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Trees R Us

by Jill Walker

September 3,2004

Some time ago, my husband and I thought we noticed that a tall lanky oak in our backyard was listing to one side a bit. I immediately called a local arborist, a gentleman I know on a first name basis now, and asked him to come out and examine the tree. He pronounced the tree stable, despite its left-leaning position (my kind of tree!).

Six days later the tree crashed, its upper limbs sprawling over into our neighbor’s yard, slicing through their pool.

The sound of that tree snapping its way through the gaggle of surrounding branches and then slamming to the ground was profound. It is a haunting evocative sound that lingers for some time. I can still vividly recall the ice storm of ’02. It seemed as if someone with a shotgun was outside that night taking random aim at limbs and trunks up and down the streets. When the sun rose on that tree battlefield the next morning, I was surprised there were any trees standing.

The demise of a tree is a sad thing to witness; mushrooms hosting at its base, a paucity of leaves shrouding its extremities, the intermittent surrendering of limbs. Like an aging family member, it stands stoic in the yard, challenging our conscience.

Most of the neighborhoods surrounding the inner city of Charlotte now serve as a nursing homes to an elderly tree population. At first blush, there appears to be ample green in much of the landscape, but closer inspection reveals that a considerable amount of our in-town forest is rather compromised. In addition to age, our trees have been weakened by frequent droughts, ice storms and Duke Power’s “chainsaw bonsai” program.

Trees are to Charlotte what vineyards are to Napa. They are our primary asset, what visitors most respond to when asked what they like about our city. Driving along Tryon Street in downtown Charlotte I noticed a couple of places where overhanging branches from trees on either side of the street are almost touching (now). The canopy that has developed over the years adds so much to the ambience and charm of our downtown streetscape. Those oaks, planted almost twenty years ago, have a long life ahead of them. It’s their ancestors in neighborhoods like Dilworth, South End, Wilmore, and Elizabeth that we need to focus on now.

The city of Charlotte has taken some commendable strides in trying to protect our outlying tree canopy. Efforts by the Land Development Division of the Engineering Department have been regarded as groundbreaking in their vision and scope. Essentially, through the use of satellite imagery and GIS technology, which captures specific tree information, this department has incorporated a “green data” layer into the city’s land use plans so that future growth decisions are kept in line with the goals of the tree ordinance. This will help keep more trees in the ground, as more development occurs in the suburbs.

A vigorous tree replanting program for our older neighborhoods will benefit all of Charlotte. Besides improving quality of life and significantly reducing storm water runoff, Mecklenburg County’s forests remove 17.5 million pounds of pollutants from the air each year. With an air quality that is close to a “non-attainment” designation by the EPA, we really can’t afford to lose even one more tree. Let’s get planting, Charlotte.

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