LBWA -- Protecting The Canopy

Photo: Courtesy of Zumbrota City Staff

Editor’s Note: This column, “LBWA” (Leadership By Wandering Around), is based on the premise that, in order to find out what’s going on in the field, a parks and rec leader has to leave his or her desk and “wander around” the area of operations, talk to people, ask questions, and kick around ideas with the individuals in the thick of delivering services to the public. So the author will bring up issues and ask the leaders among the readership to share their knowledge and experiences.

About 4 years ago, Neil Jensen, the City Administrator of Zumbrota, Minn., located an hour southeast of Minneapolis, noticed that a small stand of ash trees had died in the spring. “That got me thinking there might be a problem,” recalls Jensen, a self-avowed “tree nut.”

A certified tree inspector in a previous life, he kept current on issues involving trees and knew about the dreaded Emerald Ash Borer (EAB), a small, iridescent-green beetle native to Asia that was first found in the U.S. in Detroit in 2002. Since then, the insect has migrated to other northern states, being discovered in Minnesota’s Twin Cities area in 2009.

Spread through transported firewood, EAB kills ash trees when the larvae burrow under the bark. Minnesota has the highest volume of ash trees in the U.S., so Jensen’s concern was valid and prudent.

“It turned out that the EAB wasn’t responsible for that particular stand of ash dying, but it got me thinking, and I decided that a preemptive approach would be best,” says Jensen, who discovered that the state legislature had approved funding through the state’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

Stretching Grant Dollars

In 2012, the city was awarded a $21,000 grant that spans a 3-year timeframe; over that time, Jensen expects that up to 700 trees of several different species native to Minnesota, such as river birch and red oak, will be planted, based on the DNR tree list.

Through a concerted effort by city staff members and volunteers, all closely monitored by Jensen, the city developed a $30,000 budget and received the state DNR grant to begin reforestation.

The city’s volunteer park board has taken on the responsibility of encompassing reforestation efforts into its mission.  Other volunteer assistants provide in-kind services, including a volunteer forester who helps with the grant and other administrative items.

Zumbrota hasn’t yet been infested with the EAB, but in these cases, prevention is the prudent policy. “Being preemptive is always the best approach,” advises Jensen, “But it’s equally as important to diversify the type of trees you come in with if you want to stay ahead of whatever might be coming next, and be able to absorb canopy loss due to diseases.”

He cited lessons learned in the past when Dutch Elm disease knocked out the species: “Do you know what they put in when the elm was wiped out? Ash,” he says, punctuating the importance of diversifying the species when reforesting. “The main thing people should consider if they are wondering how they can maintain a good, healthy canopy is diversity.”

Jensen explains that the grant funding dollars were stretched by doing a lot of “bare-root” planting, using plants that are dug in the fall and stored all winter in a humid refrigerator, ready for planting in the spring.

“You can get 1-inch bare-root trees for about $40 apiece or so, depending on the species, which is why we can get so many of them,” asserts Jensen, who notes the city uses local nurseries to obtain most of the trees. “We got 1-and-a-half bare root river birches for $15 apiece from a new nursery that opened up near here—you can plant a lot of trees for that kind of money.”

Jensen suggests that a good starting point for cities looking to improve forest canopy in a particular location is to contact the state DNR. “They have their finger on the pulse of what’s going on out there, not just for individual cities but the whole state, so if something is going to come up, they’re going to know about it,” he says.

Another proactive measure Zumbrota took was to start its own nursery, budgeting about $1,000 a year, and sequestering an area of land where the trees are planted and allowed to mature.

“We’ve got about 250 nice trees, eight to ten footers, in the nursery,” says Jensen. Like money in the bank, the trees are ready to move and use as needed. “We haven’t started moving them yet. We bought them small and are letting them grow. When the time comes to move them, we’ll probably buy a small tree spade.”

Jensen says the grant specified that any city subdivision newer than 15 years could have access to the money. “That way the diversification to the tree canopy can start right away, across the whole city and not just in the parks,” he says.

Destroyed By Fire

Unfortunately, Mother Nature doesn’t always allow people the luxury of reforestation as a preemptive measure, but rather remedial.

One disastrous example is California’s infamous “Cedar Fire” in October 2003 that destroyed more than 270,000 acres and 2,820 buildings, and killed 15 people, including one firefighter. It was the largest fire ever recorded in California history.

Fire—especially in western states—has become public-enemy number one of forests in recent years.

