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).
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.