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Should we keep our trees?

This dispatch was added by one of our Nonprofit Neighbors. It does not represent the editorial voice of The Rapidian or Community Media Center.

Lee Mueller, Urban Forest Project Coordinator, highlights how Grand Rapids can protect our trees and reach our tree canopy goals.


Our community has set firm goals for tree canopy. Green Grand Rapids, the City’s Urban Forest Plan, Climate Resiliency Plan and the Sustainability Plan all highlight the City’s 40% tree canopy goal. It’s not just an arbitrary number to be aimed for; it’s become a symbol of Grand Rapids' sustainability and environmentally-minded culture. Trees are part of our community fabric and we want more.

The City has made significant strides in planting and retaining trees. Since 2010, the City has had an aggressive tree planting program that has resulted in thousands of new trees alongside our streets. Partially funded by grants, these tree plantings are projected to accomplish near 100% stocking of street trees in the next three to five years. In other words, the City hopes to have the majority of available spaces for street trees planted with a tree in the near future.

However, the City of Grand Rapids has purview over only a small percentage of the city’s land area. The major opportunities for canopy retention and expansion are on private lands. In Grand Rapids, trees on residential properties are afforded little protection. In some cases, trees may be retained or planted as part of development or construction, but more often than not landowners are free to remove trees – however large or healthy – as they see fit.

Recently, a series of issues have caught the attention of residents within our community. Several large, healthy trees have been removed from properties in connection with some form of site improvement or development. While the issue has been granted recent attention, removals such as the recent ones are by no means an isolated occurrence. Trees are frequently removed or abused because it is easier than the alternative and their individual values are not always well recognized – even if our community has stated in multiple documents and strategies that a larger tree canopy is a desire. As neighborhoods continue to be presented with new development opportunities and investment, it is likely that we will experience more tree loss– a loss that is counterproductive to our community goals.

Other cities have addressed this issue in a variety of ways. The Alliance for Community Trees suggests that protecting large “heritage” or “landmark” trees is a best practice for tree conservation nationwide. Recognizing these trees and their contribution to the community is imperative to developing a comprehensive urban forestry program.

To these ends, Columbus, OH arborists and foresters are involved early in the planning process and given authority to prescribe tree protection measures. The community has established tree density targets for specific land uses that must be met in order to receive an occupancy permit. Both Chapel Hill, NC and Clarke County, GA have established minimum tree canopy levels that are achieved during development projects on private lands. Where adequate canopy does not exist, additional trees may be planted or a payment can be made to a community tree planting fund. Closer to home, Ann Arbor’s Land Development Regulations require the protection of large or special “Landmark” trees during construction activities on public or private property. If removal is necessary, new trees or a fee may be required proportional to the size of the tree removed.

To date, Grand Rapids has responded primarily with education and engagement. Organizations like West Michigan Environmental Action Council through their “Save Your Ash” campaign several years ago, and Friends of Grand Rapids Parks (FGRP) through the Grand Rapids Urban Forest Project, have sought to inform the community of the multiple values and benefits that trees provide. Two years ago, The Grand Rapids Community Foundation also supported FGRP and the City to review the current ordinance and policy. This has provided necessary groundwork to begin a more robust discussion about the changes our community would like to see in protecting trees. Whether a tree is on public or private property, it provides a public benefit. Shade, carbon sequestration, storm-water mitigation and neighborhood beautification aspects of trees do not obey traditional property boundaries; the benefits of trees are more fluid – affecting us all to varying degrees.

It stands to reason that – as a community- we wish to encourage the retention or expansion of tree canopy. We can agree that a large, healthy urban forest is a benefit that we deserve- an asset that we value. As we move forward, it is ever more important that we consider the benefit of trees and what measures need to be taken to ensure we adequately protect, enhance and expand trees community wide.

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