One of the parks devastated in the Cedar Fire was the CuyamacaRanchoState Park, east of San Diego. About 98 percent of the mostly coniferous trees in the 25,000-acre park were destroyed by the fire when a lost, novice hunter started a signal fire that raged out of control in the dry conditions.

The fire was huge, not only in the large perimeter it encompassed, but also in the intense heat that was produced.

“This was a different kind of fire; it was so intense that it burned the entire understory (shrubs, bushes, and grasses), right down to layers of dust on the ground that contained seeds which could have helped regenerate a new forest,” explains Lisa Gonzales-Kramer. She is the environmental scientist employed by the California Parks Department as project manager for the Cuyamaca Reforestation Project.

The project is a landmark effort to “restore a vanishing habitat,” an endeavor that intends to revive native flora and fauna. The effort started after it was clear the forest could not regenerate without assistance.

“The project was a coalescence of events that occurred right on the heels of the Cedar Fire that eventually allowed us to think about this as a project,” said Gonzales-Kramer. The big break came when the state parks officials decided to participate in a symposium at Berkeley.

“Four years after the fire, we were seeing little or no regeneration of native trees—some, but not enough to ensure reforestation,” notes Gonzales-Kramer, pointing to the catastrophic loss of seeds burned by the intense heat as the primary reason for the slow regeneration.

As an example, she describes one study area where only 11 Coulter Pines had grown back in a 1-acre area, not enough and too widely spaced to ensure proper distribution and germination of seeds.

Total reforestation of such a large area was not in the state parks system’s overall mission or budget. “But we had the research by then to know the forest would not come back on its own, and we recognized our responsibility for preservation of the species and habitat,” she says. “We also began to look at opportunities for funding sources that could help us do that.”

Learning To Rebuild

The necessary help came within the context of the 2007 Symposium on Climate Change and Public Conservation Lands Management at the University of California, Berkeley. The symposium was jointly sponsored by CaliforniaState Parks and BerkeleyLawSchool's CaliforniaCenter for Environmental Law and Policy, with the assistance of the Resources Legacy Fund and The Nature Conservancy.

The event was attended by more than 140 leading policymakers, academics, public-land managers, land-trust leaders, conservationists, and interested donors. The intent of the symposium was to help formulate actionable policy recommendations on how public-land managers should modify their management strategies, acquisition priorities, and restoration practices, based on the expected effects of climate change on species and habitats.

The completion of that gathering marked the beginning of what will be a long and involved journey leading to an eventual reforested Cuyamaca park.

“We have our Carbon Sequestration Project, which is registered with the Climate Action Reserve in California, who sets a forestry protocol, which we have to design our project after and comply with,” explains Gonzales-Kramer, trying to break down a complicated chain of requirements.

According to its website, the Climate Action Reserve is an international organization with a mission: “Promote the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by pioneering credible market-based policies and solutions.”

Ten years after the fire, trees planted years ago are now only 6 feet tall and 3 inches in diameter. Still, the lessons learned and the experience gained can be of immense value to others.

“When I do presentations about our project, one thing I try to really communicate to people is the importance of fire as part of a natural preventive regime,” says Gonzales-Kramer. This involves controlled burning of underbrush or “biomass” in the form of fallen or cut limbs.

“Fire is such a scary thing for people, especially out west where we have these huge, catastrophic fires, where people have lost homes; they are nervous about it,” she concedes. “But the fires are catastrophic because we don’t allow enough controlled, preventive burning to take place,” she asserts, noting that the time, staffing, and money necessary to properly prepare a preventive fire are obstacles that must be addressed.

Pay Now Or Later

The value of preventive maintenance is perhaps one of the most lucid lessons to be learned from events such as the Cedar Fire. Parks and rec professionals understand preventive maintenance as related to mechanical systems or equipment: pay now to take care of it, or pay more money later to fix it after it fails.

However, the same concept applies to protection of tree canopies, whether in a relatively small town like Zumbrota or a massive park like Cuyamaca. Whether it’s anticipating bug infestations or dealing with destructive and deadly conflagrations, it pays to protect the canopy.

Randy Gaddo served for 15 years as a director in municipal parks and recreation after retiring from 20 years in the U.S. Marine Corps. He developed, wrote, administered, and presented maintenance plans as well as recreation master plans during that time. Gaddo earned his Master’s in Public Administration, and now lives in Beaufort, S.C. He can be reached at (678) 350-8642 or email .