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Our Precious Trees Spokane’s Urban Forest Needs Care If It Is To Remain A Treasure For Future Generation To Enjoy

SOUTH SIDE VOICE, October 31, 1996, page S5: CORRECTION Officials at Manito Park are spending $800 for 10 new but oak trees near the Grand Boulevard park entrance. The cost was incorrectly reported in last week’s South Side Voice.

Under a vibrant canopy of orange, green and yellow, city worker Maggie Owen pulled rhythmically on her rake to remove the leafy litter falling around her.

“The trees are so beautiful,” said the 17-year veteran of the parks staff on one of the tree-lined islands along Manito Boulevard. “It’s nice and quiet and shady here.”

The mature trees gracing the South Hill create an easy aura that’s as charming as the stately old homes beside them.

The trees muffle noise, purify air and shelter birds and squirrels. Their color in October simply dramatizes their year-around beauty.

But city parks officials say Spokane’s urban forest needs better care if it is to remain a treasure for future generations.

A newly completed inventory of about 15,000 trees on South Hill streets shows that age is creeping up on the forest.

The South Side of town has fewer dead or dying trees than the average in other cities, but many of the living trees are in need of attention, parks officials said.

To protect Spokane’s trees, the city has embarked on a new urban forestry program to improve the long-term health of both conifers and deciduous (leafy) trees.

Proponents of the program are working on a street-tree ordinance to regulate removal of old trees and the planting of new ones along city streets.

A lot of the trees lining boulevards and parks in town were planted near the turn of the century. In some cases, these older trees have been injured through an unhealthy pruning method known as topping, officials said.

The practice of topping is a bigger problem on the North Side than the South Hill, said parks officials who are planning a public relations campaign next year to discourage tree topping.

Although arborists for years had urged the city to do more to protect its trees, little was done until now.

The wake-up call came about five years ago, when the insect-borne Dutch elm disease arrived in Spokane and started killing the American elms planted by early residents.

Corbin Park on the North Side was the hardest hit, and a contentious debate arose over tree replanting there.

The controversy led to a $120,000-a-year urban forestry program to combat problems plaguing the city’s trees.

“Trees don’t live forever,” said Jim Flott, supervisor at Manito Park and the director of the new forestry program.

“They are going to start dying much more quickly if we don’t start taking care of them,” he said.

An initial step was creating the inventory of trees on public rights of way. In the coming year, the parks department will create an inventory of trees inside the parks.

The city hired Natural Path Forestry of Missoula, which spent the past two years counting some 50,000 street trees in Spokane, including the 14,961 trees south of Sprague inside the city limits.

The trees are “a great asset to that town,” said Mark Duntemann, president of Natural Path Forestry. The report lists 200 different types of trees and records each tree by size, location and species.

The inventory uncovered an overabundance of Norway maples and black locust trees. They account for 40 percent of all street trees in the city.

On the South Side, Norway maples total 4,256, or 28 percent of the total compared with 1,371 Ponderosa pines and 534 black locusts.

The lesson at Corbin Park was one that could be repeated again. A unsuspected disease can strike a plant or tree species and wipe it out.

That is why Flott and other arborists urge Spokane residents to plant a greater variety of species to avoid the kinds of losses that occurred with the Dutch elm disease.

“You want diversity to mimic a natural forest,” Flott said.

“If something like that hit the Norway maples, we’d lose a lot of our trees,” he said.

No single species should make up more than 5 to 8 percent of the tree population, he said.

Just as in a human population, a city should have a progression of ages in its trees - some young, some middle-aged and some old, he said.

Bad pruning practices have left a lot of trees, especially black locusts, exposed to insects and rot.

As a result, black locusts are beginning to succumb to age, in part because this tall tree is frequently a target of topping. A lot of other trees are also showing damage from dry rot and improper pruning.

Topping is often done under the belief that a large tree is likely to fall in the wind and damage a home. Flott and others said healthy trees spread enough roots in the soil that it is unlikely they will come down in a wind.

Small-time contractors promote topping and often convince elderly residents who are fearful of a tree falling on their homes, he said.

Fewer trees have been topped on the South Side than on the North Side, Duntemann said.

Across Spokane, about 3,000 trees have been identified as dead or dying and need to be removed. That is 6 percent of the total, which is higher than the average of 3 percent for urban areas, Duntemann said.

On the South Side, only about 2 percent of the trees, or 344 trees, were identified for removal.

Flott said the city must step up its tree-replacement and replanting program in coming years.

Duntemann said the inventory helps the city save money because officials can remove dozens of trees at a time rather than follow the old method of removing them individually.

As a result, contractors have reduced bids from about $400 to about $110 per removal, he said.

New trees are planted with an eye toward easier maintenance and long-term health.

Many street trees were planted years ago in parking strips that are too small to handle large trunks and roots. As a result, sidewalks and curbs have been damaged, and fixing the concrete has been expensive, and at times, damaging to the trees because it requires cutting the roots at the base of the tree.

Flott said smaller species should go in narrow parking strips, and larger trees planted elsewhere.

The city is planning to remove about 100 old trees every year and plant new ones.

Already, the Parks Department is taking steps to preserve the tree canopy on Grand Boulevard at Manito Park, where the existing Norway maples are plagued by broken branches and rot.

“Some of those trees have huge decay columns in them,” Flott said.

Flott has set aside $8,000 to plant 10 young Bur oak trees just west of existing maples. Those trees will some day grow large enough to shade the street and will replace the old maples that eventually will be removed.

That should help preserve one of the South Hill’s defining characteristics - its trees.

One sunny day last week, joggers and walkers took advantage of the nice weather to enjoy the autumn colors.

Kerman Love and his wife were visiting family in Spokane and took time to enjoy a a walk along Manito Boulevard.

“That is the charm of Spokane, that you have this kind of foliage,” he said.

His wife, Holly Barker Love, said, “I remember as a little girl going up and down Lincoln from Wilson School.”

“The leaves are a priceless memory to me.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Photos (1 Color)