Earth Day focus on trees: several hundred to be planted in Worcester – Worcester Telegram
WORCESTER — Earth Day arrives Friday, and as city residents plan neighborhood cleanups of litter or visits to one of the city’s parks for a leisurely picnic, take a look around and gaze at some of the thousands of trees in Worcester.
They have numerous environmental benefits, like providing shade during the summer so the air conditioner doesn’t have to run full blast. Their roots also suck up water during heavy downpours that minimize flooding and runoff into storm drains.
Don’t forget about the leaves on trees. They fight climate change by taking in carbon dioxide that contributes to global warming. And they convert the carbon into oxygen, a chemical element the human race can’t live without.
Since City Manager Edward M. Augustus Jr. took the helm in 2014, Worcester has taken the health of its public shade trees seriously, said Robert Antonelli, assistant commissioner of public works and parks who also serves as the city’s tree warden.
The numbers back it up – since 2014, Worcester has planted an average of 200 to 300 trees annually, compared to roughly 50 to 75 yearly during the tenure of former City Manager Michael V. O’Brien, said Antonelli.
O’Brien’s city budget faced periods of severe financial challenges that limited Worcester’s investment in trees, especially during economic downturns in 2004 and 2008, according to Antonelli.
Worcester also upped the ante on what it spends on trees.
Since Augustus came on board in 2014, the city invested roughly $250,000 annually to plant trees. The funds arrive from a free cash account that includes unspent funds from the prior fiscal year. A yearly state grant of $100,000 to $150,000 helps with tree maintenance.
So what happens when Augustus leaves his job at the end of next month, a move he announced in March?
Antonelli feels the next permanent city manager should share Augustus’ approach that city trees are vital to the community.
“This quality-of-life function needs to continue,” said Antonelli. “I hope the next city manager will have the same commitment that (Augustus) had on the parks and forestry side, and all the functorialities that we do.”
The process of planting 200 to 300 trees is underway.
It starts with certified arborists from city consultant Davey Resource Group who are taking an inventory and condition of all public trees in the city’s five districts.
Public trees include those in rights of way and those in the city’s 61 public parks and Hope Cemetery.
Davey should finish the job by the end of May or early June, and Antonelli anticipates the result will highlight “30,000 individual points.” That means a mix of existing trees, possible planting locations and spots where there is a tree stump.
Armed with this information, the city will plant between 200 to 300 trees next spring.
Diversification is key
As for what species will go in the ground, the watchword is diversification. It’s important not to put all your eggs – make that trees – in one basket.
Plant a variety of species and the chances are a community will likely be better protected against an invasive species like the Asian long-horned beetles that descended on Worcester in 2008.
They feasted on maple trees, many planted after the devastating Worcester tornado in 1953.
The city learned a hard lesson from planting so many maples and focused in subsequent years on diversifying its tree species, planting other varieties including sweet gum, linden and varieties of oak.
Now that the U.S. Department of Agriculture said the Asian long-horned beetle is largely under control, Antonelli said the city is discussing the possibility of bringing back varieties of maples, especially those that offer brilliant fall colors.
Master plan in the works
City Hall is also working on other fronts pertaining to public trees.
One is an Urban Forestry Master Plan to guide how the city manages its trees. Public meetings will be held in September in each of the city’s five districts.
That public input, mixed with input from city departments and the City Council, along with the tree inventory, will help drive the master plan.
“In the end, what we’re looking to do with the plan is a guide book of moving forestry forward and figuring out what we can do better overall for the community,” said Antonelli.
The second front is the creation of an Urban Forestry Tree Commission made up of five Worcester residents.
Interviews to fill the five spots were conducted over the past month and the city expects to name the members by early next month.
“We have to work out the details of the commission,” said Antonelli. “Generally, they would be extra eyes and ears, help us do research and be able to engage the community.
“It’s another tool that helps us educate and inform the public about what is going on and why things are done the way they are done.”
Benefits outweigh complaints
Occasionally, the city hears complaints from residents who don’t appreciate public trees dropping leaves on their yards. Those same folks may wonder if there’s a way to get rid of these trees.
But as Antonelli sees it, the benefits from trees far outweigh any inconveniences and he named a few — they improve a street’s aesthetic, give off shade on broiling hot days, serve as a home for wildlife and absorb water to mitigate flooding and runoff into storm drains.
Plus, leaves that drop to the ground in the fall are gathered up by city crews, chopped up, turned into compost and given away free to Worcester residents to provide nourishment for their yards and gardens.
“Public shade trees are an important component overall, aesthetically, as well as the comfort and environment piece,” said Antonelli. “In the end, I look at public shade trees as a benefit that definitely outweighs any concern including raking leaves.”
Contact Henry Schwan at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @henrytelegram