Eugene logs its urban forest
BY ERIN ROKITA AND CAMILLA MORTENSEN
There’s nothing like waking up in the morning to the sound of buzzing chainsaws on Eugene’s streets. Urban forests are in decline across the country, and Eugene cuts down as many as 500 of its city street trees in an average year. Is “Tree City, USA,” intent on chopping down its urban forest?
The coast redwood is one of the world’s largest living species, reaching up nearly 400 feet and living more than 2,000 years. Eugene has a couple — considerably younger — of examples of this giant Oregon and California native. If you walk down 15th Avenue until you hit Mill Street, you’ll be hard pressed to miss one of Eugene’s redwoods. The 50-year-old tree is large for its age; it dwarfs the home it stands next to. And this tree too needed a little saving.
Back in 1944, two “young and adventurous” ex-Midwesterners, John and Lillian Durr, took a road trip from Eugene along the coast to northern California. “Somewhere along the way they dug up a small coast redwood and brought it back to Eugene to plant,” explained their niece, Nena Lovinger. At the time, Lovinger was the newest addition to the family, and her uncle and aunt decided to plant the redwood in honor of her birth. “Nena’s tree” stands to this day in front of the house her family built on the Mill Street property.
Last October, she learned from city officials that the sidewalk near the redwood posed a safety hazard to area residents. The tree’s roots had pushed up sections of the sidewalk, causing it to crack and buckle.
In many cases, once a tree has been deemed a “hazard,” the city cuts it down. But this time Lovinger and city officials agreed the best course of action was to realign and replace sections of the sidewalk to make room for the tree’s roots and protect the safety of pedestrians. “It was a happy solution for me and the tree,” Lovinger says.
Not every tree has such a happy ending. Eugene’s urban forest and the issues of tree removal and land development have a long, complicated history, one that leaves community members divided. Urban trees are an emotional as well as an environmental issue. So it’s not surprising that the topic of cutting Eugene’s trees is a heated subject.
In Eugene, we have more than 100,000 street trees, and over the past decade the city has planted on average 1,100 new trees per year. Mark Snyder, city of Eugene urban forester, says survival rates are “relatively high” for newly planted trees. “We see more trees die every year because of the dryer than normal conditions, but over the last 10 years or so, we think we have around 90 percent or higher survival rates,” he says.
The city anticipates spending $81,800 on planting trees next year through the NeighborWoods Volunteer Tree Planting Program, while an estimated $161,000 is budgeted for “contractual hazard tree removal,” Snyder says. He indicated that due to budget reductions the city can no longer afford to plant as many trees. “It’s a sorry state of affairs because we can’t afford what needs to be done,” he says.
At least once a month, EW gets a call from a concerned citizen who has spotted the city cutting down a tree. Sometimes the tree in question is a native Douglas fir or bigleaf maple; other times, it’s a non-native black locust. Once in a while there’s no tree coming down at all: The city is just trimming the shrubs, but neighbors are tired of seeing Eugene’s leafy tree canopy torn apart by chainsaws and are quick to call and complain.
EW‘s letters section often features questions like that of Bobbie Cirel: “Don’t those who made the decision to cut these trees recognize the value of mature trees in an urban landscape?” And Shen Steiner of Eugene chided, “Where once these trees reigned supreme and majestic, now they fall one after another, removing with them homes for critters, cooling-off shade and life-sustaining oxygen. Shame on you, city of Eugene.” Other Eugeneans, while angry about the cutting, are leery of going on record with their concerns, saying, “Well, I’m not an expert on trees.”
It doesn’t take an expert to know that Eugene’s trees are more than just the shady branches downtown, known as “street trees” to foresters. Also, inside Eugene’s urban growth boundary (UGB) are places like the Amazon headwaters that developers are seeking to turn into a subdivision. People like Lisa Warnes of Southeast Neighbors would rather see the headwaters maintained as a forest, part of the Ridgeline Trail hiking system. This forest in south Eugene is home to native and threatened species. Urban forests like the Amazon headwaters are “within walking distance or near bus lines, giving the citizens an opportunity for passive recreation without driving a car,” says Warnes. They give “us all a sense of peace, tranquility and beauty,” she says.
