If a Tree Falls 

Growing an "urban forest"

For 15 years, I lived in a house in Massachusetts that was heated by a woodstove instead of a furnace. The priority task each spring was to lay in a year’s supply of firewood. My house needed four cords of dry hardwood—such as maple, birch and oak—to see it through the fearsome New England winter. A cord being about the size of a Mini Cooper, the annual chore occupied me for many weeks. Cutting, splitting and stacking green wood is somewhat like having a membership at Gold’s Gym but far more satisfying, even in March mud or April’s black-fly plague.

The upshot is that I may be one of only a handful of people who does not take a thermostat for granted. That realization came to me recently as I sat in the chicken coop Aldo Leopold improved in 1935 to be a weekend retreat. It was the source of the “shack essays” that have earned him a well-deserved place in the first rank of the environmental movement. It was also where he and his five kids eventually planted 5,000 pine trees on adjacent acreage. Why pines? “I love all trees, but I am in love with pines,” he wrote in his seminal book, Sand County Almanac.

Although I prefer birch to pine, I have come around to Leopold’s viewpoint. I no longer appraise a tree with a woodcutter’s eye. I am more the Tin Woodman of Oz who has finally received a heart from the wizard. Walking the canopied streets of Yalecrest and Federal Heights, I feel as if I am in the nave of a great cathedral. There, it is clear that a tree is best transformed by an artist’s brush, not a woodsman’s snarling chainsaw. In other neighborhoods, many curbside trees are dying. Each one I pass registers in a twinge of sadness—the same involuntary reaction I get from a neglected garden strangled by morning-glory vines, or a dead deer on the highway.

There are 364,000 trees in Salt Lake City, plus or minus, almost two for every resident. What is a “metro area” to some is an “urban forest” to others like Bill Rutherford. He is Salt Lake City’s anointed urban forester. On the day I met him, he was bent over blueprints spread on a lawn as developers made their case for removing a city-owned tree and shrubs to make space for parking. My mind was occupied with Joni Mitchell’s lyric, “They paved paradise and put up a parking lot,” as Rutherford, in a businesslike exchange, negotiated for large replacement trees and water-permeable paving to sustain them.

If you talk to Rutherford for any length of time, you hear a lot about water. It is hard enough for a tree to thrive surrounded by water-shedding streets and sidewalks, he says, but the state’s “slow the flow” conservation effort has taken an unintended toll on the city’s trees. In 2011, 1,707 trees were removed. Trees on the sides of streets need more water, not less, especially in a time of drought, he says.

“Stewardship” is another word Rutherford uses often. He is quick to point out that while 1,707 trees were cut down in 2011, 12,000 were pruned and 1,153 were planted. Moreover, if Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon gets his way, 617,108 more will be planted before 2017, the end of a 10-year initiative intended to add 1 million trees to the valley. So far, the count is 382,892. New York City is also midway through a million-tree campaign. An article in The New York Times marking the planting of the 500,000th tree included grousing from a few residents about buckled sidewalks, piles of leaves and head-banging branches. “Most people love trees,” a city official said, “but this being New York, you’ll always find someone who doesn’t.”

Not so here on the edge of the Great Basin desert. A tree is a valuable asset, Rutherford says. Not only do trees convert carbon dioxide to oxygen, “They contribute to the public health and sense of well-being.” Studies show tree-lined streets have a calming effect on traffic and stressed-out people. Trees also provide measurable financial benefits. Where deciduous trees are situated next to the south- and west-facing walls of a house, both heating and cooling costs are reduced. Mature trees and landscaping enhance real-estate values by as much as 10 percent, as I learned firsthand not long after my Joni Mitchell moment. I accompanied Lyle Hagen, an arborist on Rutherford’s small staff, as he inspected damaged trees along streets near Emigration Market. At one stop, the home-owner joined us as we looked at a moribund maple. He said the tree had been hit by a garbage truck a few years before, and despite extra water and fertilizer, it had deteriorated. Hagen tells him the city will replace it. Cutting it down will reduce the value of the property by $7,000 to $10,000, he replies dispiritedly. I calculate that the London Plane trees shading the tony Yalecrest and Federal Heights neighborhoods are worth significantly more.

Rutherford says the stately Planes will live another 100 years if cared for, and he is as invested in their well-being as Aldo Leopold was in reforesting his Wisconsin retreat. I must say that the “urban forest” concept takes a little getting used to. The lexical pairing is as oxymoronic as “jumbo shrimp” or “selfless politician,” but it is better than “green infrastructure,” a recent coinage by the folks who gave us “view-shed” and “light pollution.” Whatever label you prefer, it is a hospitable habitat for the birds, raccoons, squirrels, deer, dryads and humans who occupy it.

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