More than 1,600 new trees could be planted each year in Durham, in hopes of offsetting the loss of hundreds of elderly willow oaks.
At the request of City Council member Steve Schewel, the Durham Environmental Affairs Board recently released its tree report, which calls for the annual planting of 1,680 trees over the next two decades to offset an annual removal of 750 decaying ones. This new plan would add 500 trees in for every 300 out.
A large portion of Durham's shady expanse is composed of willow oaks that were planted in the 1930s and '40s, when public officials maintained close ties to the Duke Forest. But most of the oaks are approaching the end of their 80 to 100 year lifespan, and must be cut down. That could force the city to revise its previous tree policies.
Durham has historically replaced trees at the request of homeowners. Residents split the cost of their new tree with the city and agree to water it. It's a sensible system, but one that benefits more affluent and organized neighborhoods, and penalizes others, particularly low-income areas and those with high percentages of renters.
Alex Johnson, Durham's Urban Forestry Manager, says that he receives the most calls from residents of Trinity Park and Watts-Hillandale. Of 255 replacement requests filed in 2014, more than a third were on either North Duke, North Gregson or Green Street.
"If you take a walk around these communities, you'll notice a lot of smaller, younger trees. If you take one in Northeast Durham, Park Avenue or Hyde Park, you'll see nothing but old, dying trees," Johnson says. "Following a service on-demand model keeps me within my means but it doesn't serve an underserved community."
The tree report frames the willow oak die-off as an opportunity to create a more equitable system. An Urban Forestry Master Plan would use air quality and population data to identify the Durham neighborhoods that would most benefit from a new canopy.
But trees provide more than just shade: they've been linked to significant social, economic and health benefits as well. An average mature tree intercepts 10,000 gallons of polluted storm water and 48 pounds of carbon dioxide a year. Over its lifetime, a tree emits enough oxygen to support two people. It increases residential property values, draws customers into shopping areas and lowers crime rates, according to the tree report.
Local groups like Keep Durham Beautiful and Duke Park Neighborhood Association have assisted in nearly 90 percent of the city's recent tree plantings.
"Volunteers are one of the main reasons Durham is able to plant so many trees with such a small budget," says EAB chair Elizabeth Chan. "I expect that they'll play a huge role in future replanting."
This year, Johnson's purchasing budget has increased by half thanks to Water Into Trees, a program that gives homeowners the chance to donate a portion of their water bill to the town's forestry.
The price tag on city trees is dependent on size and species, ranging from $15 to $200. Multiply this by the 1,680 new plantings outlined in the Tree Report and you get a number that, even on the conservative side, is daunting—upward of $300,000. The EAB hopes to discuss potential sources of funding with City Council during an upcoming February work session.
By comparison Raleigh's annual budget for buying new trees is $65,000. Charlotte's exceeds $300,000.
"I don't think there is any member that would be opposed to the EAB's recommendations. It's just an issue of how we are going to pay for it," says council member Eddie Davis.
"The environment, it's easy for everyone to agree on it but it's hardly ever made a priority," says Johnson.
Friday, Feb. 6, 9 a.m., Neal Middle School, 201 Baptist Road
Saturday, Feb. 14, 10 a.m., Trinity Park Neighborhood (location TBA)
Thursday, Feb. 26, 10 a.m., Shepard Middle School, 2401 Dakota St.
Check out the Environmental Affairs Board's Tree Report online at www. durhamnc.gov