Perhaps the most famous attempt to save Eugene’s urban trees was on June 1, 1997, when 40 of downtown’s largest trees were cut to make room for the Broadway Place development. Eleven protestors climbed trees and clung to them in an attempt to delay the logging until a public hearing could be held. The Eugene Police Department sprayed every can of pepper spray they had on the protestors and borrowed more cans from Springfield and Lane County in an incident that sparked protest locally as well as from Amnesty International. Three of the protestors later sued the city, which settled for $30,000.
As a result of the incident, local environmentalists began to push for better tree protection laws, a push which has been largely blocked by developers. The Eugene Tree Foundation, a local group that works on “planting, education, and advocacy,” according to their web page, came to exist during this time period. The group has planted trees and responded to incidents of illegal tree removals. However, despite the large number of activist and anti-logging groups in Eugene, there is no one activist group agitating simply to preserve Eugene’s urban forest.
“I think we need much more restrictive laws about tree removal,” says Eugene City Councilor Betty Taylor. “Council did pass a more restrictive ordinance as part of the Land Use Code Update several years ago,” she says. But it was sent back on appeal, “and there has never been a majority of councilors to place it high on the Planning Commission’s work schedule for re-consideration,” she says. Taylor says every year she tries to get the tree ordinance moved up on the Planning Commission’s work plan, “but never gets enough councilors’ votes to make the change.”
One of Eugene’s claims to fame is that we have a city full of beautiful, lush trees. Every year, Eugene touts its designation as a “Tree City, USA.” This designation is earned by “meeting minimum requirements for community forestry programs at the municipal level,” according to the Oregon Department of Forestry. Oregon has at least 45 designated Tree Cities, and there are thousands of Tree Cities across the country.
According to Snyder, the benefits of urban trees are vast. But despite their value, he says city trees can also be hazardous.
“Some trees are dangerous,” agrees Alby Thoumsin, certified arborist and president of the Eugene Tree Foundation. Arborists not only prune trees but are paid to cut them down as well. “In an urban setting trees need to be removed because they represent a risk,” he says. Thoumsin points out that cities are not wild ecosystems, and city trees need to be maintained to prevent injury and damage.
According to Snyder, “a tree is not a hazard unless something would be harmed … so you look at the target.” Targets include people, buildings, cars, bike paths, sidewalks and streets. “I love trees — don’t get me wrong,” he says. “But the more targets you have, the closer you get to civilization.”
EW was unable to find any reports of Eugeneans killed by falling trees or limbs within the city limits. Statewide, there are records of people being injured or killed by falling trees or limbs during major storms, and any number of people are killed each year by crashing their cars into trees. EW requested records from the city of Eugene of any people injured or killed by hazardous trees. However, the city says such records would only be made available if EW paid to finance a staffer to search the city’s records. While the city of Eugene doesn’t seem to have any death-related tree reports on hand, the history of Eugene is intertwined with its trees.
EUGENE’S TREE HISTORY
When settlers first came to the area that came to be called Eugene, the Kalapuya Indians had been burning the area for years to encourage the growth of the camas plant and improve game habitat, among other reasons. As a result, the valley was open grassland with scattered groups of oaks. Near the Willamette River, where it was moist, and high on the hills, where there was little burning, older trees grew. According to the official city of Eugene history, which includes great detail on the trees in the area, bigleaf maples and Douglas firs joined the oaks in parts of the area with willows, alders and cottonwoods near the river.
Eugene was incorporated in 1862, and as more and more settlers came to the area, the native peoples left. Key to Eugene’s tree history was that when the native peoples began to leave, they stopped the valley burning that held trees at bay. So it was in the late 1800s that the majority of Eugene’s trees took root. As a result, most of Eugene’s oldest trees are a little more than 100 years old.
