Planting the first seeds: the value of our City's trees

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It's hard to imagine the City of Colorado Springs without the dense canopy of trees that line our streets and parks. Yet, when General William Palmer founded our city nearly 150 years ago, it was grasslands and plains as far as the eye could see.

"It’s not about what it is. It’s about what it can become.” – Dr. Seuss, The Lorax

Palmer was a successful railroad magnate from Philadelphia with homes in London and New York, cities distinguished by their incorporation of urban trees. He understood that for Colorado Springs to fulfill its own potential, its natural beauty would need to be preserved and cultivated at the same pace as its industrial ambitions.

This commitment was consistent with Palmer's conservationist values and horticultural interest. His beliefs affected both business dealings and personal projects. While building his home at Glen Eyrie, he had plans redrawn to avoid moving trees and native vegetation. Many proposed railroad lines were moved to accommodate the natural surroundings.  

Palmer was also interested in the health and propagation of trees throughout the city. In 1872, he spent his own money to have 600 Cottonwoods shipped in and planted along Monument Valley Creek. He even collaborated with well-known forester and fellow Pennsylvanian Gifford Pinchot about control methods for potential threats to the city’s young urban forest, including pine beetles.

The value of trees

Trees provide many benefits to our city. They add beauty and provide shade. They also aid stormwater retention, benefit property values, help create a sense of serenity, decrease stress and depression, and have even been shown to lower crime rates. 

Trees also fill the essential functions of air filtration, carbon sequestration and energy savings.

“When properly maintained, trees are the only infrastructure that increases in value over time,” says City Forester, Dennis Will. “Part of building a city that matches our scenery is taking care of this important resource." 

According to a recent Urban Forest Commission Assessment that shows the economic benefit of trees, our city’s trees provide an annual economic benefit of over $100 million a year and an additional $12 million in annual Stormwater savings. These figures bolster Will's statement, "Pure economics show we should invest more to take care of our [urban forest]." 

Responsible stewardship

Thanks to Palmer’s vision, Colorado Springs now has more than a quarter-million trees. Entrusted with protecting this living infrastructure and cultivating a thriving urban forest is the city’s Forestry Division.

“Our urban forest is the result of a 150-year sustained effort by the City and its citizens,” said Will. “The City forestry department is the steward of that sustained effort, and it’s a responsibility we take very seriously.”

The division includes a total of 15 people, extended seasonally by three local contractors.  Together, they care for approximately 240,000 street trees and 50,000 park trees. They also maintain trees on other City property, including open spaces. 

This care includes planting, pruning and treating trees affected by insects and disease. It also includes the removal of City trees, when needed, as well as mowing and weed control in medians and other public rights of way. 

The team works with residents daily, and on average receives approximately 2,000 requests regarding street tree maintenance each year. The number can pile up, especially when there is an unforeseen event that diverts resources. An example are the heavy snowstorms we experienced in March and May of 2019 that left tree branches littered across roadways and parks. Combined, these storms took nine months and $233,000 to clean up. 

Maximizing resources through collaboration

Another important role of Forestry is supporting the nearly 10,000 acres of open space that contain both deciduous and coniferous forest. With the majority of this forest land located in the wildland urban interface, the forestry division regularly partners with Colorado Springs Utilities and the Colorado Springs Fire Department to promote tree health, reduce the risk of wildfire, and encourage species diversity. Together, they have treated more than 1,000 acres since 2005. 

"By partnering with Utilities and CSFD, we are able to share costs and facilities to maximize efficiency," Will said. These collaborative efforts help forestry maximize their annual budget of $2.1 million. 

Planning for the future

The City forestry division provides a needed service to our community by keeping our trees healthy, safe, and in a sustainable state. A new Urban Forest Management Plan is now being created to help guide this important work both now and in the future. 

The public is invited to learn more about the planning process and provide feedback at a community meeting on March 18 from 6-8 p.m. in the City Auditorium’s Lon Chaney Theatre, located at 221 East Kiowa Street.

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