Bough Down

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Look Up. That lush canopy of leaves you take for granted? It could be history if we don’t act fast.

On the street where I grew up, trees surrounded the houses. In our own front yard there were a couple of large maples growing curbside, and a lilac and a dogwood that my mother (always seeking petals) planted. Our neighbor to the east had a mulberry tree, and in season it was tempting to sample its fruit, which fell multitudinously and stained the sidewalk. Across the street, a mature apple tree dropped plump red McIntoshes.

This was on Broadview Drive, in East Hyde Park—a Myers Y. Cooper development of the 1930s that sat on a hill, ringed by trees. “The woods,” we called it, which my friends and I, all in elementary school, trooped through to Brotherton Road, where a comics and candy store beckoned, or to the Hyde Park Country Club, where the steep topography made sled-riding dynamite. We took the woods for granted, of course, but my father, who held a lifelong interest in trees, did not. “We are lucky,” I remember him saying once, “to live in one of the most verdant places on earth.”

Over the years, I have shared that sentiment. Trees, writes Joseph Illick in the guidebook Common Trees of Ohio, published nearly 90 years ago, “pay beauty dividends every day. No place is complete without them. A home without trees is charmless. A road without trees is shadeless. A park without trees is purposeless. A town without trees is cheerless. A country without trees is hopeless.”

A little simplistic, maybe, but I take his point. Our hills and parks reinforce it. The green borders of our river echo it. The celebrated trees in Spring Grove Cemetery and Arboretum and the stately stands still found along country roads and distant fields are constant reminders. Wendi Van Buren, the urban forester in our region for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, puts it more poetically: “People feel trees,” she says. “Even if they can’t see them, they feel their presence and benefit by them.”

I think that’s right. You can be shut in, sealed off, completely absorbed in whatever, yet knowing that the proximate outdoors is green and shaded, or in winter, tall and stark, you feel more complete. 

So it was with considerable interest, and then foot-stomping enthusiasm, that I got acquainted with Taking Root, the campaign to plant 2 million trees—one for every man, woman, and child in the tri-state—by 2020. Repelled by the honeysuckle that is choking our hills, horrified by the emerald ash borer, which is relentlessly destroying our canopy, and properly nervous about the Asian longhorned beetle, now quarantined in Clermont County, I tuned in fast.

Taking Root is an initiative sponsored by Green Umbrella, a nonprofit that’s dedicated to improving the quality of life in our area by focusing on environmental sustainability. An alliance of 220 diverse organizations—also headlined by OKI, the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden, the Green Partnership for Greater Cincinnati, and Ohio Nature Conservancy—its partners range from Boone County Arboretum and the Hillside Trust to TANK, SORTA, and Macy’s. Most Cincinnatians are familiar with Green Umbrella’s annual events—Paddlefest in June and the Great Outdoor Weekend in the fall. With Taking Root, says Brewster Rhoads, the group’s executive director, “we want to be a shining light in America for a crisis that threatens one of our unique assets. There’s almost nothing people can do in the way of stewardship as effective as digging a hole and planting a tree.”

To my knowledge, Dad never planted a tree. But in understanding their value, and in articulating it to his children, he was ahead of his time.

People who think about trees for a living—arborists, urban foresters, nursery workers, landscape architects, academics with a bias to botany—cite shade and beauty as just two in a long list of arboreal contributions. Trees capture storm water runoff; they help keep buildings cool in summer, thereby conserving electricity; they remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere; and not to be overlooked, they produce lumber with its almost infinite applications.

Compared to other urban areas, Hamilton County has a dense canopy. Forty-three percent of its land mass is blanketed in green. Within Cincinnati city limits, it’s 39 percent. Those figures contrast sharply with St. Louis at 18 percent, Chicago at 17 percent, New York City at 24 percent, and Boston at 29 percent.

While our parks (one-tenth of the city’s total acreage) are largely responsible, they are not the sole reason for this bounty. Dave Gamstetter, the natural resource manager and urban forester for the Cincinnati Park Board, takes care of some 85,000 trees that line the city’s streets and non-park green spaces (e.g. Fountain Square, the Interstate gateways). But right now, he is concerned. “Every 10 years, we fly over the canopy and map out the trees,” he says. “We started doing this in 2000, and between that time and 2010, we had lost slightly more than 1 percent of our canopy. It was the first time in decades that we had lost more trees than we planted.” Also worrisome: While the city as a whole boasts lush coverage, many individual neighborhoods do not. Mt. Airy Forest gives us a big leg up. 

