Madison surveys its urban forest

By Bill Lueders
Madison, WI (August 15, 2007)- Chad Shipley is glad that it’s cloudy; this makes it easier to look up into the sky. “It’s a good day for this,” he says as he heads down Ingersoll Street on Madison’s east side. “When it’s sunny… .” He finishes his sentence but I don’t write it down. I’ve gazed into blinding sunlight. I know what he means.

It’s just past 8 a.m. on Aug. 14 and Shipley, an arborist with Wachtel Tree Science and Service, based in Merton, Wisconsin, is in his final week inventorying street trees in city forestry District 1, which spans the isthmus between the Yahara River and Park Street. This is the second of three districts Shipley has been commissioned to inventory. He figures he’s looked at 7,000 trees so far; by the time he finishes all three districts, he’ll have done 10,000 trees, or about 10% of the city’s street tree total. (There are 35 forestry districts in all.)
I’m tagging along with Shipley this morning; also present is city forester Marla Eddy. Madison has never had an official tree inventory, and Eddy thinks this is an important undertaking. It would be a useful management tool, aid in disease and pest management, and let citizens easily gather information and report problems. Ultimately, Eddy hopes to put the inventory online, so people can search street by street, tree by tree.
The exercise is also valuable for the things Shipley notices as he goes along. Time was, says Eddy, that Madison was on a seven-year cycle — every tree would be inspected and pruned every seven years. Now it’s more like a 15-year cycle.
“We are on what they call and we consider crisis management,” says Eddy. “We are hop-scotching around in response to complaints.” People call when limbs crack or press against dwellings. But Eddy’s ideal is for forestry to be “an invisible service. We should be there fixing those things without citizens having to report it.”
Shipley compiles his inventory using a hand-held mapping device that displays aerial photos including trees. As he walks down the street, he logs the species, diameter, height and condition of each street tree — that is, what’s planted on the terrace between sidewalk and street. (The inventory excludes trees in parks and on private property.) Condition is reflected as a percentage of perfection, where 60% to 70% is the norm and scores above 80% are rare, because street trees are subject to utility pruning and other stressors.
For each tree, Shipley also sets a timeframe for routine pruning and notes other factors that can affect the tree’s health and public safety. “I’m recommending that we prune that one in two years because of the deadwood over the sidewalk,” Shipley says after inspecting a towering honey locust. Another tree, a little leaf Linden, has substantial deadwood and root rot, its leaves tiny and sparse. “Consider removal,’ Shipley records. Again and again he flags “House clearance” for trees whose branches extend onto eaves and roofs.
“After we get the inventory data back,” says Eddy, “our forestry specialist will go out and check what’s been indicated to be a concern. We’re identifying issues that we need to follow up on.”
A graduate of UW-Stevens Point, nationally known for its forestry program, Shipley lives in Cedarburg and commutes to Madison for four-day work weeks, spending his nights at a hotel. His company is now doing a tree inventory in Monona. The town of Madison’s inventory is already done, in advance of its planned annexation by Madison and Fitchburg.
Eventually, using the data now being collected, trees will be assigned monetary values. Street trees are surprisingly valuable, starting at about $150 for each inch of diameter.
Having a tree inventory can also help with long-range planning. Eddy notes that many of the trees on the east side of Ingersoll should never have been planted there. Utility lines have forced drastic pruning that undercuts health. Eventually, they’ll be replaced by “utility friendly” species like service berry, Japanese lilac, Cleveland select pear (“no fruit!” stresses Eddy), amur maple, ironwood and thornless Hawthorne.
Eddy says this is in keeping with an industry standard: “The right tree in the right place.” This sounds so obvious it’s a wonder cities have so often managed to plant the wrong ones.
The cost of the inventorying the first three forestry districts is $30,000, half from the city and half from the state Department of Natural Resources. Eddy has asked the city to include $30,000 in next year’s budget to continue the work. She’s also hoping to work with citizens to inventory trees in places like Orton Park.
“All of us together, as stewards of our urban forest,” Eddy says. “We can’t do it alone.”
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