The city’s new urban forester has big plans for Asheville’s tree canopy

SEEKING SHADE: Earlier this year, the City of Asheville hired Keith Aitken as its first urban forester. Among Aitken’s many goals are to restore and increase the city’s total tree canopy coverage. Photo by Storms Reback

As progressive as Asheville is, when it comes to protecting its tree canopy, it lags far behind many municipalities.

Ed Macie, who served as the U.S. Forest Service’s Southern regional urban forester for 31 years, helped cities in the South build the capacity to manage their urban tree canopies. Thanks to Macie’s efforts, as well as a robust tree ordinance, Atlanta’s tree canopy rebounded from 38% coverage in 1996 to 47.1% in 2014.

After retiring in 2016, Macie relocated from Atlanta to Asheville, where he joined its Urban Forestry Commission (then known as the Asheville Tree Commission). He was shocked to discover that Asheville’s urban forest not only had little protection but was also in sharp decline.

In October 2019, Davey Research Group presented its Urban Tree Canopy Study to City Council. According to its findings, Asheville’s tree canopy plummeted from 50.9% to 44.5% between 2008 and 2018 — a loss of 891 acres of trees. Compared with a city like New York, which only has 22% coverage, 44.5% might not sound so bad, but Macie advises concentrating on the numbers that really matter.

“What I like to draw people’s attention to is the rate of change rather than the overall total,” he says. “We lost 6.4% during the recession years, and that rate of loss has certainly increased during these more robust economic times. If we’re losing upward of 10% every decade, that’s really bad.”

In the fight to restore our planet’s ecological balance, trees are some of our most important allies. They produce the oxygen we need to breathe, they hold soil in place and reduce flooding, and they absorb harmful gases. Furthermore, according to a Forest Service study, they even reduce crime. But perhaps the most important thing trees do is reduce the impact of climate change by sequestering carbon, shading houses and streets, and lowering energy consumption and the heat island effect.

For years, the Urban Forestry Commission has presented the city with a series of goals to stop and reverse tree canopy loss through the development of an urban forest master plan. Part of this plan has called for hiring an urban forester. After four years of lobbying for the position, the city recently hired Keith Aitken as its first urban forester.

Macie says it’s a positive development. “We’re facing a climate crisis, and one of the most cost-effective and readily available tools we have to cool our climate and mitigate some of the associated risks from climate change is trees,” he says. “Forestry’s a simple and easy way to get it right.”

‘What about the trees?’

I met Aitken at Pack Square Park one morning in early August. The man is built like an oak tree: tall, stout and rooted in the outdoors. During our conversation, he mentioned his love of kayaking and skiing more than once.

In fact, his interest in conservation work got its start thanks to skiing. While driving up Utah’s Big Cottonwood Canyon on a ski trip in his early 20s, Aitken saw a sign on the door of a Forest Service office that read, “Snow Ranger.” He stopped to learn more. The ranger on duty explained that he did avalanche work every morning and skied every afternoon.

Soon thereafter, Aitken enrolled at the University of Kentucky to study forestry. A subsequent stint with the Boone-based nonprofit Appalachian Voices brought him to Western North Carolina in the late ’90s, and he and his wife, Jana, bounced around for several years before settling in Weaverville.

Over the past 20 years, Aitken has held a variety of positions. “Like everyone else in Asheville … I was working three or four different jobs just to make ends meet.”

Some of these roles related to his degree — from 2002-06, he served as an educational ranger with the Forest Service. Other positions, such as his most recent 7 1/2-year stint as climbing wall coordinator at the Tempie Avery Montford Community Center, satisfied his passion for extreme sports but had little to do with forestry.

“When [the urban forester] job opened up, I was like, ‘Finally,’” Aitken says.

He began his new role on March 20. Despite his experience, he’s still adjusting to the position. “He doesn’t have an urban forestry background,” says Macie. “Understanding the ‘urban’ prefix in front of his title is part of his learning curve. The more he learns the better off we all are.”

One of Aitken’s main duties is serving as a liaison between the City of Asheville and the Urban Forestry Commission. “You need to have somebody inside the City of Asheville that plays the watchdog role,” Macie explains. “[Someone who] stands on your shoulders and says, ‘Wait, what about the trees?’”

How much are trees worth?

Unlike Mark Foster, Asheville’s city arborist, Aitken’s duties as urban forester are broader in scale. Whereas Foster, who is part of the Public Works Department, maintains all trees on city properties, Aitken is focused on the general health of the city’s tree canopy. When he does intervene on behalf of an individual tree, it’s on private property.

VITAL RESOURCE: “We’re facing a climate crisis, and one of the most cost-effective and readily available tools we have to cool our climate and mitigate some of the associated risks from climate change is trees,” says Ed Macie, a member of Asheville’s Urban Forestry Commission. Photo by Brenda Guglielmina

In September 2020, City Council passed the Tree Canopy Preservation Ordinance. As its name suggests, the ordinance requires the preservation of tree canopies. Those who do not replace the trees they remove must pay an in-lieu fee. One of Aitken’s main responsibilities is managing these fees.

