Good news for Madison’s urban forest

By Katherine Esposito
Madison, Wis. (January 28, 2010)- Madison Ald. Marsha Rummel says it’s about time. The city of Madison is now drafting new rules requiring the protection of trees during construction and levying fines for violations. “It’s better because it’s going to be upfront, and the expectation is that everybody is there to protect trees,” says Rummel of the new policy, which will likely be presented to the city’s Board of Public Works next month.

Meanwhile, an auspicious new partnership between the university and the city forestry department has the potential to increase the total amount of city tree cover and eventually help improve lake water quality by reducing runoff. The proposed new rules regarding contractors stem from an angry public response to contractor-caused damage to street trees on Spaight Street last summer. And Rummel, in whose district the damage occurred, is sponsoring a related ordinance to impose penalties for tree damage.
The new rules, known as contractor specifications, are boilerplate requirements given to any contractor hired to perform city street construction work. The requirements previously included a paragraph encouraging construction workers to “take care around existing trees,” saying any damage would be “repaired or replaced at the contractor’s expense.” But no fines were levied for the Spaight Street damage, and the tree-removal costs were borne by the city forestry department.
The new specs move Madison closer to a Milwaukee-style urban forestry protection plan (see “Why Doesn’t Madison Fine Errant Contractors?” 10/2/09). Both approaches entail participation by foresters early in the construction planning process, which could result in extra precautions for especially vulnerable trees. Foresters will also be able to inspect and intervene on construction sites, an area where they frequently felt overshadowed by engineers. “We specifically put in there that the contractor has to obey a forester, just as they would an engineer,” says Mike Dailey, principal city engineer for sewer construction. “That was a concern of [forestry’s], that they come to the jobsite and have no authority to tell a contractor they’re doing something wrong. I think we’ve solved that with this spec.”
The new rules also aim to prevent soil compaction, a major cause of street tree decline, by prohibiting construction materials from being placed on the ground. Perhaps most important, there will be penalties for contractors who cause damage ranging from outright tree loss to lesser issues like broken branches and root damage, which can have a deleterious effect on tree health. Dailey says contractors have had mixed responses to the proposed spec. “Some asked why we’re going to this extreme,” says Dailey, as opposed to just barring negligent contractors from future work. But contractors in violation will “end up paying for it this year, and gradually we’ll see them correct.”
While street trees are the most visible part of the urban forest, thousands of other trees large and small grow in backyards and byways, on commercial lots and in parks. Many are small, even scrubby, not the sort that command attention. But all compose the “canopy,” the working forest that cleans the air, shelters critters and softens the landscape. Last fall, after reading in Isthmus that Madison had never tallied its entire urban canopy (“A Tree Falls in Madison,” 10/2/09), graduate students in Phil Townsend’s remote sensing class at UW-Madison were spurred to action. The students set out to use some high-tech tools to answer a few basic questions: the amount of total tree cover in Madison, the types of trees (including endangered ash), their sizes and health, and where they’re found.
It was part practical exercise, part community service. Students partnered with forestry staff to collect leaf samples to analyze for nutrients, then crunched data from an array of aerial photographs collected from LANDSAT satellites, NASA-sponsored airplanes and other sources. More and more, such images are used to help understand ecosystems and provide information to forest professionals, according to Townsend, an associate professor of remote sensing and spatial analysis in the UW department of forest and wildlife ecology.
The students did not form final conclusions, but several will continue their work. One promising area of inquiry involves exploring the relationship between canopy cover and such issues as quality of life, cooling of hot urban areas, wildlife habitat, runoff and water drainage into the lakes. “It’s a question of where is the tree cover,” Townsend told neighborhood residents, municipal foresters and scientists at a presentation in December in a packed classroom at the department of forest and wildlife ecology.
The students’ project is being joined by the city forestry department, which is trying to come up with standards for determining the value of trees. Efforts to get permission to speak to city forester Marla Eddy to gather more information on the city’s role were unsuccessful. One goal is to determine whether Madison meets the standard of 40% canopy cover set by American Forests, a national nonprofit group. So far, says Townsend, “we have between 23% and 40% tree cover,” depending on which sensing technologies are used. But the students haven’t begun to analyze the far west and east sides of town, places where tree cover is especially sparse.
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Good news for Madison’s urban forest