Meg Niederhofer: Gainesville a 'city in a forest'


Published: Tuesday, January 13, 2009 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 12, 2009 at 7:52 p.m.

Jan. 16 is Florida's Arbor Day, a time to consider how trees fared in Gainesville during 2008. A multitude of large Live Oaks in town are living proof that trees have been protected here for many generations.

Elected officials, volunteers, government employees, and everyone who celebrates Arbor Day have assured Gainesville's commitment to remain "a city in a forest."

Gainesville's tree policies are generally overseen by the four technical experts and a fifth tree advocate who comprise the City Commission's Tree Advisory Board. They work most closely with the Nature Operations Division of the Department of Parks, Recreation and Cultural Affairs, but their efforts and ideas touch many city departments and the public because the urban forest belongs to everyone.

Last month Board Chair Dr. Francis E. "Jack" Putz presented the City Commission with a draft of the Tree Advisory Board's recommended changes to Gainesville's Land Development Code. Their intention is to assure the environmental viability of the tree canopy which benefits everyone by generating oxygen, preventing soil erosion, lowering energy use, absorbing pollutants, providing shelter from strong winds, and creating beauty.

The board began this effort in 2002, during recovery from Gainesville's second Southern Pine Beetle epidemic. These insects are normally present in small numbers, but during droughts, populations explode where pine spacing is closer than 25'. The two epidemics burdened homeowners with unexpected and expensive tree removal costs. The City Commission directed the Tree Board to suggest ways to use the development process to diminish the frequency and intensity of Southern Pine Beetle infestations.

As the board studied the Land Development Code and looked at recent development projects, they saw opportunities to guide preservation efforts toward Gainesville's strongest trees and to ensure new shade trees would have sufficient room to grow. They considered as well the paradox of solar electric power generation and the energy savings produced by trees.

Solar experts recommend equipment on the south side of the roof and shade trees on the north. In Florida, energy savings provided by trees can be greater than the electricity generated, since a mature shade tree can equal the cooling capacity of five heavy-duty room air conditioners running full-time. Many new developments are on small lots, so the north side of one home is the south side of the house next door.

Where does that leave the trees? The Tree Advisory Board recommends subdivisions featuring solar be located on sites with few or no existing trees, such as former pastures, with a special area set aside to plant the shade trees the Code would require.

Tree size alone does not denote value. However existing regulations do not reflect this simple fact. Current regulation follows a "one-size-fits-all" approach. The majority of trees that fail - by dropping large branches or falling over - are Laurel Oaks.

To prevent weak trees from receiving the same protection as strong species like Live Oak, the board designated 24 of the 112 species in the Gainesville Approved Tree List as "high quality shade species." If adopted, their recommendations will ease restrictions on removing weak trees and increase protection for strong trees of high quality species. This and other aspects of their proposal aim to enhance the ability of our urban trees to withstand hurricanes, resulting in a more "wind-firm" forest.

Data from 2008 indicate progress toward creating a sustainable tree canopy. Approved development proposals would remove 2,919 trees larger than 8" in diameter and replant 3,722 young trees. Separate tree removal permits were issued to 341 residents who removed 810 "regulated" trees. They have planted 558 replacements.

Nature Operations tree crew removed 56 large living trees because internal decay had made them public hazards. They also removed 226 dead trees and pruned 6,743 of the estimated 40,000 trees on public property.

Through the Tree-Mendous Gainesville program, 1,040 trees were established to mitigate these losses.

Of these, 455 are being watered by citizens volunteer Tree Sponsors, freeing up staff to provide appropriate after-care for trees planted in previous years.

Balancing the above data, 4,011 trees were removed, some quite large, and 5,320 young trees were planted. Most of the removals were weak trees, while most of the new trees are high quality shade species planted in locations where they can grow to maturity.

This Arbor Day, Gainesville is celebrating its 25th consecutive year as Tree City USA. The urban forest is faring pretty well, thanks to the efforts of many. Arbor Day ceremonies are scheduled for the Matheson Center on Wednesday at 4:30 and at the Thomas Center on Thursday at 11:45.

The City of Gainesville invites everyone to these events, which are hosted by the City Beautification Board.

There's probably a tree near your home that's older than 25. Today would be good for a hug in recognition of the silver anniversary of efforts to protect Gainesville's tees, and its commitment for another 25.

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