– From our series on Salem’s trees
With Salem’s population projected to increase by 60,000 additional people before 2035* and by significantly more than that by 2100, the area can anticipate the construction of considerably more housing, doctor’s offices, schools and markets, more water lines and lawns and industrial parks in coming decades.
As that work progresses – inevitably – multitudes of trees will be cut down or killed from what is called “construction trauma” – the violation of the critical root zone (the entire area directly below a tree’s canopy) from digging, compression, gouges, and cuts or other physical insults.
This loss will cost Salem some of the stormwater mitigation that trees provide, it will make the city more vulnerable to climate variability and atmospheric carbon dioxide, it will decrease the value of properties and impact the quality of life that a tree canopy provides.
Because urban trees are a valuable resource “that provide economic, environmental and social benefits,” communities are improved and strengthened when they provide best practices for urban trees says Oregon State University’s Tree Protection on Construction and Development Sites guide.
USDA Forest Service research says that for every $1 spent on urban trees, $2.70 in benefits is returned.
“It is my experience that the people of Salem generally care a lot about trees and appreciate trees,” says David Craig, professor of Biology at Willamette University. His belief is supported by the outcry when City of Salem contractors damaged the roots of 11 cherry trees on the Willamette campus recently. “The roots were torn up and pulled from the trees,” says Jim Andersen, grounds manager for Willamette University. People also objected to compression and shredding of the roots of white oaks in Bush’s Pasture Park during the City’s pathway work, as well as to construction impacts to consequential trees on Salem Hospital property when it built a rehab facility on Mission Street.
“Salem Hospital… missed a major and historic opportunity to demonstrate how to do a modern development of new facilities in and around valuable mature trees,” Craig says.
In all three projects, the critical root zone was violated. Trees are failing, or will likely fail in 6 months to ten years, from all three projects.
A more robust City tree ordinance would improve outcomes, says former city councilor and urban tree advocate Kasia Quillinan. Currently, “if construction is on private land, there is very little code protection, and it only applies to [older] white oaks,” Quillinan says. “Now, a developer can be fined a nominal amount for taking out a protected tree… Some developers feel it is easier to just remove the trees – all of them – and pay the fine.” This approach is easier than going through “the process of getting a permit and providing a tree conservation plan.”
Another observer who feels that the City’s present ordinances are not sufficient is Elwood Newhouse of Elwood’s Tree Service. In the business since 1978, Newhouse appreciates that contractors who develop Salem properties are required to follow a number of city codes, including requirements to leave a certain percentage of trees, on properties.
But Newhouse says those trees still often die, and if the City added practical, informed rules to guide construction, that would assist contractors who mean well but often don’t understand tree culture.
“Contractors are supposed to save trees in Salem,” Newhouse says, “and you can see they try to comply with ordinances and they put a big ‘S’ on a tree that is supposed to be saved. But most contractors don’t understand about soil compaction and they install sidewalks and pipes and electricity with just a little fence around the tree that needs to be protected.”
In cases like, this, the tree “loses the other trees that used to be around it, its roots are cut, soil is piled around the trunk. All these things mean that six months or a couple years down the road – that tree is dying from root damage.”
Contractors need permits “for plumbing,” Newhouse notes, “they need permits for wiring. But most contractors don’t understand about compacting soil, and that means we can easily destroy a huge tree, cut the roots of a 100 foot, 8,000 pound Douglas fir tree because we are so ignorant.”
“It’s hard to save a tree – and just putting an ‘S’ on it doesn’t help.”
Portland certified arborist Brian French says busy contractors have many distractions, and can be overwhelmed with employees, and timelines “and equipment and material coming in to out,” but “they should make trees a ‘Got To’ as well.”
Oregon he says, is “not at a place anymore where we can go without understanding the monetary value of trees for their a real dollar and a human health benefit. The bigger the tree, the more value it has. An infinite number of young trees can’t replace one big tall one, and 1,000 ten-foot trees can’t do what one one-hundred foot tree can.”
French objects to policies that simply require “replacement” trees to take the place of mature ones removed during construction. “If it took that first tree 100 years to get there, it will take that long again. We can’t go to the store and buy 100 years,” he says. “There’s generational gaps when we lost those old trees. And yet in our policies do not reflect that.”
Because most people, including those who write city codes, don’t usually understand best practices for tree health, Kristin Ramstad from the Urban Forestry Department of the Oregon Department of Forestry recommends that, “prior to, or in conjunction with, adopting tree laws and regulations,” cities and counties “start a campaign to raise awareness of how trees in urbanized and urbanizing areas contribute to our lives and our children’s lives.”
Ramstad suggests that each individual city “develop a separate, and officially designated, “Standards and specifications” tree care manual, to which the city tree code, and city development codes,) would refer” as the months and years pass.
Many construction projects in Salem are mindful of trees and take steps to protect them. On example is the SAIF remodel on High St. The 2+-year effort to completely renovate the office building successfully protected the enormous historic oak in the SAIF courtyard.
This happened because the company knew the tree was “important to our employees, and also the surrounding neighborhood,” says SAIF’s Cindy Leathers. “We worked with professional arborists Elwood Newhouse, who has taken care of the tree for more than 25 years, and Woody Dukes, to take every precaution” to protect the tree. A fence was constructed at the drip line and all workers were informed of “the importance of that being a no-work zone.”
Not only did the tree survive, but also a baby oak tree is now growing under its canopy. The tiny oak is being carefully cared for by SAIF as well.
In other success stories, this summer, the City of Salem posted “No Parking” signs beneath Bush’s Pasture oaks during the art fair to protect roots from compression by vehicles. And Craig notes that the Willamette campus began as “nearly treeless” in the 1800s to “one of the prettiest leafiest most evolutionarily diverse collection of trees in Salem.”
Anyone can obtain a copy of OSU’s Tree Protection on Construction and Development Sites booklet online or at the Oregon Department of Forestry.
Photo at top: SAIF staff with beloved aged oak
* December 2014 analysis by ECONorthwest for the City of Salem