Tree Propagation

Since the 1970s, ArlingtonCounty in Virginia has lost a significant amount of its tree canopy with an estimated 3,000-plus acres being converted from “heavy” tree cover (over 50-percent canopy) to “low” tree cover (less than 20-percent canopy). What’s more, the county is landlocked; it’s one of the most densely populated counties in the nation with many well-established communities dating back to the 1800s. Feel the pain? What’s a tree lover to do?

“Now’s the time to be creative,” said Steve Temmermand, division chief for Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources. “There is no one solution … but a combination that includes planting, promoting, lobbying and now more than ever, good tree maintenance.”

The loss of Arlington’s mature tree canopy is a persistent environmental issue as it continues to lose trees to natural events and on private land as a result of infill, new construction and renovations to existing dwellings. Because many of the trees lost are large, mature trees, new plantings do not offset these losses, and many areas of Arlington are experiencing a changing landscape.

Plant A Tree--An Obvious Solution

The county currently has about 18,500 street trees. The Department of Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources plants more than 1,200 trees a year on county land in parks, along sidewalks, on public-school property and in street medians. Twenty-five hundred possible sites for more street trees have been identified, and a few more trees can be planted in parks and in other public spaces. There is also a process for the community to recommend public spaces for more trees.

“With a tree inventory, an Urban Forest Master Plan and funding, our planting program on public spaces is robust, but finite,” says Jamie Bartalon, Arlington’s landscape and forestry supervisor.

Since most of the land mass in the county is privately owned, the county gives away more than 1,350 trees a year to private-property owners. While this seems like a no-brainer, it actually takes a fair amount of coordination and education. You can’t just say, “Got free trees, come get them.” You need to conserve staff time as much as the environment, and make sure trees are going to a location where they have a good chance of flourishing.

“We have a concentrated push in the spring and the fall, good tree-planting times,” said Patrick Wegeng, environmental landscape supervisor. The trick is to coordinate with an existing event, so as to piggyback off the marketing, and to bring in neighborhood associations to help in the coordination and manual labor. In the spring, for example, ArlingtonCounty coordinates a tree giveaway on Neighborhood Day. County staff delivers tree ”whips” (approximately three to five feet in height and potted in one- or two-gallon plastic containers) to single locations designated by each neighborhood or community group representative. Each representative is responsible for further distribution to individual homeowners and residents. Each time, the county offers a major canopy tree (this year a yellow poplar), and a smaller, understory, flowering or ornamental tree (the Allegheny serviceberry this year).

The county also coordinates with local nonprofits on volunteer tree-planting events. Generally netting 200 to 250 trees, these are great opportunities because not only do local nonprofits help staff, promote and direct the programs, but additional nonprofits, such as scout organizations, church groups and community/civic associations do the plantings, getting the entire community involved and claiming ownership.

Money Matters

However, county money can go only so far. Two programs are helping to obtain private funding for tree planting. The Commemorative Tree Program encourages residents to purchase a tree (that the county plants and maintains) to honor a person or event. And since development is a major reason for reduced tree numbers, a Tree Canopy Fund was recently approved by the county board. Developers will contribute $2,400 per tree when they cannot meet tree-planting requirements on their property due to site constraints.

The county will partner with Arlingtonians for a Clean Environment, a local nonprofit group, to administer the new program and award grants. “What is innovative about this program is the county’s decision to fund, through a non-profit group, tree planting on private property,” said 2007 County Board Chairman Paul Ferguson. “In establishing this fund, the board is underscoring Arlington’s deep commitment to nurturing a healthy urban forest that can help keep temperatures down in our homes and businesses.” The money will be distributed to community groups based on an assessment of need and their application for the funds. Contributions also are welcome from businesses, organizations and individuals.

"Tree canopy is always changing, and we need an up-to-date picture of Arlington's canopy situation to help set priorities for planting programs," says Larry Finch, chairman of Arlington's Urban Forestry Commission. "The county is planning a tree-canopy study using satellite imagery, and the results of that study will provide a basis for setting future tree-canopy goals and allocating resources to work toward those goals."

Promoting Trees--A Sincere Form Of Flattery

Arlington’s tree-planting program is robust because the community supports it. Arlington ensures the community stands behind its trees by having a number of “tree-recognition programs” that put trees in public view and encourage competition and civic pride. Call them gimmicks or call them great ideas, but these programs get Arlington’s trees in the media, and also get residents involved.

Annually, the county celebrates Arbor Day in coordination with local schools, holding symbolic tree plantings to encourage youth appreciation of trees. Since 1997, the county has earned (and promotes this designation) the Tree City USA award, sponsored by the National Arbor Day Foundation, which is given to localities that have demonstrated an ongoing commitment to the health and care of trees. Since 2002, Arlington also has earned the foundation’s Growth Award. The recognition keeps trees in the news in this otherwise urban community.

