Our trees define Gainesville


Published: Friday, January 19, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 18, 2007 at 11:54 p.m.
Today is Florida Arbor Day, a time to consider trees. In 2006, Gainesville decided to identify itself as the place where "Every path begins with passion." A trek through the history of Gainesville's urban forest provides a clear illustration!
In 1993, the city conducted an Urban Tree Assessment. Some of the results were unfortunate: Our streets were shaded primarily by old trees nearing the end of their natural life span. Half the street trees larger than 30 inches in diameter were water or laurel oaks, species very prone to decay.
Fortunately, one-third of the trees in the remaining 50 percent were live oaks, the species that provided the wood for the naval frigate the USS Constitution. "Old Ironsides" had sides of live oak that were so strong, British cannonballs fired during the War of 1812 reputedly rolled down her sides.
The 1993 assessment confirmed Gainesville had 44 live oaks larger than 48 inches in diameter along city streets. So Gainesville had some truly magnificent trees but also many problems. Thirty laurel oaks and 11 water oaks were identified as hazardous and slated for immediate removal. There was also a scarcity of young trees, boding poorly for the future urban forest.
Gainesville's passion for trees had already led the City Commission to become the first community in America to establish a Tree Appeals Board. Because the removal of street trees had often motivated irate neighbors to storm City Hall, the Commission created a panel of experts proficient in arboriculture to arbitrate such matters.
They also required a sign be posted at least one week in advance of any tree being removed from public property. Such signs must advise that anyone can appeal the decision for review. As signs for the 41 trees recommended for immediate removal appeared in neighborhoods, passions flared.
Not all these hazardous trees looked bad. Some had full, large canopies, but the trunks had advanced decay. The pressure of even a moderate wind gust against the weight of the massive crown can cause such a trunk to break. In some cases the rot was below the soil line, meaning tons of wood were precariously balanced on a pedestal with few anchoring roots.
There were numerous appeals. In all but three instances the board agreed the trees had become hazardous and should be removed. Structurally weak urban trees can't be allowed to fall, but must be taken down.
Neighbors who wanted to protect Gainesville's tree canopy reasoned that the loss of the big trees was part of a bigger problem. Our urban forest lacked elms, maples, ash, magnolia, tupelo, and other strong trees, and only 38 percent of the available planting spaces along city streets actually had trees. Giant trees were being removed, and the city had no planting program.
A committee began work with city staff and the Tree Appeals Board on a tree-planting plan to lay the groundwork for a diverse and strong urban forest. In 1996, the City Commission budget funded "Tree-mendous Gainesville," setting a goal of establishing 1,000 new trees annually on city streets and in our parks.
Every path begins with passion. The passion to preserve Gainesville's trees initially resembled a pitched battle. Success, however, required understanding, problem solving and courtesy. The desire to create a lasting solution became the focus. The wisdom of the resolution has been born out.
The urban forest has suffered major blows in the past ten years. Southern pine beetle epidemics killed 2,000 street trees. More than 500 were lost to the hurricanes of 2004. Development projects have taken a toll. Nonetheless, thanks to "Tree-mendous Gainesville," our urban forest is getting stronger. Laurel and water oaks have been replaced with Southern magnolias, winged elms, bluff oaks, live oaks, Florida maples and other robust species. Of the 10,000 saplings the city has planted thus far, half had citizen "tree sponsors" who volunteered to provide the watering and care for street trees planted in front of their homes. As individuals, they are acting to purify the air, help abate stormwater runoff, cool our environment, provide habitat for wildlife and create a more beautiful town.
Every path begins with passion. Today the paths of many folks with a passion for trees will intersect at the City Beautification Board's annual Arbor Day celebration at Gainesville's historic Evergreen Cemetery (401 SE 21st Ave.) at 11:45 a.m. All are welcome! If you can't attend, then perhaps take a moment to reflect on all that trees mean in our lives and to remember with gratitude the neighbors whose passion for the urban forest made the tree canopy in our community sustainable.
Meg Niederhofer is Gainesville's City Arborist.

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