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Austin Gets New Data to Support Urban Tree Preservation, But There's Still Room to Grow

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Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon for KUT News
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More than two decades ago, Austin’s towering Treaty Oak nearly bit the dust after being poisoned by a vandal. The tree was ultimately saved, but when the situation seemed dire, supporters with pockets shallow and deep came out in full force. (Ross Perot handed over a blank check to save the tree.)

More recently, the 2015 USA Cycling Cyclocross National Championships held in Zilker Park caused a minor dust-up when tree advocates claimed a muddy course injured native tree roots.

Suffice to say, trees are a big deal in Austin.

“We are recognized nationally for recognizing the tremendous value that trees bring our city, all of our citizens,” Michael Embesi with the city’s Community Forestry Division told some council members at a meeting of the Open Space, Environment and Sustainability Committee. “We recognize trees far beyond just their aesthetic beauty. We recognize all the benefits that they provide us, the services they provide citizens.”

Embesi and his colleague Emily King, acting urban forester with the city, were at the committee meeting to brief council members on the work their department does to care for public trees – a urban forest accounting for nearly 7.4 million trees, according to a 2014 city document.

And the city’s forest experts now have additional data to help them care for the more than 7 million public trees that make up the city’s urban forest (the city has more than 30 million trees overall). This week, the U.S. Forest Service published its first urban assessment of Austin – a report detailing the city’s species, condition and location of trees.

City staff told some council members Wednesday it’s part of an annual federal inventory that will be done of Austin’s trees.

“We’re in a really unique and fortunate position to have this,” said King. “What this project is, it’s actually going to be a recurring inventory on an annual basis of trees on fixed sample plots throughout the Austin city limits. So we will not only be able to learn a lot more about what we currently have, but we will be able to find trends in that data in the future.”

And that’s useful considering a gap in service pointed out in a 2014 report by the City Manager’s office. Those findings revealed that maintenance of trees was hired almost entirely reactionary.

“We needed to look at how do we care for these trees to lengthen their lives, to enhance the benefits that they’re providing our community far beyond just what it takes just to take a tree down when a tree is failing,” Embesi told council members at Wednesdays’ committee meeting.

So to get there, the division’s created a forestry leadership team. As King explained it to council members, the team gathers departments that regularly deal with trees – such as the Watershed Protection Department, the Public Works Department and, on an as-need basis, the Fire Department.

“This forestry leadership team was established in order to ensure we are all speaking with one another on a regular basis, that we’re in communication,” said King.

Plus, King said the division has made a mock-up of what a “proactive prune schedule” would look like – pending, of course, the money to make it happen. In the City Manager’s 2014 report on tree maintenance, staff found an annual $25 million gap between current tree service and the “ideal” level of service.

This story was produced as part of our reporting partnership with the Austin Monitor.

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