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Critics say city’s new Urban Forest Plan lacks substance

Tuesday, March 11, 2014 by Kara Nuzback

Last week, the Austin City Council unanimously approved a resolution adopting the Austin Urban Forest Plan: A Master Plan for Public Properties. However, critics say it falls short of a comprehensive plan, addressing only public property, which accounts for just 5 percent of the city’s trees.


The plan was developed by Austin’s Urban Forestry Board in accordance with city code, which requires development of a comprehensive plan to manage trees and vegetation on public property. In a letter to Council included in the plan, the board wrote, “A large portion of the trees and other vegetation within the city is located on private property, which is outside of both the scope of this plan and the purview of the UFB.”


At the March 6 Council meeting, residents said inclusion of private property in the plan was critical. Tom Hayes, executive director of the Environmental Conservation Alliance, said, “It should include private trees because they are probably about 95 percent of the urban forest.”


Hayes also said the plan lacks data, public input and quantifiable goals. “What we have is really an outline of a strategy,” he said. “There’s still so much to be done.”


Hayes proposed a revised forest plan, which would include public and private trees, a path to collect data and measurable goals.


“Data is the very first step,” he said. “You have to know where you are to know where you’re going to go.”There’s no data in this plan.”


City Arborist Michael Embesi said the Environmental Board has formed a subcommittee to look at incorporating private trees in the urban forest plan. “We’ve only met a few times,” he said. “It’s in its infancy.”


Environmental Board Chair Mary Gay Maxwell told the Austin Monitor the board is scheduled to begin drafting a resolution to create an urban forest plan that would include both public and private trees at its meeting Wednesday.


Maxwell said the board supported the UFB’s urban forest plan, but feels a more comprehensive plan is needed for the city’s trees.


Michael Fossum, executive director of the Austin Heritage Tree Foundation said the plan is an integral part of the Imagine Austin plan, and certain information must be included. 


Fossum said the Environmental Board or City Council should develop an urban forestry management plan for private trees within 6 months of approval of the urban forest plan.


He also said the Urban Forestry Board should establish a process to ensure that public comments are reviewed and considered for inclusion in the plan.


Craig Nazor of the Sierra Club Lone Star Chapter in Austin said the plan is a step in the right direction. “But if you approve this now, the assumption is, ‘We have a plan that’s going to work and it’s going to protect our trees.’ And I don’t think that’s true. I don’t think this plan will do that,” he said.


Jim Rooni, Central Texas operations department head for the Texas A&M Forest Service, was the only member of the public to speak in favor of the plan. “We believe the master plan will create an effective foundation which manages urban forest,” he said. 


Rooni said the forest service would assist the city in rolling out and adjusting the plan as needed.


Urban Forester Angela Hanson said data collection is first step in the Austin Urban Forest Plan and is set to begin in the spring or summer. 


“But this isn’t a management plan, it’s a strategic plan,” she said. “Unless you first ask the question or present the problem that data will solve, data collection is not useful.”


Council Member Bill Spelman said it was imperative that the plan include trees on private property. “The forest is a unitary thing,” he said.


Council Member Kathie Tovo proposed approving the resolution but stipulating that the plan be modified in the future to reflect data collected by Hanson.


Hanson said she aims to have data on the city’s private and public trees within 18 months. “I think that’s an ambitious goal,” she said.


To read Austin’s Urban Forest Plan, go to the city website.

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