Spokane is a city of trees. In the early days, great fanfare accompanied the planting of trees in our parks and along streets. It was a matter of civic pride. Today, when you read a tourist or economic development brochure for the quality of life here, tree-lined streets and parks are an important element of the pitch.
Our urban forest, however, gives us much more than quality of life. Tree leaves clean our air of pollutants, remove carbon dioxide and replenish the oxygen. Research has shown that a mature tree can produce enough oxygen for a family of four for a year. It is estimated that the trees lost to development in the Puget Sound region between 1972 and 2000 could have removed 35 million pounds of air pollutants and absorbed 1.2 billion cubic feet of storm water runoff. The costs using man-made technologies are estimated at $95 million and $2.4 billion, respectively.
Trees that shade buildings reduce the cost of heating and cooling the structure. In fact, research done by the Center for Urban Forestry at the University of California at Davis found that the energy saved by using trees for shade could potentially reduce or eliminate the need for some new power generating plants. The Center's research has also found that shading streets could add ten to 15 years to the road's life span -- no small feat, when a mile of road repair can run well into six figures. When trees shade a parking lot, they reduce surface asphalt temperatures by as much as 36 degrees Fahrenheit, vehicle cabin temperatures by over 47 F, and fuel-tank temperatures by nearly 7 F.
Dr. Kathy Wolf, a researcher with the Center for Urban Horticulture at the University of Washington, has shown that easy access to open spaces with trees and shrubs reduces stress and helps people cope with the demands of urban life. Workers who have visual access to natural scenery are more productive and have lower absentee rates. Patients recovering from illness or surgery recover faster and use less pain-relief medication when they have access to plant-filled environments
Dr. Wolf's studies also found that trees and landscaping -- if selected and managed well and strategically used -- can enhance a consumer environment. By caring for the landscaping outside the door, the business sends the message that it cares about the needs of its customers.
In summary, and based on research done at UC Davis, for every dollar spent caring for urban trees, the community gets back $3.80 in net annual environmental and property value benefits -- nearly a 300 percent return.
Given all these documented benefits, you would think Spokane would be taking advantage. Sadly, renovation, maintenance and expansion of the urban forest is not very high on the city's priority list. In fact, when the programs funded through the city budget are ranked by funding level, the urban forest program is dead last at $125,000, or 33 cents per resident.
"Spokane spends the least of any city in the Northwest on its urban forest," says Jim Flott, the city's Urban Forester. He notes that other cities in the region spend from $2.00 to $15.00 per resident, and the National Arbor Day Foundation recommends that a city the size of Spokane should be spending a minimum of $2.00 per resident.
Flott's goal is to get Spokane recognized as a Tree City USA (a venture sponsored by the National Arbor Day Foundation and administered by the Washington Department of Natural Resources Urban and Community Forestry Program). Being designated a Tree City doesn't simply involve bragging rights -- it also opens doors to grant programs and other sources for assistance.
To earn the designation as a Tree City, a U.S. metro area must meet four criteria (Spokane has accomplished three). In January 1999, the City Council and the Park Board adopted the Community Forestry Ordinance that formalized the urban forestry program. The Park Board established the Urban Forestry Committee to serve as the required tree board. Third, the city issues a proclamation each spring supporting Arbor Day.
The last element -- and the one still to be achieved -- is the development of a budget that dedicates at least $2 per person for tree maintenance and renewal. With a population of around 200,000, that means about $400,000 annually. Flott admits that establishing such a budget is his biggest challenge. "We know where the problems are and what needs to be fixed," says Flott. "We just need the funding to get started."
Arbor Day at Finch Arboretum -- Come help celebrate Spokane's urban forest during Arbor Day festivities at Finch Arboretum on Saturday, April 26, from 11 am to 2 pm. Many community conservation groups are planning lots of fun and educational activities for all ages. After taking part in the official celebration, take a walk through some of the arboretum's hundreds of tree specimens.
Take Sunset Highway west from downtown Spokane. Watch for the Arboretum sign just beyond the overpass and be prepared to turn left off of Sunset. Follow the street through a group of houses, then down the hill to the parking area.