Meg Niederhofer: Gainesville's urban forest reason for pride, profit

Published: Wednesday, January 13, 2010 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 11, 2010 at 5:44 p.m.

Florida celebrates Arbor Day in the winter, because transplanted trees establish more readily in our climate during cool weather. Planting a tree demonstrates a commitment to a better future, because those who live here after us will enjoy most of the benefits. It is a commitment, because newly planted trees need care for their first few years.

Gainesville has an extraordinary urban forest. While most cities are struggling to achieve canopy coverage of 20 percent, ours is 50 percent. As a community we've protected, planted, loved and worried over trees. Gainesville has led our state in developing regulations that require replanting when trees are removed.

Efforts on behalf of Gainesville's trees have paid off. Enterprise Rent-a-Car brought more than 100 new jobs to their call center here in 2009. Their selection of Gainesville specifically mentioned our abundant urban forest. Enterprise has made a commitment to the National Arbor Day Foundation to help plant 50 million trees, so locating an economic hub in a community that loves trees was a natural fit.

Arbor Day is about much more than money, but given the current economic climate, it makes sense to consider the financial significance of trees.

Statistics from the U.S. Forest Service and data from the University of Florida's School of Forest Resources and Conservation indicate Gainesville realizes $78 million each year in benefits from its estimated three million trees in the form of improved air quality, energy savings, flood control and water pollution prevention. These are "escaped costs" rather than a check carried to the bank, but if we don't maintain the community tree cover, the consequences will have real associated expenses.

Using the USFS multiplier of $25 per tree for the real estate and aesthetic value, the three million trees in our urban forest have an additional tangible equivalent value of $75 million annually — a grand total of $153 million per year in benefits.

Local government investment in urban forestry takes many forms. The 40,000 trees along streets and in parks are managed by the Department of Parks, Recreation and Cultural Affairs. Maintenance costs are $10 per tree per year. The canopy is trimmed up so emergency vehicles can pass. Declining and dead trees are removed. With every pruning cut, our tree surgeons strengthen the tree's structure to diminish hazards and reduce future maintenance costs.

If you live inside the city limits and have a good place for a tree to provide street shade, you can volunteer to be a tree sponsor. The city will provide and plant an 8' tall tree. Your part will be providing water through the establishment phase. The young trees are either grown at the city tree farm or made available as mitigation for trees removed during development. After all the available places have been fully planted on a construction site, the remaining trees are provided to the city for plantings that serve the public good. Call 393-8171 for more information.

A major future investment decision regarding trees will center on providing biomass for Gainesville Regional Utilities newest electrical generation facility.

Debris generated from tree pruning and removals will provide only a portion of what will be needed.

Should we invest in a community forest managed for sustainable harvest to increase our energy self-sufficiency? These are the kinds of questions we should ask ourselves on Arbor Day.

Trees matter. They are an important part of our community identity. Cost-benefit considerations can guide our scrutiny, but only so far. In the end, the questions are as fundamental as what kind of world do we want to live in? And what are we willing to do?

On Arbor Day, consider the trees. If you feel like sharing your appreciation with others, please come to the annual community celebration hosted by City Beautification Board at 11:45 a.m. on Thursday at the Kirby Smith Center (620 E. University Ave.). We'll commemorate the fact that the National Arbor Day Foundation has designated Gainesville as Tree City USA for 26 consecutive years.

Planting a tree with others confirms the community's intentions toward trees.

We will continue to assure the blessings of shade for future generations.

We will act on our understanding that trees provide protection during storms by diverting the winds overhead, rather than allowing them to sweep along at ground level.

We will continue to be a city where trees are managed wisely, making Gainesville truly worthy of our identification as Tree City USA.

Meg Niederhofer is Gainesville's city arborist.

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