The next major event for Eugene’s trees was the 1962 Columbus Day storm. Wind gusts blew down 11.2 billion board feet of timber in Eugene and Washington, including trees that were 1,000 years old. Eugene had wind gusts at peaks of 86 miles per hour, according to the National Weather Service. Sixty-six trees blew down on the UO campus alone, with others removed later due to damage. Many of Eugene’s older street trees still show the evidence from the damage of that storm, which can now designate them a hazard.
WHEN THE TREES FALL . . .
To assess tree risks, Eugene’s arborists look at the types and sizes of defects and the probability of failure and target damage, a tree risk assessment standard recognized by the Pacific Northwest Chapter of the International Society of Arboriculture. Tree defects include, but are not limited to, root decline, decay, fungal or bacterial diseases and insect infestations.
The city allows homeowners and developers, who find trees blocking their view or that want to build driveways where a tree is in the way, to apply to the city for a permit to remove the tree or ask the city to assess whether the tree is a hazard. Bigleaf maples, which make up many of Eugene’s street trees, are banned from being planted in the city of Seattle because of their aggressive roots that Seattle says can damage sidewalks.
“There’s a lot of distrust in the community about how the city removes trees,” Snyder says, but adds, “We don’t just remove trees because we don’t like them or because some rich developers want space to build.”
Snyder says that he’s worked hard to make the removal process transparent to residents. The city follows a rigorous tree inspection process that often involves multiple site visits, Snyder says. This is followed by a public comment period, indicated with bright orange city of Eugene Urban Forestry notices of removal that include contact information and the length of the comment period. Snyder adds, “I could not live with myself if I allowed a hazard tree to stand, and it hurt someone.” The public has 15 days to protest the cutting down of a tree 12 inches in diameter or larger.
In 2006, city contractors cut down an estimated 408 trees. The city designated 361 of the trees as hazardous or dead, and 47 were removed by request from private interests. In the previous decade, contractors removed, on average, 491 trees — 205 hazard trees per year and 286 per year through land development permits.
Six years ago, the Rest-Haven Memorial Park cemetery development project in west Eugene removed 1,427 trees. This was by far the greatest number of trees removed on a single permit in the last decade. The Woodleaf Village development on Fox Hollow Road in south Eugene followed with 324 trees, and then Lane County removed 295 trees on Centennial Loop, off MLK Boulevard.
In addition to street trees removed, Eugene Water and Electric Board (EWEB) also removed about 350 trees last year, according to Lance Robertson, EWEB’s external communications director. “This number includes trees that were deemed dead or hazardous by the city,” Robertson says. It also includes some trees outside the Eugene area up the McKenzie River where EWEB has transmission lines, he says.
Robertson says when it comes down to a conflict between a power line and a tree planted directly below, “normally the power line wins.” Since roughly the late 1960s or early 1970s, many new power lines have been placed underground. However, though burying power lines reduces tree conflicts, it’s more expensive to maintain underground lines. “One advantage is that there are fewer outages, but it takes longer to locate and fix problems underground,” Robertson says.
It would cost approximately $700 million to bury all power lines in the Eugene area, which “would create a substantial rate increase,” Robertson says.
Tree hazard reports are available free to the public from the city if people want to know more details about what’s going on with a specific tree. Lists of trees to be removed come out once or twice a month. “People have emotional attachments to trees,” Snyder says. On occasion he’s met with concerned residents on site to discuss a tree’s fate, not unlike the situation with Lovinger’s redwood.
Residents can negotiate with the contractor to keep the wood from trees removed on their property and what remains is hauled away by the city’s contractors or given to local artists. Buena Vista Arbor Care, the current contractor, says much of the wood goes for firewood, and the remainder is dumped in the contractor’s 50 acre yard. Hardwoods like bigleaf maples are quite valuable. Bigleaf maple is used to make guitar bodies and fine furniture. When the wood from a bigleaf has distinctive whorls and ripples, it can be worth thousands of dollars, according to a Seattle Times article on bigleaf maple thefts.
The hazard trees removed last year varied in size and type. According to information from Snyder, the majority — about 76 percent — were under a diameter at breast height (DBH) of 30 inches and were bigleaf maples and sweetgums. Bigleaf maples are native Oregon trees, and sweetgums are native to the eastern U.S. The biggest hazard tree removed was a tree of heaven with a 55 inch DBH. The fast-growing tree of heaven is a species native to China and considered to be invasive, according to the USDA National Invasive Species Information Center. It’s “weak wooded,” according to Eugene Public Works.
