Inconvenient Truths about Urban Trees

I took Mr. Al Gore’s message to heart after watching An Inconvenient Truth.

I helped plant more than 200 trees in the Connecticut town where I live. Then I and my fellow volunteers watched about one-quarter of them die within five years. 

For instance, there was the young crab apple whose bark was stripped by a weed-whacker-wielding lawn care “professional.” 

And there was the beautiful Japanese stewartia that lived for three years until another landscaper piled mulch high around the base, giving a home to a bunch of bark-munching voles. The creatures stripped the trunk and you know the rest of the story.

Third went the sugar maple, victim of a furniture delivery truck that failed to stay on a homeowner's driveway. 

We’re not sure why the two birches died, nor the other maples. We lost eight Bradford pears to our recent hurricanes. 

I now understand that town trees face many more risks than their country cousins.

Should we care? I think so. The demise of a young street tree hardly makes headlines—yet it is a quiet tragedy. Each represents an under-appreciated amount of energy and investment by humans and by nature. Most community trees start life as a work of human hands, sprouted and nursed and fertilized for a future, not as part of a forest community, but as a part of a community forest. Most community trees get an energy-intensive start in life—grown to satisfy a human-defined landscape, and to dodge a staggering number of threats. According to the USDA Forest Service’s article, “Urban Forest Health Needs Assessment Survey,” a town tree reaches its full ecological value at about the age of 30. Yet the average life of urban street trees is only ten years.

The attached story from Connecticut Woodlands, Summer 2008, reflects our experience in the town of Old Saybrook, CT. Perhaps it will offer some valuable insights for other street tree committees.