By Jan Worth-Nelson
One thing everybody agreed on last night at the Flint Area Public Affairs Forum at the Flint Public Library: trees are good.
That was easy. But in matters of how to maintain them, how to assess them when they’re in aging decline, how to communicate with residents about removals, and especially how to replace them, the discussion hit some walls.
The event, “City Trees: Pleasure or Peril?” featured panelists Angela Warren, administrator of the Genesee Conservation District; Adam Moore, a planner for the City of Flint; Emily Huff, an assistant professor of forestry at Michigan State University; and Kate Fields, Fourth Ward city council woman. ABC-12 meteorologist Kevin Goff moderated, taking questions from an audience of about 40.
The threats to city trees dissected last night were familiar to many in the audience, among them a cadre of College Cultural Neighborhood Association residents. CCNA president Mike Keeler, himself a trained wildlife biologist and Sierra Club activist, has been leading the way to advocate for more respect for the trees and better management of the city’s urban forest. His efforts intensified last year, when 180 “street trees,” among 30,000 in the parkways owned by the city between the street and the sidewalks, were cut down.
He and other CCNA residents, who highly value the tree canopies in their neighborhood, complained that some of the stumps appeared to show healthy trees and that residents had not been adequately informed about or included in tree removal decisions.
Those removals were part of a larger city-wide plan attempting to respond to years of neglect, Warren said. A key variable is the aging of city trees — 60 percent of them maples — many planted in the 1930s and reaching the end of their lifespan all at once.
The biggest obstacle to a happier arboreal outcome, according to the three presenters from Flint, is money. And it seemed from the evening’s discussion that no matter how much people concur about the documented pleasures and benefits of trees, the city–and its urban forest’s chances for flourishing–have been decimated by staff and monetary cutbacks. Combatting the consequences of those continually declining resources — along with stresses on the city from the water crisis — has become increasingly challenging, they said.
A defense of trees emerged, but all panelists acknowledged sometimes the decisions are tricky: which priorities take precedence — sewer lines or trees? Sidewalks or trees? Residents’ safety or trees? Water quality or trees?
“Our first goal,” Huff said, “is the safety and happiness of our residents, which can be achieved while maintaining the urban canopy,” but acknowledged, “obviously, there is no perfect answer.”
Warren, reading a prepared statement, reviewed the history of the Genesee Conservation District’s relationship with the city and how it has been attempting to implement the findings and recommendations of a 2015 urban forestry inventory and how the city and the GCD attempt to respond to residents’ tree-based concerns.
She noted for 17 years Flint has had a “Tree City USA” designation, and pledged to continue the forestry practices that have led to it.
Huff, whose research focuses on why people make decisions about their trees, teaches “human dimensions for forests” at Michigan State. She touted the importance of public participations of residents in crafting the decision making about trees.
Fields said though she represents the Fourth Ward, she had many friends in the Seventh Ward, where she affectionately said a band of “real conservationists” and “tree nuts” have been barraging her with concerns after representatives of the CCNA documented the removal of street trees last year. She said as she researched residents’ complaints, questions emerged about how the Genesee Conservation District is assessing trees and deciding which ones need attention or removal and how to do it. The GCD originally contracted with the city in the “emergency manager” era to manage the so-called urban forest.
“We really don’t have a structure anymore to deal with trees,” she said. “Adam is what’s left of Forestry and Parks and Rec Department, which we no longer have,” Fields said. Trees now fall under the auspices of traffic, and the “very nice lady,” interim transportation direct Betty Wideman, who “has no background in trees.” she said.
Moore, an University of Illinois-Chicago trained urban planner who’s been with the city for two years, cited the city’s 2011 Master Plan and described the history of Flint’s parks, designed in the 1920s so that every Flint resident would be within walking distance of “some publicly owned public space.” The result now is 1800 acres of land, greater than the national average, but very little funding or staff to maintain them. In fact, the city no longer has a traditional parks and recreation department, Moore explained. As recently as 2001, the city had over 100 employees working in four divisions, one of which was forestry. After years of emergency manager decisions slashing city staffs and budgets, he lamented, the city has “half of me” for parks and, he said, his proportion for parks is about to drop to one-quarter time. He said the 2015 parks millage approved by voters brought in $312,000, 78% of which was spent mowing 500 acres of the city’s 1800 public acres, with other partners helping maintain the rest.
The CCNA group have met with the GCD board, their city councilwoman Monica Galloway, and appeared several times at city council meetings.
Warren has explained that the city and GCD have funds to replace only about 100 trees a year, yet more than 6200 were tagged for removal by the 2015 plan.
“How could we call ourselves a City of Trees and yet take out almost 200 trees with no plan for replacement?” Fields said. “We don’t feel that the program is being implemented correctly.”
Fields summarized the recommendations she and the CCNA representatives have proposed: hiring an arborist, putting together a citizen oversight committee, defending every tree removal, putting out public bids, and increasing transparency about who gets money from lumber collected from downed trees.
“Removal is often touted as first line of defense,” Huff said, “but when you remove you have to factor in the cost of replacement — getting another tree established in that spot.
After it became clear that the city did not have money to buy and plant replacement trees, residents of the CCNA raised $4,000 and offered to do it themselves. City officials resisted, citing legal and liability concerns. Last night Fields said she was attempting to change city ordinances to provide for homeowners to selectively maintain street trees at their addresses.
Seventh Ward Councilwoman Galloway, who arrived midway through the meeting, said she too was working on possibilities for legal protection for residents offering to maintain city trees –“juggling how we can do this so that everybody is happy,” she said.
As the meeting concluded, Keeler called out, in frustration, “What do you think about a city that doesn’t plan on planting any trees for the future? That’s very short sighted.”
“We’re going to work on that,” Fields said.
In addition the Flint Public Library, the Flint Area Public Affairs Forum is sponsored by Baker College, Flint Community Schools, M-Live Media Group/The Flint Journal, Genesee Intermediate School District, Kettering University, Mott Community College, The Flint Club, and the University of Michigan – Flint.
EVM Editor Jan Worth-Nelson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.