Gamstetter, a former botany major at Miami University, is a 25-year veteran of the parks and the resident expert on trees in Hamilton County. “Brilliant” in the eyes of many colleagues (“an incredible asset to our city,” says one), he radiates energy and passion for his work. In his unadorned office in the natural resource management building on Reading Road, he has charts, graphs, and studies that explore the problem, and he can offer some explanations for the decline. “The 2008 summer drought and remnants of Hurricane Ike that struck the city in 2009 resulted in the loss of thousands of trees,” he says. “Large development projects, such as the Rookwood shopping center in Oakley, also had an impact.” 

But the bigger problem, by far, is the recent incursion of the pest known as the emerald ash borer. About 10 percent of the trees in our city are some variety of ash, and with rare exceptions, they are all doomed. Ash borer larvae feed on the inner bark, making it difficult to transport water or nutrition. Treating with pesticides can save some trees, but it’s a time-consuming, expensive process—impractical as a large-scale solution. Nor is the EAB the only threatening insect. The Asian longhorned beetle, now triggering quarantines across significant tracts of Clermont County, has the potential to kill off our maples, poplars, sycamores, and buckeyes. “It’s depressing,” says Gamstetter, “that’s the best way to put it. Normally, we replace more than we cut down, but right now it’s the other way around. This is a crisis. We’ve exhausted pretty much all of the resources authorized for emergency storm cleanup funds in the parks and on the streets. We’re spending dollars we would normally be using for planting.”

Keep him talking, though, and the conversation trends to the more cheerful. Most people know about the chestnut blight that wiped out virtually all of the nation’s chestnut trees in the early part of the 20th century. But how many know that a new strain of chestnut trees was recently planted in Mt. Airy forest, and that of six dug in, four are surviving? Most may know about the plague that killed millions of the graceful American elms once so prevalent in cities and towns across the country. Yet today, on Martin Luther King Drive near Vine, a new strain of elm, seemingly resistant to the Dutch elm disease, thrives. Such breakthroughs give Gamstetter hope. “I’m cautiously optimistic,” he says. “But I’m a glass half-full kind of guy.”

Ever since the Ohio Valley was opened up to settlers in the late 18th century, the evolution of its wooded land has been problematic. A description of Benjamin Stites coming down the Ohio River in 1786, taken from a WPA guide written in 1943, suggests the density of woods: “Day after day, he saw nothing but low, dark hills that rolled down to the river with here and there a bottom land or the mouth of a tributary stream. The wilderness lay all about him, silent (except for the occasional cry of a bird), mysterious, and lonely.”

The native trees he likely saw, according to a book written 40 years later, Cincinnati in 1826, by B. Drake and E.D. Mansfield, included “the black walnut, white flowering locust, white and black lowland chestnut, and bur oaks, wild cherry, yellow poplar, blue and white ash, mulberry, honey locust, shellbark hickory, coffee nut, beech, sweet buckeye, sassafras, sugar tree, red maple, linden, and box elder.” (Except for the ash and chestnut they’re all still thriving here today.) Common Trees of Ohio, in 1927, confirms the wonder of it: “When the first white man came to Ohio, he was privileged to view one of the finest hardwood forests in the world. Nowhere did the white oak, the tulip poplar, the black walnut, the white elm, or the shellbark hickory grow larger or make better lumber than the ones that covered hill and dale in Ohio.”

Scott Beuerlein, horticulturist for the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden and one of the principals in organizing Taking Root, likes to give context to the current campaign by recalling what happened more than a century ago. “By the mid-1800s,” he notes, “America was pretty much logged.” Just look at the public library’s famous Fontayne & Porter daguerreotype of the riverfront in 1848: The trees are gone. Fortunately, the city was at the forefront of recognizing the problem. “The first American Forestry Association was formed here in 1875,” says Beuerlein, “and in 1882 the first American Forestry Congress took place; people came here to talk about the crisis.” The superintendent of schools even sent students to an abandoned vineyard to plant trees. “And that’s what became Eden Park,” he explains. “Such was the unique role Cincinnati played in recognizing that you can’t just keep chopping down trees.”

