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D.C. Gets a 'B'

April 28, 2009

(Kathryn Pyle is producing a documentary film about the post-conflict period in El Salvador. This is the final installment in a five-part series that explores the growing movement to recover and maintain the urban canopy in the Northeast. In her last post, she wrote about Philadelphia's efforts to restore its trees.)

Casey Trees, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that works to "restore, enhance and protect the tree canopy of the Nation's Capital," has issued a report card on the state of that canopy: a "B" overall, with an "A" for tree health and a "C" for protection.

"Ideally, we'd have a whole lot more trees here, all in good condition," said deputy director Michael Galvin. "But we're pleased with the conclusion of the assessment, that D.C. gets a 'B'. We hope it will help focus the work that's being done."

The assessment was based on five qualities measured over the past year: not only the coverage provided by the canopy but also the health of the trees, the rate at which trees are being planted, the protection and maintenance provided to trees, and public awareness of the canopy and the government agencies and community organizations charged with its well-being. The tree canopy, which currently covers 36 percent of the city, was determined using satellite imagery. Tree health was measured in two hundred randomly selected plots where bugs, disease, and mortality were examined. Casey Trees looked at available data from the city government to determine the rate of planting and how the existing regulations and ordinances were protecting the canopy.

"We're issuing the report card as a way to identify what's going well and what could be improved," said Galvin.

Improvement, according to Casey Trees, depends on more effective collaboration between community groups and advocacy organizations, on the one hand, and city government on the other. The lowest grade was for tree protection, a city responsibility. Casey Trees hopes to work more closely with the city on access to key information and to consult with the environmental point people on city council to review legislation like the Urban Forest Preservation Act of 2002.

Casey Trees would like to see the tree canopy increase to 40 percent by 2035. With the canopy comprised of more than 106,000 trees, and thousands being planted by Casey Trees in collaboration with community groups, churches, schools and individual homeowners, Washington is better off than many cities. "Washington has a number of good organizations out there," says Casey Trees director Mark Busciano. "In addition to Casey Trees, the work of Trees of Capitol Hill, Trees for Georgetown, Restore Massachusetts, and the Anacostia-based Hillcrest Citizens Association have been very important; plus there are many smaller groups and thousands of volunteers. All of this contributes to the healthy canopy and builds awareness among the residents."

How is D.C. doing compared to other cities in the same climate zone?

"Comparisons are always useful as a way for people to understand the urban forest," said Galvin. "Unfortunately, there's no readily available, comprehensive data set to see how D.C. is doing relative to other urban areas. We're not aware of any other city trying to evaluate the complexity of the canopy in the way that we have. We believe this model is a good way to get data and connect people in the field, and we're eager to share it with other cities."

One avenue for dissemination is the Urban Ecology Collaborative, an informal network of organizations in Northeast corridor cities that Casey Trees works with. Best practices are shared at an annual meeting and the website offers “webinars” on programs of interest.

To reach the 40 percent goal, 8,600 trees must be planted every year for the next twenty-five years: over 215,000 new trees. Mayor Adrian Fenty endorsed the goal as part of his "green agenda" announced on Earth Day. To help the city get there, Casey Trees will convene a "Tree Summit" next year that brings together community groups and government agencies to review the city's progress.

To learn more, visit Casey Trees' brand-new interactive map for details of D.C.'s urban canopy and the trees planted by Casey Trees: http://www.caseytrees.org/geographic/maps-tools/index.php.

-- Kathryn Pyle

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