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Winslow trees don’t stand tall

Kathy Wolf and Marja Preston record data on trees in the Madison Avenue pedestrian islands, part of an ongoing survey of Winslow’s street trees. - DOUGLAS CRIST/Staff Photo
Kathy Wolf and Marja Preston record data on trees in the Madison Avenue pedestrian islands, part of an ongoing survey of Winslow’s street trees.
— image credit: DOUGLAS CRIST/Staff Photo

The first-ever comprehensive survey finds many stunted and badly pruned.

As local street trees go, the sweetgum in front of Vern’s Winslow Drug is an exemplar of the form.

Painfully so.

Topped to avoid a conflict with overhead utility lines and never properly pruned, its limbs and branches have bunched up into an unhealthy tangle. The roots have been confined for years to a tiny triangle of earth next to the curb, growing knotted and gnarled all the while.

So is there anything good to be said for the tree?

“It’s still alive,” observes Marja Preston, city planner, who with volunteer Kathy Wolf is conducting what’s believed to be the first-ever comprehensive survey of downtown trees.

“Yeah, the foliage looks amazingly well for where it is,” Wolf agrees, qualifying her compliments by adding, “it’s amazing it’s still standing.”

Preston, Wolf and other volunteers from the city’s Community Forestry Commission have been canvassing Winslow street by street on recent evenings, inspecting every single “street tree” – defined as those specimens growing in median strips or between the sidewalk and curb – in town.

The next phase will see a survey of “significant” trees on private property, to encourage landowners to retain them as parcels are redeveloped. The project is part of a larger effort to draft forest management policies in watersheds and elsewhere around the island.

“We really feel strongly that policies and actions have to be premised on some data,” said Wolf, an island resident and research social scientist in urban forestry at the University of Washington’s College of Forest Resources. “What are you going to do? You can’t tell that until you can tell what you’ve got.”

The volunteers grade each Winslow tree on the condition of its trunk, foliage, roots and limb structure. Their observations are entered into a handheld data device that includes aerial photographs of downtown superimposed over the Winslow street grid, to be compiled later into a database.

Their findings may or may not be surprising, depending on one’s arboreal acuity.

For one thing, there are a lot fewer trees in the public domain than one might expect; most downtown trees are growing on private property.

For another, the condition of Winslow’s street trees is mixed. Actually, that’s being generous.

“They’ve been managed horribly,” Wolf said, with many trees evidently stuck in the ground and left to fend for themselves during their critical, formative years when watering, pruning and mulching are essential.

The neglect is evidenced in the stunted forms of many trees along High School Road. When the trees were replanted in sidewalk strips after roadwork in 1992, a number of them withered and had to be removed several years ago. Many of those remaining have never achieved proper shape.

“I would guess with what is in place now that any care that might have been given to the trees was the follow-up of a contractor,” Wolf said of the downtown tree stock. “I’m just guessing that there hasn’t been a lot of attention, and the (successful) trees just happened to be in the right place and got what they needed for a while.”

Among the offshoots of the survey will probably be recommendations for ongoing maintenance once new street trees are planted.

New software allows foresters to do cost/benefit analysis of urban tree care. Balanced against the cost of watering and pruning by city crews, for example, are the public benefits of “green infrastructure” to stormwater maintenance, air quality and real estate values.

“And, of course, there’s the aesthetics,” Wolf said. “We have this tree canopy that’s very erratic.”

The findings will be presented at an open house in mid-September, before policy recommendations are taken to the Planning Commission for review.

The goal is to develop a mature canopy of trees over a period of years, even as Winslow becomes more urbanized and dense.

“A fairly uniform, well-cared-for urban canopy – people really enjoy it,” Wolf said. “They enjoy being in it, they enjoy seeing it.

“It’s unlikely without any care, that we’ll achieve that sense of place that trees give to the community.”

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