For trees, only strong survive on mean streets Planting, care hurt by cutback in funds

December 02, 1991|By Liz Bowie

Tree planting has become the environmentalists' favorite outdoor sport, but still at least as many trees die on Baltimore streets each year as are planted.

Felled by budget axes that take away money for watering and pruning, and weakened by hostile conditions amid the concrete, street trees face a daily struggle for life.

But those that survive are helping to keep utility bills down, reduce smog, and simply cool the city in the hottest weather.

Trees in other big cities fare similarly, according to a survey of 20 cities by the American Forestry Association, a Washington-based citizens group. Maintenance programs for trees will be cut by 70 percent from 1990 to 1992 and U.S. cities are expected to drop some planting programs next year.

So far, there are no plans to stop planting in Baltimore, where about 2,000 dead trees are pulled out of the ground and 2,000 put in each year. "We are holding our own," said Matthew Taylor, the city forester.

The city spends $100,000 a year planting street trees, but is barely replacing trees as they die.

Twice as many trees could grow along its 2,000 miles of streets, the survey said.

In the parks, such as Druid Hill and Patterson, where trees are most likely to survive, there is no money to plant them, Mr. Taylor said. "In the parks, we have a lot of old trees that are stressed out. They are in decline," he said.

About 403 acres, or almost 9 percent of the city's trees, were cut down from 1973 to 1990, Maryland Office of Planning statistics show.

In the meantime, many street trees are dying in their teens. They are trampled, lose limbs and are starved of oxygen and water. Snow removal trucks pelt them with salt. Dogs urinate on them.

The 4-by-4-foot squares they are planted in are too small, so trees often have a difficult time getting enough nourishment. When they do get water, it can be so much at once that it puddles and rots their roots.

"Once they are planted, they are on their own unless a neighbor fertilizes them . . . or waters them," Mr. Taylor said.

Planting more trees could save energy, and reduce water and air pollution. Three mature trees planted around a house can reduce air conditioning costs by 10 to 15 percent, according to the American Forestry Association, which has launched ......TC tree-planting campaign called Global Releaf.

In addition, the association says, trees can reduce the heat generated by concrete streets, sidewalks and parking lots. In the middle of cities, the temperature is 5 to 10 degrees hotter than in suburbs with more grass and shade trees.

It is believed that a good tree-planting program may reduce city temperatures by 1 or 2 degrees, said Neil Sampson, executive director of the AFA. In Washington that could mean a savings of $20,000 an hour to downtown customers running air conditioners. Trees also will soak up water pollutants from streets and cut down on smog by reducing the high temperatures that help create the haze. "We have moved from trees being a nicety to a necessity," said Bob Skiera, a retired urban forester in Milwaukee who helped with the survey. Maryland's Chesapeake Bay "Tree-mendous" program is responsible for planting about 20,000 to 25,000 8-foot-tall trees and 3 million seedlings in parks, along highways and other areas of the state, said Walter Orlinsky, director of the program. Many seedlings naturally die, but larger trees fare better, he said.

Although the state does not plant many trees in Baltimore, it has done so when someone has donated money for trees to be planted in a friend's or relative's name.

The tree planting is barely making a dent in the loss of trees statewide, primarily because of development. From 1985 to 1990, the state lost 71,000 acres of trees.

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