Stopping Asheville’s tree-loss crisis makes climate sense for city

Steve Rasmussen

BY STEVE RASMUSSEN

Last year, simply by living, the trees lining the curb of our little West Asheville residential lot stopped 3,720 gallons of stormwater from eroding our and our neighbors’ yards and flooding down our streets and storm drains into our neighborhood creeks. That’s nearly the same amount of water as four large fire engines blasting their hoses till their tanks are empty or me soaking in a 10-minute shower every morning for six months. And if my wife and I can protect our grizzled old American holly and skyscraping bald cypresses from chainsaw-swinging marauders for another year, they’ll sequester enough CO2 to reduce our household’s carbon footprint by nearly 1 ton  — not to mention how much fossil fuel they’ll save us from paying for by sheltering us from winter winds and shading us from summer sun.

Our trees and their arboreal cohorts all across Asheville could be —should be — our city’s most effective and affordable defense against the dangerous flooding, erosion and temperature extremes that climate change is increasingly inflicting on us. Their umbrellas of branches and leaves intercept and moderate excessive precipitation and solar radiation, while their spreading, twisting networks of roots wick up surplus groundwater and knit together rock and soil particles to prevent them from washing away downhill. (Thanks to scores of national environmental studies, these and other benefits can be quantified for nearly any tree outside your door — right down to dollars and cents — at webpages such as avl.mx/5xe, where I calculated the figures for our trees.)

But it isn’t easy to save a tree in this town. Back in 2008, for example, after two now-disgraced county officials, Wanda Greene and Jon Creighton, arranged the controversial sale of public parkland where a pair of landmark magnolia trees stood in front of City Hall to would-be Parkside condo builder Stewart Coleman, hundreds of residents had to rally repeatedly around the trees — and my wife, Dixie Deerman, and I had to camp out for months under their branches — just to rescue them.

Thankfully, those magnolia trees are still standing. In the decade since their rescue, however, this city has lost its urban tree canopy at an unsustainable rate of as much as 10%, according to current estimates — mostly at the hands of developers who see trees as obstacles rather than assets and clear-cut the lots on which they build or fatally damage the roots of any trees left standing because, well, that’s just what you do when you don’t care or don’t know any better, and there’s no law being enforced to stop you.

Confronting the crisis

The powerful hold that rich developers have long had on our lawmakers has kept Asheville’s tree-protection ordinances few and weak. One prevents tree clearing on steep slopes — a direct cause of landslides — but only at elevations above 2,350 feet. The others require obtaining a permit before removing trees on a commercial property or in a local historic district (see avl.mx/4u9).

Even these limited measures stood to be gutted earlier this month by a Republican-introduced bill in our state Senate. Until it was amended in the face of statewide opposition by municipalities and urban foresters, SB367 would have forced Asheville and 38 other North Carolina cities to let developers cut any tree that “interferes” with their project — as long as they replaced it with a spindly sapling.

So, Asheville’s Tree Commission, its Tree Protection Task Force (which is open to the public; I’m a member), and the nonprofit Asheville GreenWorks have together taken the lead to confront our city’s tree-loss crisis and act on effective ways we as a community can stop it. For example, task force volunteers have reinvigorated the Treasured Tree program, and GreenWorks has begun training volunteer city residents to be Neighborhood TreeKeepers. We’ve consulted with nonprofits such as TreesCharlotte and Trees Atlanta to learn about the steps their cities have taken to reverse the deforestation accompanying their development booms, which began several decades before ours.

Task Force Chair Ed Macie (who is both a certified arborist and urban forester) has produced a set of guidelines for protecting trees during infill development — the kind of intensive, small-scale homebuilding in existing neighborhoods that city planners are prioritizing but that threatens the big, mature trees that are the pride and joy of so many older neighborhoods unless that development is done sensitively.

We made sure the officials and consultants who crafted the city’s new Comprehensive Plan understood how crucial trees are to one of its key goals, planning for climate change. The completed plan (avl.mx/5xf) is seeded throughout with recommendations such as more tree planting (“monitor and grow the number of street trees on all street types to ensure a lush tree canopy,” Introduction, p. 113) and warnings about the dangers of tree loss (3,308 Asheville families and 14,510 households with members over 65 are vulnerable to “a potential extreme heat event” because they live in “areas with a high percentage of developed land cover and low tree canopy,” as mapped in Appendix D: Planning for Climate Resilience, p. 80).