Get The Law On Your Side

While few will disagree that trees are important to a community, it’s an entirely different story when the trees are on private property. Trees are a lot of work and maintaining them can be expensive. They can block views from windows, shade yards so gardens and grass are harder to grow, and can pose a risk when their roots come up in sidewalks or when branches hang over homes or walkways. Because of these issues, and the fact that one’s home is one’s castle and protected by many civil rights, it’s not so easy for county government to advance trees on private land. And that’s where legislation becomes involved.

Local, state and federal laws can be developed by the community and enacted to protect trees as well as make it easier to plant and maintain them. In November 2002, the Arlington County Board approved its Tree Preservation Ordinance, which focuses on two main areas--the protection of trees on county property (or public vehicular and pedestrian easements maintained by the county) and establishing a mechanism for designating heritage, memorial, specimen and street trees on both public and private property, which may result in special protection status.

The ordinance stipulates that no designated trees shall be removed or damaged in any way unless the county board determines that there is an overriding need for public improvements or a severe hardship exists for reasonable use of a site. The board can require that the tree be replaced with a similar tree or trees to approximate the canopy lost. Any person or entity that violates the ordinance is subject to a civil penalty not to exceed $2,500 for each violation.

Arlington also partners with the Northern Virginia Urban Forestry Roundtable to develop regional and statewide strategies and coalitions to support trees. Together they worked with state legislators for the passage of tree-conservation legislation that establishes guidelines based on zoning and resident density for ordinances that set goals for tree canopy to be preserved in development projects. One of the sponsors of the legislation, Sen. Patricia Ticer, D-Alexandria, said the legislation is intended to improve air quality in urban environments where tree cover has disappeared because of development.

What’s more, this legislation provides localities with the ability to establish a “tree bank.” Developers unable to meet the tree canopy goals set forth in the legislation may contribute to the fund, facilitating the planting of trees elsewhere, usually on private property. The funds may be disbursed to non-profit organizations with tree-planting or beautification goals in the community. Developers can also receive credits toward conservation by preserving certain designated species, and by planting trees that provide food, habitats and migration opportunities for wildlife.

Hopefully, this legislation is just the beginning. “We need to keep looking for additional ways to steward tree preservation,” adds Dinesh Tiwari, director of Parks, Recreation and Cultural Resources. One idea is to provide tax rebates to help people afford the high cost of tree work. “Maintaining our existing trees is more beneficial than planting new trees. But the high price of quality tree work can put people off. It’s less expensive to take down a tree after it falls than to regularly maintain and prune it over its lifetime so it lives a long life. A possible way to bolster tree maintenance on private land is to give residents a rebate of some sort for tree work done to maintain mature trees.”

Proactive Maintenance

Arlington takes care of existing trees with pruning, dead-wooding, cabling and an invasive species removal program. “Staff and the community are totally engaged in monitoring our trees. We regularly get e-mails from the community about dead or diseased trees that need attention,” said Bartalon.

While the county’s professional staff of arborists and urban foresters works 24/7 to advance the county’s trees, it still has limited numbers. And that’s where the community comes in … in a big way. The Urban Forestry Commission is composed of a dozen county board-appointed activists who steward the county’s development and administration of tree programs and legislation. They lobby the county board, state legislators and their neighbors to protect and advance trees. There is also the Beautification Committee that manages the Notable Tree Program as well as other recognition programs. And a huge amount of sweat equity comes from more than 500 volunteers who tear up plants that harm trees and the environment (e.g., English ivy, porcelainberry, kudzu).

The Arlington County Invasive Plant Program tackles the problem of invasive plants in Arlington. It is funded by the county’s parks and recreation department and run through the Virginia Cooperative Extension. Volunteers take part in hands-on removal of invasive plants from county property, assisting with education efforts, helping with surveys and mapping target areas and developing programs. Regularly scheduled events bring volunteers together to develop community bonds while at the same time reducing threats to trees.

Residents are also empowered to maintain trees. The Virginia Cooperative Extension Tree Stewards are available by phone or e-mail and at local events to help residents manage their specific trees. Tree Stewards also maintain an information table at Arlington’s Farmers Market to answer residents’ questions. And the county’s Web site is full of advice and resources with links to state, national and nonprofit experts. Most recently, the county developed a public education campaign about the Emerald Ash Borer and quarantine efforts in Arlington, and earlier in the summer focused educational outreach on Gypsy Moths.

Just as with most things in a community, the success of Arlington’s trees will be driven by the residents. Parks and recreation staff steward these efforts, provide education, and plant as many trees as possible on public land. But the future of the county’s trees lies in the support of the community.

Susan Kalish worked in and around parks and recreation in a variety of capacities, including volunteer soccer coach, chair of the Fairfax City (Va.) Parks and Recreation Advisory Board, director of communications for the National Recreation and Park Association, and currently director of marketing and communications at Arlington County (Va.) Department of Parks, Recreation and Cultural Resources. She can be reached at