Caring For Our Urban Forest

Several months ago, during a presentation on a potential plan to combat emerald ash borer and work towards a new urban forestry approach, the consultant hired by the city uttered a phrase I’ll never forget.

She called South Milwaukee “the Wild West of urban forestry.” And, as you can guess, it wasn’t a compliment.

Well, we’re taking steps to shed that image – starting with $300,000 in tree removal funding and a new public tree ordinance that defines roles, responsibilities and a plan for care of trees in the public right of way.

The South Milwaukee City Council gave initial approval to the ordinance change at its meeting Tuesday night. Further discussion will be had at the committee and council levels before final passage.

The biggest fundamental change proposed: The city would assume control of “public trees,” including removing dead or dying trees and pruning other trees in the right of way.

The top priority is removing dead or dying trees — of all varieties, ash or not. That’s where the $300,000 comes in.  The money — part of a larger city bond issue for a wide variety of infrastructure projects the council gave final approval to on Tuesday — will be used to take down hundreds of public trees in poor shape across the city, including many suspected of suffering from EAB.

Those trees were identified as part of the recently completed tree survey, which you can see summarized here.

In the next eight to 10 years, you can expect to see all white, green and black ash trees in the city removed.

The three ordinance takes this a step further and starts us toward a necessary long-term strategy. Among the guiding principles behind this ordinance …

  • In the proposed ordinance, public trees are defined as those within the city right of way or on city-owned land (or in medians). For those with sidewalks, public trees are those between a sidewalk and curb. For those without, it’s a bit more complicated, where trees between the curb and property line planed as part of a development plan or city planting plan would be considered public. There will also be an appeal process where the city can deem trees as public if they sit in the right of way, are consistently spaced and within four feet of the curb and gutter.
  • As for maintenance, the city, in the proposed ordinance, is committing to “a systematic program to remove high-risk public trees,” as well as prune them. Trees will be removed or pruned based on condition, with the worst trees getting the highest priority. Some trees can be removed or pruned by city workers. Some will have to be contracted for removal or pruning, and that is where the $300,000 will come in. Either way, the city is agreeing to take responsibility for trees in its right of way vs. requiring homeowners to do it. This is significant.
  • The city would not fund treatment for trees infected with EAB, according to the proposed ordinance.
  • When it comes to replanting, the city would also not commit to doing so, although I am pushing hard to ensure we at least replant trees in the downtown area, on boulevards or on public parcels in the short term, hopefully with more down the road.

So, this is a start, and a necessary one.

We must do this from an insurance liability perspective. It’s also the right thing to do, and what’s best for the city. Communities have a responsibility to care for their urban canopy and ensure it thrives long term. Our urban forest is part of who we are as South Milwaukee, and it takes a village to maintain and enhance it – not blindly delegating this to individual property owners.

That said, I hope this work is just a sapling as we enhance our focus on urban forestry. We still have some big questions to answer, especially around ensuring we have the city manpower we need to manage a successful forestry program for the long term and properly execute the removal, pruning and replanting of trees. I also want to see us make a stronger commitment to replanting, hopefully where there comes a day soon when the city replants a tree for each one it takes down. Funding will be a signifcant issue here.

My pledge as mayor: To overcommunicate this. I realize the first question for many people will be, “What does this mean for me? What about my tree?” We will do our best to answer that question, sharing information through a variety of means (newsletter, websites, public meeting, etc.) and give opportunities for feedback. This starts with the next couple of weeks, before we pass the final ordinance. My door is always open too.

So stay tuned. Lines of communication will remain open as we evolve our work on urban forestry. For now, this is a good start, progress toward shedding our “Wild West” image.

Check out the consultant’s EAB report for more background detail. 

2 Comments

Filed under City Council, City Services, Emerald Ash Borer, South Milwaukee

2 responses to “Caring For Our Urban Forest

  1. Kim

    Some questions came to mind after reading this. Who will oversee the new Urban Forest ordinance? I know you wrote the city will assume control; will it be the police, city council, DNR? Where did the money come from to make these improvements? What will the city incur once the original $300,000 is used?

  2. Kim: Good questions. I hope what follows answers them … Our city engineer would be our de facto urban forester, for now. I’d love to get to a point where we can have an actual forester on staff, but that is dependent on budget, political will and other factors, and it will be tough in the short or medium term. Our Street Department, acting under the direction of the engineer, will do our in-house tree removal, pruning, etc., as we contract out for larger removals. The $300,000 is money we have committed to borrow for paying contractors to remove larger trees over the next two years. Like other borrowed funds — we are borrowing more than $7 million in total to fund a variety of infrastructure projects — the money will be paid back over 10 years using taxpayer dollars. Thankfully, our interested rate is very low due to our strong financial position and strong bond rating. And what we will use to fund contract tree removal once the $300,000 is exhausted? To be started. Like I said, this is only a start, but we needed a start. We still must figure out our long-term urban forestry plan, strategy and execution.

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