As an example, he mentions the project at the former Fuddruckers on Charlotte Street, where the developers chose to clear-cut the lot and pay a $76,000 in-lieu fee so they could build condominiums. “All that money goes into a fund that goes back into that overlay district so we can use it to plant more trees in the nursery and maintain staffing,” Aitken says. “We can take that money and do good things with it.”

Steep slopes are a more contentious battleground and involve calculations to determine the percentage of permitted disturbance to a given area. Percentages are determined via Asheville’s Unified Development Ordinance’s steep slope calculator. Based on the ordinance, homeowners in certain areas are also prohibited from removing trees without a permit.

“I have a feeling if I went up there and started handing out violations, I could fund my projects for the next 20 or 30 years,” says Aitken. “People just don’t know what they can or cannot do. We want to create a document or education program for people who move into steep slopes because I want people to come to me when they have a tree removal rather than doing it under the radar.”

Most residents Aitken has talked to who live in Zone B of the city’s steep slope ordinance have responded well, but as he observes, “Some people up there have so much money they just don’t care.”

Tagging along

To get a better sense of Aitken’s job, I tagged along with him while he visited a property in Montford, where the owner was hoping to remove two large trees. The first was a white oak that Aitken guessed was at least 120 years old and wouldn’t live much longer. It had a hollow cavity at its base and didn’t have any fine branches on it, only large dead limbs and “epicormic branches” (shoots arising from once-dormant buds beneath the bark). Such growth is a survival mechanism.

Aitken blamed the compacted soil from the gravel parking lot that led up to the base of the tree, a situation that wouldn’t be allowed under the current tree ordinance. He also pointed out that the tree had obviously never been maintained. “If an arborist would’ve gotten involved earlier, we probably could have saved this tree,” he said. “If people would maintain what they have, we could save so many more trees, and these are the trees that we want to save because they absorb the most carbon.”

Given the tree’s condition, Aitken approved its removal, which required the property owner to consult with an arborist and submit a letter to the city. The property owner would also have to plant a tree with at least a 2-inch caliper in the dying white oak’s place.

The other tree in question was also a white oak, which Aitken believed was closer to 180 years old. Like the white oak next to the parking lot, this one also had a hollow cavity at the base. That’s where the similarities ended.

“When you look up at this tree, you see a healthy full canopy,” said Aitken. “It has no dieback. This is a great tree. … I would never sign off on this tree being removed unless it was verified by a TRAQ [Tree Risk Assessment Qualification] certified arborist. I will stick my neck out for this tree.”

A big process

Aitken spent much of his initial months on the job issuing tree removal permits, but that duty has since been passed along to planners in his department. Now he focuses most of his attention on writing an urban forest management plan that will, among its many priorities, create a definition for legacy trees, ensuring that trees beyond a certain size or age are protected, even if they’re on private property.

“This document is the priority,” Aitken says. “It’s going to drive my position and trees in Asheville for the next 10 years: How many trees we can grow, and where we can grow them. We’re under a lot of pressure from utilities. For example, you cannot put a tree that might get 70 feet tall underneath a power line. You cannot put trees over a sewer line or underground utilities. You take just those two things, and it limits where we can plant trees.”

While creating the management plan, Aitken has experienced some challenges. A complete inventory of Asheville’s urban forest — including all its trees in rights of way, park trees and trees on private property — doesn’t exist. All Aitken’s current information is from the Asheville Tree Map, an online tool with data crowdsourced by people who might not have known how to properly measure trees. Aitken will need to hire a consultant to measure all of Asheville’s trees. But before he can do this, he has to figure out which trees are in the right of way, a project in and of itself.

“We’ll probably have to hire somebody to get that right of way information so we can give it to the people who are doing the inventory,” Aitken says. “It’s a big process.”

Fortunately, funding is not a concern. City Council appropriated $300,000 for the creation of the management plan as part of its 2023-24 budget.

Along with the current needs, Aitken says he would like to do a tree canopy study at least every five years. Advances in technology should help. “I have a feeling in three or five years we won’t even have to pay for a canopy study,” he says. “We’ll be able to spit one out through Google.”

Believing that Asheville’s tree canopy may have been further reduced since the 2019 tree canopy study, Aitken says his goal isn’t merely to stop its decline but to increase its size. “I think we can get it up to 55%,” he tells me.

To achieve this, the city will have to start planting far more trees than it removes each year. Its partnership with Asheville GreenWorks, which strives to plant 1,000 trees a year, will certainly help. Together they maintain a tree nursery on Hardesty Lane. Many of the trees they grow there will be planted on city property and private property in South Asheville, where the tree canopy is as low as 20% or 30% in some places.

Aitken hopes to complete the management plan by the fall of 2025. He plans to include a budget in it for hiring more people so that Asheville, like most cities its size, will have an actual forestry department.

“I’m essentially a one-person show right now,” he says.


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One thought on “The city’s new urban forester has big plans for Asheville’s tree canopy

  1. Jason Williams

    Any idea if Aitken and the City will steer away from the trend of only planting male trees in the urban areas?

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