A bigleaf maple with DBH of 30 inches is due to be removed in the next two weeks, according to a memo put out by Public Works on Nov. 8. In the same memo two western redcedars, native to Oregon, with DBH listed of 29 inches, as well as a 39 inch Siberian elm, were slated to be cut down.
TREES AND GLOBAL WARMING
Eugene’s trees are more than just a pretty face; logging the urban forest is also an environmental issue. “Urban trees have so many benefits,” says Snyder. Beyond creating community and a more livable neighborhood, he says, they “improve safety, spur economic development” and improve mental health by reducing “stress and noise levels.” And importantly, he added, trees respond to global climate change by reducing greenhouse gases.
Human fossil fuel consumption in the form of coal, gas and oil combustion is one of the largest sources of greenhouse emissions on the planet, accounting for approximately 90 percent, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA identifies agriculture, industry, transportation and electricity generation, in order from least to greatest, as the primary sources of U.S. greenhouse emissions.
Since 1990, total greenhouse gas emissions have risen 16 percent with carbon dioxide representing the dominant gas produced. Other atmospheric pollutants released through the burning of fossil fuels that contribute to the greenhouse effect or ozone depletion are nitrous oxide, methane and fluoridated compounds.
We use fossil fuels to sustain our current way of life. But do urban trees represent a realistic way to reduce fossil fuel consumption and lower carbon dioxide emissions?
Trees help control the excessive amounts of greenhouse gases in the air “by absorbing carbon, but that doesn’t add up to much,” says Michael Kuhns, extension forestry specialist and professor of Forest Resources at Utah State University. Kuhns spent his sabbatical at OSU and has presented his research on trees and global climate change at various locations around Oregon.
Through the natural process of photosynthesis, trees remove carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases from the air and store them in the roots, trunk and branches.
However, as Kuhns’ research indicates, “we should not be planting trees in U.S. cities and towns thinking that we are absorbing great amounts of carbon dioxide and reducing global warming.” In his opinion, “landscape tree planting or even rural tree planting in the U.S. can not make a significant dent in absorbing the carbon dioxide we release.”
Nevertheless, Kuhns finds that “trees can play an important part” in reducing greenhouse gas emissions by lowering our consumption of fossil fuels.
“Tree planting is one tangible thing people can do to immediately help the environment,” says Paul Ries, state of Oregon urban forester. “You can view a tree as an oxygen enhancing device” and “as a natural air conditioner,” he says.
“The real benefit of trees is in all the things they do to reduce energy use,” says Kuhns.
“The most direct way trees save energy is in shading property,” Kuhns says. Trees “counter the urban heat island effect” or the warming of cities compared to their rural surroundings, he says. Dark surfaces such as pavement and commercial and residential rooftops cause air temperatures to rise, thereby increasing the demand for electric power in the form of air conditioning. Kuhns’s research indicates that “trees planted to properly shade a building reduce energy use for air conditioning by up to 70 percent.”
Moreover, his work reveals that “well-placed trees that slow the wind can reduce energy use for heating by 30 percent.”
Urban trees also clean the air by absorbing fine particulates, Kuhns says. Breathing fine particulates has been linked to many serious lung and heart diseases such as lung cancer and cardiovascular diseases. Fine particulates (also known as PM 2.5) are created by field burning, fire-based home heating and diesel and gas exhaust.
City trees also help with erosion and stormwater control by slowing rainwater, Ries says.
But small, young trees require decades to grow to full size, and a larger tree removes 60 to 70 times the pollution a small tree does, according a June 2007 article on urban forests in Time magazine. And it’s the leafy crown of older, bigger trees that intercepts rainwater and helps with stormwater control.
But energy conservation is the most important thing people can do for global warming, Kuhns says. “I worry that people will have extremely consumptive lifestyles and will think that planting a tree compensates,” he says.