Northampton eyes Amherst model 
for managing public shade trees

Last modified: Friday, October 10, 2014
NORTHAMPTON — Alarmed by a steady decline in the number of public shade trees in Northampton, a group of residents has asked the city to follow the lead of Amherst by hiring a professional tree warden to coordinate and care for trees. It is a step Mayor David J. Narkewicz said Tuesday he intends to pursue.

Whether the trees are aging because they are over a century old, being planted in the wrong spots, or suffering the effects of being in an urban environment, few question that the city’s tree canopy is on the decline. A tree canopy is considered to be the entire area of a community that is shaded by trees whether on public or private land, even if it is not contiguous.

Since 2006, the city has lost or been forced to remove nearly 500 public shade trees along its streets, while over the same period it has planted just under half that, or 242, according to figures from the Department of Public Works. The figures do not take into account trees on private property, for which the city has no authority and which provide much of a community’s tree canopy.

On average, the city is losing about 32 more trees a year than it plants — an alarming figure that has galvanized activists led by Lilly Lombard to pressure Narkewicz to scrap the existing Tree Committee model in which a board of people act as tree warden, replacing it with a staffed professional who is a trained arborist. That person would help the city develop a tree inventory, establish a tree management plan and otherwise address tree-related issues.

A tree warden, supporters say, is a vital link in terms of coordinating and caring for trees and developing a long-range tree management plan.

“Our canopy has not been replaced at the same pace” as it has been diminished, Lombard said. “It’s been an issue of concern of mine the entire time I’ve lived in Northampton ”

The 12-year city resident has spent considerable time in recent months researching the issue, meeting with officials in other communities that have successful public shade tree programs, giving presentations at city committees and neighborhood associations and lobbying local officials from the mayor to most city councilors. Her message is simple — the city’s shade tree stock is a valuable infrastructure that helps mitigate the effects of climate change, boosts economic vitality, and provides traffic-calming tools, among many other benefits. She further contends that the tree canopy needs to be governed by a comprehensive tree program and overseen by someone for whom trees are a passion.

“What we really need is a professional staffed tree warden in Northampton,” Lombard said.

Narkewicz said he has reached similar conclusions after several months of research into models used in other communities. By the end of September, the mayor said he intends to recommend the city hire a professional arborist as the city tree warden. The position would initially be part of the Department of Public Works and would be filled by one of the department’s two certified arborists, though Narkewicz said the city may consider widening the search beyond the department as part of future budgets. The DPW arborists are Richard Parasiliti, superintendent of the streets division, and Antoni Sakowicz, a foreman in the streets division.

At the same time, he will propose disbanding the current Tree Committee in favor of a new Public Shade Tree Committee that will serve in an advisory capacity to the tree warden. He envisions the new committee will advise the DPW and staff that work with shade trees on policy and other decisions, as well as raise awareness of the importance of trees to the community through special promotions, events and fundraising opportunities.

“That’s the direction that I believe we should go in,” Narkewicz said.

It wasn’t too long ago that Amherst faced a similar decision. After going some two decades without “seriously funding” tree plantings, Tree Warden Alan Snow said many in the community began sounding warning bells in 2008 about the number of trees being removed compared to those being planted. He estimated that the town was losing about 100 trees a year of various sizes over a 20-year period.

“Without planting trees for that length of time, that’s a lot of canopy loss,” Snow said. “That creates a big gap in the tree canopy.”

The movement led voters at Town Meeting to approve a new town position of director of trees and grounds, a job that includes tree warden responsibilities. Snow, named tree warden in 2007 on a volunteer basis, became a full-time town employee in 2011. During his tenure, he has conducted a tree inventory to determine the overall health of the town’s trees and where new trees should be planted. He also helped shepherd the 2,000-tree initiatives through Town Meeting with the help of Town Manager John Musante and DPW Director Guilford Mooring.

“In a community as complex as Amherst, we really need someone there who can talk about the trees” to everyone, from developers to DPW engineers and the general public, Snow said. “I think people can see what’s going on around town and are realizing the benefits of a well-tree community.”

