know the value of trees," she said.

City workers and volunteers provide the labor at the tree farm, and Keep Allen Beautiful sustains and funds it. The Trees for Allen program allows residents to buy the trees, at prices far cheaper than at commercial nurseries.

In previous years, residents purchased trees that had been grown elsewhere. But for next month's annual tree sale, trees from the Allen farm will finally be old enough to transplant, Ms. Campbell said.

Allen's tree farm has a temporary home under a city water tower, where the trees grow in 5- and 10-gallon pots. Plans call for a new, permanent home, but officials haven't approved the move.

Attention on global warming and other environmental issues has pushed urban forestry into the public eye, said Mr. Smith with the state Forest Service. People want to live in communities with trees because they remove carbon dioxide from the air, block winds, offer shade, prevent soil erosion and add beauty, he said.

And city leaders are responding.

More area cities have adopted tree preservation ordinances that force developers to protect trees or replace the ones they remove. Mr. Smith said that when one city receives designation as a Tree City USA from the Arbor Day Foundation, neighboring cities seek the nod, too.

"There's a little bit of keeping up with the Joneses from city to city, and I certainly encourage that if it puts attention on these issues," he said.

As cities grow -- Mr. Smith puts the threshold at 50,000 people -- they must face the challenge of promoting development while protecting the environment.

"Growth is good, but no one wants to walk on sidewalks if there's no shade," he said.

Said Mr. McKnight from Lancaster: "The city leaders are committed to protecting Lancaster's heritage as a rural community. There won't just be rows of houses. There will be an urban forest, whether it be in open spaces or just along the medians."