Monday, April 21, 2014

Incentivizing Urban Forest Preservation

It is easy to mistake the dispassionate communication styles of some in local government as apathy, especially when deployed to quibble away absurdities based on technicalities.

This is the impression I took while digging into two recent instances of huge clear cuts in Durham, North Carolina’s urban forest, one a few months ago along the road to Chapel Hill above New Hope Creek.

Now another is drawing attention north of the Eno River along Guess Road near Russell (or click on image shown below to enlarge.) This is along what had been an unspoiled stretch taken by many visitors and residents to reach a designated 27-mile Scenic Byway through Durham countryside that begins just a few minutes up road.

As usual, both of these egregious examples have escaped any significant news coverage because they would be too complex to sort through all the bureaucratic CYA, but they have residents shaking their heads.  Why are gatekeepers brushing off desecration to something so key to the community’s appeal and why we love living here?

Because I get the feeling that Durham’s tree ordinances are not only fragmented but seemingly ineffective, I keep an eye out for communities on the forefront of protecting green infrastructure both for eco-system services and to protect sense of place.

One such place lies on the opposite side of a dramatic ridge of Tualatin Mountains from Portland, Oregon in the Tualatin Valley, a gateway to that state’s wine country (of course Portland calls them the Portland hills.)

This best practice community of Tigard lies beyond the much larger City of Beaverton, the noted home of Nike, with which it shares a part of the Tualatin Hills including Cooper and Bull mountains.

It lies short of a tiny crossroads also named Durham, where the namesake river dissects the valley.

A further coincidence is that the Oregon Durham, known for an incredible roadside grove, is just across the river from where Bill Baker, one of the world’s foremost consultants in place branding is based.

Thousands of Durham, North Carolina residents will recall when Bill facilitated the archeology nearly ten years ago that revealed and distilled the roots of Durham’s acclaimed and widely embraced overarching brand and personality.

Cooper and Bull mountains provide a contrast in urban forestry.  Above Beaverton, Cooper Mountain features a very cool nature park but forestry policies have had some unintended and many feel horrendous consequences.

Some landowners there have completely deforested, or to use a euphemism, “timbered,” large tracts of the mountain as a means to ostensibly end run permits, fees and tree preservation ordinances.

This is in preparation of eventual mass development, similar to what we see so tragically occurring in Durham.Tigard

On nearby Bull Mountain,Tigard has taken steps to incentivize tree retention on private property.  This began with an in-depth survey of resident opinion and development of an acclaimed Urban Forestry Master Plan, embarrassingly neither of which has been done in Durham, North Carolina.

While the survey showed that Tigardians were generally satisfied with the quantity and quality of trees on their own street, in their neighborhood and in the community overall, the questions probed much deeper.

By a ratio of 23 to 1 they “strongly agreed” that trees are important to a community’s character and desirability as a place to live.  By similar ratios they voiced support for more trees and more resources to maintain and protect existing trees.

By 9 to 1 they supported city requirements that some trees be preserved and new ones planted on sites being developed.  The ratio of those feeling strongly in support of this was 18 to 1.

One-in-three Tigardians also felt the overall quality of their community’s urban forest had decreased.  Only 12% gave high ratings to the extent and appearance of trees in their community.  Taken together, this was cause for alarm.

Interestingly, by a ratio of 4-to-1, Tigard residents chose tree preservation or replanting over allowing individuals to remove trees.  By nearly 2-to-1 they supported regulations limiting tree removal during property development in general.

More telling, by nearly 3-to-1, they favored city tree regulations even if they had the opportunity to develop their own property.  By 2-to-1 they supported a focus on large groves vs. individual trees.

This more in-depth survey confirms that communities that only ask whether residents are pleased are settling for the weakest of metrics.  Tigard used its deeper understanding of resident opinion to shape novel tree ordinances.

Tigard’s overall tree canopy is 24.52%, less than half of what it was in 1851 when settlement began.  This compares to only 10% on commercial property now and 46.13% on city-owned property. 

Tigard’s plan is to increase overall urban tree canopy to at least 40%, a goal only achievable by addressing the 78% now on private property.

Using this calculus to extrapolate an urban forestry goal for Durham, North Carolina, the city and county should each pursue a goal of 57% tree cover.

The effect of respective development codes for Tigard and Beaverton can be seen on Bull Mountain across Scholls Ferry Road from Cooper Mountain where it slices into the heart of Oregon wine country.

Blogs and news reports indicate that Tigard has avoided clear-cutting by thoroughly inventorying significant tree groves and then reaching out to property owners with incentives.

While all new residential development is required to achieve 40% tree canopy coverage, no matter what is growing there prior to development, when computing the tree canopy on a site design, “double credit” is given for preservation of existing trees.

In other words, a property owner with existing forests could meet the 40% requirement by preserving tee canopy covering 20% of the land.  Housing density requirements are also relaxed if a tree grove is protected.

Similar flexibility for building height restrictions is given commercial developments, including apartment complexes, when related tree groves are protected.

