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Threatened by infestations, climate change and competing demands for space, Madison’s tree canopy will shrink with “potentially disastrous results” unless the city invests more in its trees, a new report says.

After nearly two years of study, the city’s Urban Forestry Task Force is making a series of recommendations — some with potentially significant price tags — to nurture and dramatically increase the area covered by trees from 23% to 40% of Madison’s 80 square miles.

Already, the city has had to deal with infestation by the emerald ash borer that’s forcing the removal of thousands of trees, as well as disease, climate change, loss of mature trees to development, road salt, and cramped space for planting and growth in the public right of way.

On private property, where most of the trees in the city are located, uneven care is also affecting the urban canopy, the report said.

The task force, created by the City Council on Aug. 1, 2017, has offered a 25-page report and recommendations aimed at elevating the importance of trees in the city’s planning, investments and operations and creating a new city role in expanding the canopy on private property.

“We have a quality urban forest in the city,” parks superintendent Eric Knepp said. “However, there are many opportunities to improve it.”

The 46 recommendations call for a preservation ordinance to protect mature trees; a yet-to-be defined grant program for planting trees on private property; focusing attention on neighborhoods that need trees; written standards for how to care for trees; hiring a forestry outreach and education specialist; revisiting old sites that don’t require much landscaping, such as parking lots at big shopping malls, and bringing them up to current standards; and planting more trees in parks than needed to replace those that are lost.

A number of city committees are reviewing the report and the City Council is scheduled to take it up on Sept. 17. Individual recommendations, particularly those requiring funding, will need separate approvals.

“Our urban forest is a fragile resource,” city forester Marla Eddy said. “A sustainable urban forest does not happen at random, but results from a community-wide commitment to its creation and management.”

A fragile resource

Celebrated in poetry, song and verse, trees have multi-faceted value, creating an identity for neighborhoods, cooling homes in the summer, providing habitat for animals, increasing property value, reducing stormwater runoff and removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, the report said.

Street trees and those in parks intercept an estimated 115 million gallons of rainfall annually, the report found. Citywide, trees remove an estimated 15,000 tons of carbon each year, it said.

“From stormwater to climate change to quality of life, trees add real value to our city,” Knepp said. “We should be considering trees and other green infrastructure as a core part of our problem-solving on these difficult issues.”

Currently, trees cover about 23% of the city’s land area, but they aren’t evenly distributed. Sometimes that’s for logical reasons, but other times it is a result of decisions that don’t place sufficient value on trees and their benefits, the report said.

Researchers estimate the average tree canopy coverage for urban areas in the U.S. is about 27%, but many cities are seeking to significantly increase that. Baltimore, Maryland, for example, is seeking to increase coverage from 28% to 40% by 2040, and Charlotte, North Carolina, from 32% to 50% by 2050.

For Madison, “all (task force) recommendations were made in an effort to work toward the overall goal of 40% canopy,” Eddy said.

Uneven standards

About 85% of the city’s tree canopy is on private property, including front or back yards, in parking lots or other landscaped areas of non city-owned land.

But single- and two-family homes are exempted from landscape requirements, meaning there are no standards for about 30% of the city’s land area. Meanwhile, many buildings and their parking lots were approved when landscape requirements were minimal. Also, Downtown and other zoning districts require little or no setback in order to bring buildings closer to the street, which has benefits but in many cases means trees can’t be planted between buildings and the street.

The rest of the canopy consists of the city’s 96,000 street trees located in the public right of way, usually between the sidewalk and the curb, and in parks, open spaces and grounds of city properties.

Species selection, especially on private property, often has resulted in minimal diversity, leaving areas vulnerable to infestation or disease.

The task force said it’s important to diversify the tree canopy so it’s less susceptible to threats like the emerald ash borer and dutch elm disease. The ash borer, first found in Madison at Warner Park in 2013, is now the single most influential force on the composition of the canopy, the report found.

And there are other threats. Development sites in some cases are cleared of trees, and mature trees removed for redevelopment or other reasons are often replaced by skinny, young trees. Trees in urban areas are also challenged by road salt, and competition for space results in cramped growing areas.

Overall, “there’s an imbalance between the number of trees being removed and what’s being planted,” said task force chairman Jeremy Kane, an arborist and director of the nonprofit Urban Tree Alliance.

The task force report emphasizes the importance of planning for the role of trees early in construction and development projects.

When developing a property, neighborhood or public works projects, “trees should be in the forefront of the discussion,” Eddy said. “Major priority must be given to establishing and nurturing a tree canopy that is diverse in both species and age.”

Costs vary

The cost of the recommendations is unclear.

Currently, city funding for forestry operations is about 2% of the overall operating budget, which is $332 million for 2019. The city spent $5.3 million on forestry and related Streets Division operations in 2018, but the sum was largely covered by an urban forestry special charge established in 2015. The charge, which is apportioned to all parcels in the city, produced $4.1 million in revenue in 2018 and is expected to generate $4.4 million this year. The remaining funding is primarily from general obligation borrowing.

If the council accepts the report, staff will set priorities that will likely include funding in future budgets, Knepp said. Some proposals will be cheap, but others could be costly — and controversial.

On Monday, the Sustainable Madison Committee suggested a staff team from several agencies propose priorities, timelines, costs and benefits by February for consideration in the 2020 capital budget.

“Across a litany of issues, (the report) looks at the complexities and speaks for the trees,” Knepp said. “In doing so, it pushes us to get better. Unless a city cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better.”

[Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct how much the city spent on forestry in 2018. That year, the city spent $5.3 million on forestry and related Streets Division operations.]

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