Urgent recommendations

In 2017, at the Tree Commission’s urging, the city took its first significant step toward protecting its trees: City staff worked with the commission and an independent consultant to conduct an Urban Forest Sustainability and Management Review of all city programs and policies that affect our urban forest. The results were presented to City Council in February 2018.

This “gap analysis” compared our existing programs and policies to an optimum set of these, and then made recommendations for appropriate changes and improvements to close any gaps between the two. Following one of its recommendations, the city this year is contracting a state-of-the-art “canopy analysis” of our urban forest that will record how the tree cover within our city limits has changed over the past decade and provide a tool we can work with for the future.

The two most urgent and powerful recommendations the gap analysis report made to City Council are these, according to Tree Commission Chair Stephen Hendricks:

• Hire a full-time urban forester to oversee our city’s tree canopy and provide adequate staffing to assist him or her.

• Institute strategic planning for urban forest protection, including development of a comprehensive urban forest master plan and updated ordinances.

Hiring an urban forester and developing an urban forest master plan will require City Council to budget some money. Now is the time they need to do it  — especially since HCA Healthcare’s acquisition of Mission Health will begin flooding the city’s coffers with property tax income, some of which rightfully should be invested in providing for Asheville’s long-term health, safety and survival through the unavoidable crisis of climate change.

During the entire time that Dixie and I were battling developer-tilted city and county bureaucracies to save those magnolia trees, we bitterly noted the hypocrisy of the “Tree City USA” flag the city flew at that time in front of the very planning-and-development building where these beloved trees were being railroaded into extinction.  We would like to see that flag fly high again — and this time, we want our city to mean it.

Steve Rasmussen, a former Xpress reporter on environmental issues, is a clergy member with Dixie Deerman for Coven Oldenwilde, a Wiccan nonprofit, and can be reached through www.oldenwilde.org. To connect with Ashevilleans who are passionate about trees, visit avl.mx/5xg.

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7 thoughts on “Stopping Asheville’s tree-loss crisis makes climate sense for city

  1. K Smith

    Great insight. It’s alarming how many trees are bulldozed on a regular basis. Losing trees and gaining asphalt covered parking lots and developments are ruining what used to be called “cool, green Asheville”. It’s doubtful anyone running the city has lived here long enough to even remember when it actually was marketed as cool and green.

  2. Mike R.

    Trees in Asheville moving forward……not as clear cut (no pun intended) as one might think.

    For example, shallow rooted trees are becoming more of a hazard to house owners. they are falling down without any disease, etc. if the soil is saturated and the wind is right. This will only continue to worsen. Should homeowners be barred from taking down trees that threaten their house?

    Trees on steep slopes are going to be falling more regularly as their root system is not as secure on the slopes. Saturated soil becomes loose and down comes the tree.

    Asheville has a very limited budget. Historically, the city has tended to ignore infrastructure (of which I consider trees to be an important one). Roads, water system, storm water all are way behind the curve in terms of condition. Trees are no different.

    My take is that it would be much wiser to supplement the current City Arborist staff/budget with an assistant or two to help Mark Foster (who is a great city employee) accomplish more tree planting along our streets. This is not being done to the extent it needs to be and streets are heat emitters of the first magnitude. So we need an aggressive street tree (right of way that the City controls) planting program throughout the city.

    Regarding an Urban Forester…well this all sounds wonderful, but I fear it will become another office position like others. If we want to better control development related tree loss, simply beef up the development ordinances and when these aren’t followed, ensure heavy fines are imposed. I really don’t see the need for a full time position to handle something that could be done with rules and oversight by the development group.

    One final note: Charlotte has a well established neighborhood tree planting program. One staff member (from Arborist team) works with neighborhood reps to identify right-of-way spots for new trees. The homeowner pays $100 towards the tree(s) and the city pays the rest and plants the tree. The stronger the neighborhood association, the greater the results, but it helps the city because alot of the legwork of finding people that will take trees in front of their property is done by volunteers. Now the city could get very heavy handed and insist on planting trees in the ROW regardless of property owner desires. This doesn’t work too well in that some level of care and attention (mainly watering) is needed in early years and particulary because we’re vulnerable to drought periods now with climate change. Unless trees are nurtured in first 3-4 years, alot could b e lost in one sever drought.