Thanks to news reports and blogs such as Tualatin Watch, tree ordinances there are now more familiar to me than in my adopted home of Durham, where fragmentation makes them all but inscrutable.

Over the past two decades, developers here have moved away from preserving groves of trees in new developments like they did in a series of neighborhoods stretching along the southern edge of the Eno River, including one where our City Manager lives.

Developers began the practice of clear cutting all existing forest, then making the clay soil almost entirely impervious by repeatedly running heavy equipment over it, then planting a a couple of sparse sprigs of new trees on each lot where they struggle to grow.

The net effect is a loss of huge amounts of tree canopy, increased storm run off, higher temperatures, reduced climate regulation and other ecosystem services provided by urban forest not to mention less curb appeal and a drag on values.

Commercial development has been even more short-sighted.  In the thirty year span prior to 2005, on average, Durham subsumed nearly 1,500 acres of urban forest and other green infrastructure a year creating an average of 2.5 acres of impervious surface a day, outpacing population growth by 8 to 1.

On average, Durham reforests net losses less than an acre of trees a year.  You do the math.

Of course, Durham isn’t the only community where urban forest is at risk, it just has more to lose.  Nor is this the only place failing to be strategic.

An example is a report heralding a few companies that have pledged to be “deforestation free” regarding palm oil, but still enables clear cutting of hundreds of thousands of acres of roadside trees in this country through use of roadside billboards.

“Every little bit counts” only works when part of an overarching strategy.

While one of the most cherished parts of Durham’s character is rapidly vanishing, we have no inventory, no strategic plan, no goal and all we seem to do is dicker over what an urban forest entails or throw ourselves into well-intended but activity-trap endeavors without any view to outcome metrics or strategy-making.

Seemingly lacking a sense of urgency and political will to even conduct a real inventory of the overall urban forest, in this city and county we seem to also lack the motivation to be a “quick follower” by adapting to best practices.

Residents don’t seem mad enough for some officials because they are stunned and bewildered thinking such a precious and perishable resource must surely be of the highest priority for gatekeepers.

It isn’t too late, but it may soon be.  Clear cutting means vast groves here are disappearing exponentially, not linearly.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the mention Reyn. We love our forests in Portland and never take them for granted. They add tremendously to our sense of place. They are on of the tremendous assets that make us different to other places. They shouldn't be compromised for short term economic gain.

Mike Shiflett said...

It was appalling to see the clear cutting along the road and the affects of recent rains had on the landscape in creating erosion along with the sediment flowing off the property!

While I definitely empathize with Reyn's frustration, it was my impression that there were stronger tree, slope and buffer ordinances that Durham enacted back in the late 90's (thanks to Jane Korest when she worked in Planning).

Where is Soil and Erosion Control enforcement?

Mike Shiflett

Anonymous said...

Firstly, I would like to state that I agree that mass development is tragic. I’m not a fan. I like trees, not the concrete jungle.

However, I am inclined to correct you on several things.
1.Every landowner has the “Right to Practice Forestry.” Look it up.
2.I am a Registered Forester and received my B.S. and Master’s in Forestry from a Society of American Forester’s accredited university. FACT: These tracts are in compliance with the NC Forest Service Forest Practice Guidelines for Water Quality and Riparian Buffer Rules.
3.The North Carolina Forest Service and Durham Planning (Soil & Erosion specialist) have been out there.
4.If you have any questions about timber harvesting in general please contact the NC Forest Service.
5.Also, foresters define urban forest, not bloggers (See Urban Forestry Council definitions); for a proper and accurate definition. Please do your research. I think you’re referencing forest fragmentation more than urban forests.
6.Take a moment to check out the NC Urban Forestry Council’s website. Note: the picture of the URBAN FOREST on the cover the Urban Forest Master Plan. That urban forest has pavement and cars around it. We don’t put skidders and loaders in those settings.
7.This is NC not Oregon and Raleigh/Durham are fast-growing cities. If you don’t like seeing trees removed and concrete put down, move somewhere else.*I personally hate the expansion, but whatever; it’s someone’s right to do what they want with their land. I can’t police you and you shouldn’t police me. This isn’t Utopia.
8.Clearcutting timber is a sustainable forest practice. In fact, it’s mimicking nature (whole stand replacement post hurricane/tornado/landslide etc). There are many birds and other mammals who rely on clearcuts because they provide early successional habitat and forage.
9.Local residents aren’t mad because it’s their own damn land. (see policing thy neighbor comment and the right to practice forestry).
10.The majority of the tract on Guess Road was reforested by the landowners (ie, baby trees were planted). Forest Management is sustainable! We manage habitat, eco-systems, timber, soil, water, and air with trees. Get off your moral-motorcycle-high-horse and thank a forester that you’re not wiping your butt with nuclear corn cobs, you have a roof over your head, you have ice cream, and can wipe your tears as you read this with a tissues. Because guess what? All of those things have some form of trees in them. EVEN ICE CREAM. DO YA RESEARCH BRAH!

My work here is done. BOOOOOYAAA

Peace, Love, and Mind your own damn business. :)

Reyn said...

FYI definition I use is by USFS forestry researchers