Actions to care for and grow Colorado Springs’ urban forest outlined in newly adopted management plan

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While the urban forest for many cities across the nation includes remnants from naturally forested areas, in Colorado Springs, its urban forest has been, with a few exceptions, planted as the City develops and expands. This vision to create a tree-lined city was set forth by Colorado Springs’ founder General William Jackson Palmer nearly 150 years ago.

Today, there are approximately 270,000 trees in Colorado Springs’ public places. This includes along streets and trails, and in parks, but not in open spaces and areas along waterways.

This living infrastructure is not only beautiful, but is also valued at $1 billion in economic value, including annual benefits of roughly $100 million in air filtration, $900,000 in stormwater retention and $2 million in carbon sequestration.

When properly maintained, this value increases over time. That’s why City Council unanimously voted to adopt a new Urban Forest Management Plan in January 2021. In addition to establishing a baseline assessment of the City’s urban forest, the plan provides a road map for strategies to care for and grow it over the next 20 years.

“Caring for our urban forest is an important part of growing a sustainable, healthy and vibrant city,” said city forester Dennis Will, who leads the City’s efforts to preserve, maintain and manage the urban forest and public right of ways, benefitting residents and visitors alike. “It is an incredibly valuable asset and, if managed properly, will continue to add to the health of our community for generations to come.”

Recommendation to increase service levels, budget and staffing

Currently, the City’s Forestry Division has 11 fulltime employees and an annual budget of $1.6 million. Taking the 270,000 tree population into account, this equates to 1 staff per 24,545 trees with an allowance of $5.77 per tree each year.

In its baseline assessment, the plan found that Forestry’s current staffing and budget level allows only for reactive management, meaning the division is able to only respond to emergencies and high-priority complaints. The plan also notes that based on current growth trends citywide, the demand, even at this base level of service, is unsustainable.

“The current picture is that we’re behind where we need to be,” said Will. “We have still not returned to the service levels we had prior to 2008 when Forestry suffered cuts along with the rest of the parks department. On top of that, now we are serving more people and a larger geographical area as well. The most serious implication of this lag in service is the safety of forestry staff and the general public. Of course, there are also long-term implications to the growth and health of our urban forest if we continue operating as is.”

The following data illustrates some of the responsive services Forestry provided in 2020 and associated costs.

  • 1,690 trees pruned, cost: $307,025
  • 836 dead or failing trees removed, cost: $88,096
  • 41 new trees planted (28 in Monument Valley Park, 13 on Nevada Avenue), cost: $12,901
  • Mowing and weed control in public right of ways, cost: $400,000

To grow the service level to include proactive management with frequent preventive tree maintenance, a high level of tree planting, comprehensive emergency response and clean-up services, pest and disease treatment programs and public outreach and education, the plan recommends adding 16 fulltime employees to get to 1 staff per 10,000 trees and upping the annual budget by $5.8 million, an average annual allowance of $21.64 per tree each year.

Full details on these recommendations are available in the plan.

Imminent threat: emerald ash borer

A significant portion of the plan is dedicated to a management strategy for tree pests and disease, which includes the imminent threat of the emerald ash borer (EAB). EAB is a non-native wood boring beetle that has become established in many parts of North America where there are ash trees. It is an extremely destructive insect of ash trees and has been found to be the most damaging invasive organism ever introduced to the North American continent.

EAB has not yet been identified in Colorado Springs, however, in the Midwest and other areas where this insect has been present for several years, including other areas of Colorado, it has already killed millions of ash trees resulting in losses of more than $4 billion. In 2013, Boulder became the first Colorado city to find EAB. As of 2020, EAB has also been confirmed in Arvada, Broomfield, Fort Collins, Gunbarrel, Lafayette, Longmont, Lyons, Superior and Westminster.

It’s estimated that ash trees account for 9-20 percent of public trees in Colorado Springs’ neighborhoods. This does not include additional ash trees on private property.

“A lack of species diversity creates the threat of canopy loss,” said Will. “Based on what we know about emerald ash borer and the percentage of ash trees in Colorado Springs, I consider this the No. 1 threat to our urban forest.”

In order to prepare for EAB in Colorado Springs, the management plan suggests that an updated and accurate tree inventory is created and maintained. To date, Forestry has completed a small sampling to get a better picture of the overall inventory. This study included looking at 5,000 trees.

The plan also outlines strategies for early detection of EAB and options for suppression if and when EAB is detected. One of the recommendations is preemptive removal of some ash trees and replacement with a different species.

Love trees? Here’s one way to get involved

A goal to plant 18,071 trees has been set as part of the City’s 150th anniversary celebration this year, or sesquicentennial. Anyone and everyone is encouraged to take part by planting a tree and adding it to the official COS 150 tree tracker. The site also offers important tree care tips and ideas for what type of tree to plant based on location.

An important note, this challenge officially kicked off in 2019, so any trees planted since that time can and should be added to the tracker.

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