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City arborists need reinforcements

Monday, August 8, 2016 by Cate Malek

It’s easy to imagine that Austin’s trees are a natural feature of the city, but the abundant greenery lining the streets is actually protected and maintained by a tiny army of arborists. And, with new buildings being built every day, these tree experts are struggling to keep up.

“We work extra hours because we’re passionate about the work we do,” said Michael Embesi, the city’s Urban Forest Division manager. “But there are only so many hours in a day.”

At its meeting on Aug. 3, the Environmental Commission unanimously recommended that City Council add four new arborist positions to the 2017 budget. The commission’s recommendation says that the urban (or community) forest is “sacred” to Austinites and that it’s “in danger of being reduced and compromised as a result of the rapid grow of development.”

Commissioner Mary Ann Neely strongly supported the recommendation, saying, “(The urban forest) is a subject I truly love. … I’m just a fanatic.”

Commissioners expressed concern that the city’s arborists have been working unpaid overtime for many years, spending nights and weekends to keep up with the hundreds of calls they receive daily.

“It’s our job to help the City Council realize what’s going on,” Neely said.

Austin’s urban forest been protected by city ordinance since 1983. Part of the arborists’ job is to preserve any tree over 19 inches in diameter, which Embesi explained is just bigger than an average person can put his or her arms around. The job requires going out to new developments to take stock of the trees there and to make sure that planners are either protecting or replacing the trees. With Austin’s rapid growth, arborists are receiving several requests a day to evaluate new construction sites.

Nationally, the focus on forestry tends to be directed toward parks and nature preserves. It is relatively uncommon for a city to have a tree plan, which puts Austin at the forefront of urban forestry. In 2014, the United States Department of Agriculture made Austin one of its first test subjects for its new urban forest inventory, which is meant to analyze the effects of trees on a city.

The report quantified the effect that Austin’s 33.8 million trees have on the air and temperature of the city. It found that they store about 1.9 million tons of carbon and about 1,253 tons of air pollution per year. The tree canopy, which covers about 30 percent of Austin, also significantly cools the city, balancing the heat created by traffic and pavement. The trees reduce annual residential energy costs by $18.9 million per year. The total cost savings provided by the urban forest was estimated to be about $16 billion a year.

About 20 cities around the country plan to follow Austin’s model and develop their own urban forest plans. But meanwhile, the local forest needs some support. Embesi said he and his fellow arborists are dedicated to their work. He has been working with trees for over 16 years and is committed to “serving this community by protecting its natural resources.”

Nonetheless, the city’s arborists “are absolutely not able to keep up with the workload,” said Chuck Lesniak, environmental officer for the city.

Embesi wouldn’t say how long his typical days are, but he said the arborists are consistently working overtime. Still, he said the trees are working harder.

“They serve this community 24 hours a day,” he said.

Photo by Larry D. Moore available through a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

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