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Why It's OK to Be Stumped About Who Manages the City's Trees

Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon for KUT News
A new tree planted outside the Urban Outfitters on Guadalupe Street. While the city requires developers to plant trees with many new projects, it's sometimes unclear who maintains the saplings.

If you spend much time around Austin this sight might be familiar: A new building goes up, or a street is completely redesigned. Along with that development a row of young trees is planted along the sidewalk. Then, several months later, some of those trees are dead.

Thais Perkins, executive director of TreeFolks, says those dead trees are an opportunity for her group to come in and plant new trees, but, “it’s a little tongue-in-cheek to say that it’s an opportunity.”

“We would rather the stock be healthy, diverse, well-planted in good soil and to take root initially,” she says.

That’s just not the way it sometimes works out.

“A developer will do what’s in the spec,” Perkins says. “Unless the spec dictates that a tree be a certain species or planted a certain way. They’ll do what they need to finish the project.”

Developers are required by the city to plant a lot of these trees. They’re called “street trees.” The city plants trees, too. But just who is in charge of ensuring their survival is a trickier question to answer than you’d think.

The Urban Forestry Program, which is operated through the Parks and Recreation Department, suggested we call the City Arborist. Parks used to maintain street trees, but is now only responsible for Park Trees.

Over at the City Arborist’s office (attached to the Development Services Department), Keith Mars says, yes, many street trees have a short life span.

“It’s caught our attention,” Mars says. “It’s caught the attention of the development community as well.”

But that’s often a result of tree maintenance, and that’s the responsibility of either the Public Works Department or nearby landowners.

“We have lessons learned,” Mars says. “We always have those situations of ‘well, what could we do better?’”

He says the city’s stopped allowing many above-ground planters for street trees. Apparently, it’s hard to keep trees alive in those things.

“We also are getting better about coordinating between departments, and that kind of chain of custody.” Mars says his office is improving communication with Public Works and property owners.

Just to keep track: We’ve heard that Parks and Rec, the City Arborist and Public Works all have some city tree responsibilities. But there are other departments involved too. Austin Watershed Protection is responsible for trees near bodies of water, according to the City’s Urban Forest Master Plan. Austin Energy deals with trees near power lines. 

Some people say that, in itself, is part of the problem: too many cooks.

Credit City of Austin
A chart showing the chain of command for planting and maintenance responsibility for Austin trees from 2013's Urban Forest Plan. Note: Public Works taken over the street trees program since the plan's publication.

Markus Smith , an arborist and owner of Just Trees, thinks it would be a lot simpler, and probably better for trees, if there was one go-to office for trees.

“It’s already hard to find competent arborists,” he says. “So, to try to find four sets, if you have four departments, is even more difficult.”

The other part of the equation is landowners.  Smith says they’ll have to take more responsibility, if Austin’s youngest trees are going to put down lasting roots.  

Mose Buchele focuses on energy and environmental reporting at KUT. Got a tip? Email him at Follow him on Twitter @mosebuchele.
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