The Tree Man Forecast

66 million dead trees may be an underestimation: Houston to be repopulated with smaller trees, changing city's look

66 million dead trees may be an underestimation: Houston to be repopulated with smaller trees, changing city's look

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Memorial Park is one of the most dire situations, with estimates of up to 80 percent of the trees dead by the end of the drought. Photo by Shelby Hodge
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Private companies and park crews are chopping down dead trees all over the city. Photo by Shelby Hodge
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Barry Ward, Trees for Houston Photo by Kim Coffman
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Watching Trees for Houston executive director Barry Ward speak is a little nerve wracking. Not because he isn't charismatic, or well spoken, or knowledgeable about forestry and arboriculture.

It's just that — with trees dying all around the city at alarming rates — Ward has a lot on his mind. He's trying to be many different places at once.

Ward arrived back in Houston at 5 a.m. Wednesday from an out of town trip, and though he had already been out in the field checking on trees, he hadn't had the time to check his email or even his calendar before the Livable Houston Initiative meeting he keynoted at noon. Houston's trees are facing dire consequences, putting the tree man in the middle of chaos.

The earlier calculation of 66 million dead trees in the next two years (approximately 10 percent of the estimated 660 million trees in the Houston area) is now considered by some foresters to be a gross underestimation. But Ward shrugged, "It's all speculative until they stop dying."

 The large-scale tree removal will affect Houston's microclimate and ground water patterns for years to come. Chinese tallow trees and other invasive species will try to fill the gaps left by our larger trees. 

Surprisingly, Ward had a few positive things to say to the small crowd of environmental activists and community members gathered in a Houston-Galveston Area Council meeting room. He also considered the despair of the situation, and brought up a few worst case scenarios.

First the good news: Trees for Houston had already prepared for a drought year, allocating three-quarters of its 2011 budget towards maintenance alone, with the rest of the funds going toward re-planting. The organization also had the foresight to pre-contract a watering vehicle company last winter, when the rates were much lower.

Plus, many of the trees that are dead now were already troubled.

"This drought is affecting trees that are already distressed from Hurricane Ike," Ward said. "And these die up more rapidly than normal."

Once this period of drought is on the upswing, Ward is hopeful that the city's canopy will begin to recover quickly. The Houston climate is conducive to forest regeneration, and there are several tree farms already preparing to repopulate parks and roadways with saplings. Trees for Houston is currently working with CenterPoint Energy on a tree farm that will produce hardy trees like Jerusalem Thorns and Mexican Plums, which are both drought- and wet-tolerant. These will do well in an urban environment with extreme cyclical weather patterns.

But here's the negative: The City of Houston is absolutely unprepared for a drought of this scope. This is something that we already understood, but Ward elucidated to what extent this lack of preparedness affects the relief efforts on a daily basis.

For example, private companies and park crews are chopping down dead trees all over the city. Once the dead trees are converted into mulch on-site, private companies transport that material to a landfill, where they must pay for disposal. A much more cost-effective and drought-appropriate solution would be for the tree removers to pile the mulch around the base of trees that are still hanging on.

"Two inches of heavy mulch around a tree makes a huge difference in water retention," explained Ward.

But individual efforts are trumped by regulations and bureaucracy: Un-spread mulch isn't allowed in the parks or esplanades, so this useful by-product is literally being put to waste.

The parks department and Trees for Houston are continuing efforts to save signature trees, including the live oaks on Main Street, using deep root injection techniques to water the trees where they need it most. A few weeks ago, Ward would have said that the Main Street trees were in OK shape. Now some trees are showing signs of distress and beginning to crash.

Ward acknowledged that there's only so much we can do. There is a limited amount of time and resources to dedicate to the problem, so the city and other conservancy organizations just have to pick their battles. There are just some trees that they are just going to have to let die.

The large-scale tree removal will affect Houston's microclimate and ground water patterns for years to come. Chinese tallow trees and other invasive species will try to fill the gaps left by our larger trees.

At this point, planning for re-planting is key. The civic component of this — of removing those invasive species — is crucial. Be on the lookout for ways to help rebuild the canopy — putting the right trees in the right place.