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City staff update committee on tree maintenance

Thursday, February 25, 2016 by Audrey McGlinchy, KUT

More than two decades ago, Austin’s towering Treaty Oak nearly bit the dust after being poisoned by a vandal. The tree was ultimately saved, but when the situation seemed dire, supporters with pockets shallow and deep came out in full force. (Ross Perot handed over a blank check to save the tree.)

More recently, the 2015 USA Cycling Cyclo-cross National Championships that were held in Zilker Park caused a minor dust-up when tree advocates claimed a muddy course injured native tree roots.

Suffice it to say, trees are a big deal in Austin.

“We are recognized nationally for recognizing the tremendous value that trees bring our city,” said Michael Embesi, of the city’s Forestry Division, at yesterday’s meeting of City Council’s Open Space, Environment and Sustainability Committee. “We recognize trees far beyond just their aesthetic beauty. We recognize all the benefits that they provide us, the services they provide citizens.”

Embesi and his colleague Emily King, acting urban forester with the city, attended the meeting in order to brief Council members on the department’s work caring for the more than 7 million public trees that make up the Austin’s urban forest. (The city has more than 30 million trees overall.)

Also, they said the city’s forest experts now have new data to help them with that task: This week, the U.S. Forest Service published its first urban assessment of Austin – a report detailing the species, conditions and locations of the city’s trees. The report is part of an annual federal inventory that will include Austin’s trees.

“We’re in a really unique and fortunate position to have this,” said King. “What this project is, it’s actually going to be a recurring inventory on an annual basis of trees on fixed sample plots throughout the Austin city limits. So we will not only be able to learn a lot more about what we currently have, but we will be able to find trends in that data in the future.”

The new resource is particularly useful considering a gap in service that was highlighted in a 2014 report by the city manager’s office, which found that the city’s tree care was almost entirely reactionary rather than preventative.

“We needed to look at how do we care for these trees to lengthen their lives, to enhance the benefits that they’re providing our community far beyond just what it takes to take a tree down when a tree is failing,” Embesi told the committee.

To accomplish that goal, the division has created a forestry leadership team. As King explained it, the team draws from departments that regularly deal with trees, such as the Watershed Protection Department, the Public Works Department and – on an as-needed basis – the Fire Department.

“This forestry leadership team was established in order to ensure we are all speaking with one another on a regular basis – that we’re in communication,” said King.

Plus, King said the division has made a mock-up of what a “proactive prune schedule” would look like – pending, of course, the money to make it happen. In the city manager’s 2014 report on tree maintenance, staff found an annual $25 million gap between the “ideal” level of service and that which is currently provided.

This story was produced as part of our reporting partnership with KUT.

Photo by Marina84 (talk) Elizabeth Genovise – self-made, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Update: Here is the audio from McGlinchy’s KUT piece.

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