‘The right tree in the right place’

  • Ashley McElhinney Courtesy photo

  • Courtesy image Courtesy image

  • Courtesy photo

For the Gazette
Published: 11/6/2019 12:38:52 PM

Helping species survive climate change conditions, in the case of trees that are rooted in place, may involve planting them in new places out of what has been their traditional range.

Earlier this month, a book detailing appropriate tree selection was officially printed for public use by recent University of Massachusetts Amherst graduate Ashley McElhinney developed “Planting for Resilience: Selecting Urban Trees in Massachusetts,” dually to help the environment and for her Master’s degree thesis. The guide identifies 72 tree species most suitable for urban growth, detailing exactly the best conditions for each, as well as proper planting and care tips.

The guide is aimed to assist anyone interested in tree planting, horticulture, or just curious people. To increase the scope of her audience, McElhinney made her book as comprehensive as possible, and distributed copies at UMass and beyond.

“Ideally everyone can pick it up and use it,” McElhinney said.

Extreme weather can cause floods, drought, and extreme heat or cold, requiring resilient trees that can withstand wider ranges of different environments. This thought led McElhinney and her mentor and co-author Richard Harper to the title of the guide.

“We’re really talking about a plant’s resilience to the changing environment,” Harper said.

One major item presented in the guide is the idea of assisted tree migration. According to the book, some tree species will need to move up to 10 times the standard migration distance — more than three miles per year — in order to escape extinction. Migration takes time, since trees not only grow slowly, but vary in adaptability. These considerations greatly impacted which trees were selected for the book.

The guide also emphasizes the need for more native trees to increase biodiversity. Harper said that while assisted migration will introduce new trees, it’s important to consider what insects and animals they will attract.

Alan Snow received his copy of the book in the mail. Snow has been Amherst’s Tree Warden for close to a decade and in 2013 was recognized as Tree Warden of the Year by the Massachusetts Tree Warden and Foresters Association. In his time as warden, Snow said, his understanding of climate change has shifted “considerably.” He highlighted flooding and drought as two concerns he takes into account when planting trees.

“It all comes down to the right tree in the right place,” Snow said. “It can really improve the lives of individuals as well as the whole community.”

In Massachusetts, every town’s Select Board is mandated to nominate a tree warden for a three year term. Sometimes it is a one-person job, or work for a whole department, depending on the town. Most towns make this nomination, but some of the most urbanized parts of the state — like Burlington, Quincy and Lynn — do not. Some others like Lowell, Lawrence and Wilmington appointed only deputy tree wardens.

The guide acknowledges that as our local environments change, so will the limitations on diverse life forms. Different trees require different environments to live, so climate change could alter which trees are able to survive in different regions. This led McElhinney to examine current climate conditions in Massachusetts.

Besides directly addressing the issues at hand, McElhinney hopes this will also inspire more academic interest in urban forest development. The guide acknowledges that climate change will alter the suitability of the identified species and that this is only a first look on assisted migration.

“The data is about to move very quickly and this is only a preliminary look at assisted migration,” she said. “I hope this gets more people thinking about it.”

After graduating, McElhinney relocated to San Jose, California, as the Community Planting Coordinator at Our City Forest where she works to get people together to plant more trees.

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