That’s a place Susan Ford, a former chairwoman of the Tree Committee, hopes Northampton can get to.

“Northampton is in some ways a model city and is a unique and beautiful place,” Ford said. “But trees in Northampton are way undervalued and I’ve struggled with that since I moved back here in 2000.”

Ford said the Tree Committee is well-meaning, but faces significant obstacles in the form of money, time and priorities. Other than overseeing public hearings to determine whether a tree can be removed, the committee has little funding to plant trees, its communication with the DPW regarding specific tree-planting initiatives is often lacking, and its efforts to craft and push for legislation to protect trees often stalls, she said.

“I think it’s a failed experiment,” Ford said. “We all felt like we had our feet in the sand.”

Lombard said she is pleased to hear about the mayor’s recommendation, although she hopes the tree warden position is not simply a task that is added to an already overburdened workforce. She hopes the city eventually advertises the position to recruit a person with a demonstrated passion for trees and the need to develop a tree management program.

“I’m encouraged to hear that the city is considering bringing on a tree warden into the staff of the DPW,” she said. “My great hope is the city advertises the position broadly.”

Narkewicz and DPW Director Edward S. Huntley said they share concerns about the city’s declining tree canopy and recognize the need to address it.

“We’re concerned that we’re losing our canopy more than we’re gaining it,” Huntley said. “A lot of our trees are at the end of their life and we don’t have a plan to replant.”

Jay Girard, an arborist and former member of the Tree Committee, said that municipalities face many hurdles to keep its tree canopy in great shape. Not only is funding to buy trees down, but so too is staffing.

Three or four decades ago, he said, communities like Northampton had tree crews twice as large as they are now and were able to do a lot more plantings. To ensure a long-lasting canopy, Girard said tree planting has to be a priority and replenishing has to occur every year.

One way to make it a priority is to hire a tree warden, which the state believes is the most effective way to deal with tree-related issues, Girard said. The state, in fact, requires all communities to have a tree warden who can either be a single position or a group of people such as a Tree Committee.

“A one-person tree warden is more effective, but there’s room for a group of people interested to help out the tree warden, ”Girard said, if they do so in an advisory role.

Narkewicz hopes that the new model with a professional arborist leading the discussion will help the city reverse the trend of losing more trees than are being planted. A healthy and robust public shade tree canopy is spelled out as an important component in the city’s Sustainable Northampton plan, he said.

“Trees add many values and benefits to a city and we need to be mindful of that,” he said.

He is making the recommended changes to the Tree Committee as part of a broader plan to analyze and tweak some of the city’s many multi-member bodies, as required under the new charter. By the end of September, Narkewicz said he aims to ask the council to approve a package of changes to several of those committees, of which the Tree Committee is one.

That will be welcome news to Rob Postel, a Northampton resident who for the last year has planted some two dozen public trees throughout the city as part of a program called Shade Trees Northampton.

The organization volunteers its time to plant the trees for homeowners in hopes of making a small contribution toward replacing the city’s tree stock. The locations for the tree plantings are determined by homeowners who request and pay for a tree to be planted in the public way next to or in front of their property. For $110, Shade Trees Northampton buys and plants the tree and handles all of the technical aspects of approval from the city including approval from the Tree Committee and securing “Dig Safe” and trench permits.

“I feel really good about adding trees, but without a tree warden we can work on this as hard as we want and won’t get a good tree canopy,” Postel said. He later added, “It’s not to say the DPW isn’t capable, but it’s a matter of priorities.”

In recognition of the need for funding to buy and plant new trees, Huntley said his department’s budget for trees and shrubs has grown to $40,000 this fiscal year, up from just $5,000 a year ago. That should help the city plant more trees this fall and next spring.

Lombard cautions that the extra money is like “throwing good money after bad” if the city doesn’t have a comprehensive plan or someone really skilled in figuring out where trees are needed and where they will thrive. That starts with hiring a tree warden who will lead an all-encompassing inventory of the public shade tree in the city to craft a tree management plan, she said.

Chad Cain can be reached at ccain@gazettenet.com.