  3. Mike, thanks for your well thought-out comment — I was hoping to provoke a few of those! All the points you raise are important ones, and tree advocates & experts themselves raise and discuss them. I’m not one of those experts but I listen to a lot of them, so here’s my understanding:

    Shallow root systems are one of the main causes of the trees-falling-on-people tragedies that our increasingly violent weather magnifies. But the main cause of shallow rooting for urban trees is lawns. In our quest for the perfect green carpet, we water and fertilize them far too much — and even when we do so only moderately, lawns by their very nature retain a great deal of moisture on the topmost layer of the soil. (Lawns — especially on slopes — even shed stormwater off themselves like other impermeable surfaces, and are well-known contributors to dangerous runoff and flooding in general.)

    That surface hoarding of water and nutrients encourages, if not forces, trees to grow their roots shallow in their quest for them — rather than deep, as they would do if the ground were more natural and permeable and therefore were storing water and nutrients at deeper levels. By contrast, mature vegetation on steep slopes is actually highly effective at holding their soils in place — in no small part because it’s typically too hard to plant and maintain a lawn on such a slope, so homeowners are more likely to leave them in a “neglected”, that is to say natural, state.

    The solution to this problem is, obviously, breaking our society-wide addiction to the kind of landscape that’s belongs only on an English lord’s estate as food for goats and sheep, whence derives the association of lawns with status that makes the lush green lawn de rigeur in modern suburbia. That has to be done, IMHO, not so much by the stick as by the carrot — education and incentives, rather than punishment.

    That’s where urban forestry comes in. Mark Foster, our city arborist, in fact is very much in support of hiring an urban ***forester***, because (as he’d be quick to explain) his responsibility as an ***arborist*** is to tend to the care of individual trees — and specifically not to manage the complex ecology that is a forest. That’s why so many other cities do employ urban foresters to whom their arborists answer; I don’t personally know if Charlotte does or not, but since our Tree Commission and City Council members have been consulting closely with Charlotte for years, I wouldn’t be surprised if they do.

    As for incentives, if I’d had space I would have described the research we’ve been doing into “stormwater credits”, a tree-preservation equivalent to affordable-housing credits and historic-preservation credits that municipalities around the country use to incentivize (sorry, I hate that jargon word) developers to save money on expensive stormwater-management construction by preserving existing high-volume stormwater-suckers, i.e. mature trees. If you have the stick of strong stormwater regulations and enforcement to back it up, then this carrot is highly prized by developers in those places, because it saves them a great deal of time and costs.

    Lastly, the good news regarding regulation is that SB 367, the tree-killing bill mentioned in my article, has been withdrawn under pressure from folks like us — and the voters in its primary sponsor’s home district (State Sen. Tom McInnis; see article in The Pilot titled “Controversial Tree-Cutting Bill Withdrawn”, April 21, 2019.) That means we CAN pass more protections in this town for historic and landmark trees, trees of endangered species, street and buffer trees (such as you mention), and trees in floodplains and on steep slopes.

    All of these have been explicitly allowed since 1985 by an enabling “local act” the Legislature passed that year for both Raleigh and Asheville — which Asheville neglected and even lost track of over the years since, but Raleigh pursued and acted on (a true tale of two cities!). Paradoxically, it was SB 367, whose first iteration specifically listed all the local acts underlying all the tree ordinances in every NC cityand county that has them, that has brought it back to our attention and revealed to us just how much unused authority to save our urban forest from destruction the State Legislature has already given us.

  4. I should have clarified that my prolonged screed on lawns concerns just one aspect of what urban forestry involves, and indeed there are plenty of ways a certified green landscaper can ensure that trees and lawns on a property coexist healthily. (It comes down to leaving plenty of non-lawn-covered area around a tree’s base, as I understand it.)

  5. Chelsea

    Can we plant more? Have a volunteer festival where we target certain areas of the city? Many of us have baby trees sprouting up in our yards. Is there any such thing in Asheville already?

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