Tree canopy report raises more questions than it answers

The public message is that Arlington reversed the tree canopy decline of 2011 and the canopy today remains fairly stable, with a 1% overall increase.

Many of us have questioned the results. The reported 15% gain in my neighborhood, Aurora Highlands, beggars the imagination of anybody who keeps tabs on all the teardowns and pays attention to trees. Maybe the increase is all in the parks. Two forestry professors I know of are interested in having their classes dive into Arlington’s studies to answer questions we all have.

What’s disturbing, though, is that the County is so eager to look good that it’s glossing over a dire situation. How can you look at this report and not be struck that almost half of the civic associations lost canopy since 2011. This is not “fairly stable” and it certainly doesn’t indicate a reversal in canopy decline.

Since 2016 a lot more trees have come down and many more are slated for removal at Crystal House III, Donaldson Run, Lubber Run, Upton Hills. It’s disingenuous to claim success when future losses such as these are already known.

Rather than eliciting a sigh of relief, this report should be a wake-up call and a catalyst for thinking more proactively about the canopy.

What are the canopy goals? In areas with the most canopy what about the age of trees? Is replacement a concern and is there a plan for it?

And if the County thinks planting is a silver bullet, what are the plans for monitoring success? You don’t only need to plant trees, you also need them to develop into healthy, long-lived specimens. Is survival tracked 1, 5, 10 years out? Is there a plan or a budget for structural pruning to ensure strength and longevity? What monitoring is done of trees planted under MS4 permits? What about trees planted by DES or by developers as replacement trees?

The UFC’s charter tasks you with recommending tree canopy goals for individual neighborhoods. In single-family neighborhoods, we need start pushing back on variances and to revisit zoning ordinances that allow such extensive buildout. How are the preferred plantable areas in these neighborhoods even determined? In R-5 and R-6 zones these huge new houses simply don’t leave room for trees that will develop canopy. Even on private properties where there is space, how will you get enough trees planted? Unless we relegate all of our trees to parks, the UFC needs to become a bully pulpit in its advisory role.

This report clearly raises more questions than it answers. I really hope it will guide a plan for clearer targets, better data collection, and forceful recommendations about ensuring the future of our urban forest.

Natasha Atkins

Presentation to Urban Forestry Commission, February 22, 2018