Arbor Day was first observed in Cincinnati in 1882 as well. A year earlier, the Royal Chief Forester of the German Empire had visited the city and people started talking about securing more land for parks. By 1906, locals had organized the Greater Park League and persuaded the city to spend $15,000 for a comprehensive plan for parks and parkways. According to a 1975 report of the Cincinnati Institute, it was an era when “popular sentiment for leafiness reached a real high-water mark.”

By 1975, the city’s park system had grown to 3,880 acres—one of the nation’s highest in terms of per capita averages. Unfortunately, as the Institute’s report opined, the city’s management of its trees was in disarray. Fifteen government agencies overlapped with two private utilities, 60 landscaping firms, 57 tree crews, two landscape architects, two horticulturists, and one forester for care of the city’s public trees. The Institute found that the city had put a greater priority on pruning and removal than on planting. Cincinnati Bell and Cincinnati Gas & Electric (now Duke Energy) each had a tree-pruning budget larger than the total tree budget of any public agency. All involved parties, reported the Institute, “view trees as a hindrance to their primary tasks, not as an amenity.” Accordingly, the report proposed the creation of an Urban Forestry Division, directed by a full-time urban forester, with a primary mission of planting, but also of oversight for all arboreal matters in the public realm.

It took a few years, but by 1981 the Urban Forestry Division was established. For a while, things were looking up. But then climate change, honeysuckle, the EAB, the ALB, and a myriad of other pests and invasives emerged. In 2012, Brewster Rhoads and Scott Beuerlein ran into one another at a social event at the Civic Garden Center. “Time and time again we heard the tree canopy issue pop up as serious,” says Beuerlein. “And we asked each other: What can we do?

Their solution has been, quite simply, to get the rest of us—nonprofits, for-profit businesses, and individuals—in on the action.

On a frigid Saturday morning in early February, close to 300 people gather at the Peacock Pavilion at the Cincinnati Zoo to rally around the Taking Root campaign. The place is awash in fleece and parkas, coffee mugs, breakfast pastry, flip charts, notebooks, leaflets, cell phones, iPads, and laptops. Participants include master gardeners from across the county, the head of Dayton’s Cox Arboretum, “green” volunteers of every stripe, a Ph.D. in plant biology, somebody from the Silverton urban forestry board, retirees from various park districts, members of the Civic Garden Center board, a sales rep from Equinox Botanicals (dealers in medicinal plants), the program coordinator for the Ohio State University Extension Office for Hamilton County, and on and on—“all the stakeholders,” as Beuerlein had predicted.

The purpose of the meeting is to review the tree-planting mission, to use breakout sessions to generate ideas for spreading the gospel and to fire up the troops. Those in charge waste no time lighting the fuse.

“I’m very excited about today. This is where discussion and talk turns into action,” says Travis Miller, regional planning manager for the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional Council of Governments. OKI is a major player in Taking Root; as the metropolitan planning organization for the region, it is responsible for allocating funds for transportation and infrastructure.  Miller is followed by Brewster Rhoads. The goal he announces is simple, if lofty: “We want to be the national model for what people can do when they get themselves organized.”

Then Beuerlein talks about
the inertia communities can experience faced with a problem as overwhelming as this. “It’s too important not to fight it,” he says. “The more trees you look at, the more complex you realize their stories are.” He shows a picture
of himself next to a tree. Both are 53 years old. “I have maybe 30 more years,” he says. “That tree could
live between 100 and 300 years.” People are ephemeral. Trees are forever.

The group watches a film by local documentarian Andrea Torrice that invokes the majesty of trees, the oldest living organisms on earth. Then the work begins in breakout sessions that focus on marketing, parks, local governments, and schools.

Ideas fly: Let’s enlist LPK, the branding firm, and let them help us develop a marketing strategy, one participant says. Let’s show up at county fairs, at home and garden shows, at farm service agencies, others suggest. Let’s create truck decals, special license plates.  A participant stands up and bemoans the fact that there are people who want to get rid of trees because they don’t like squirrels. “There should be a special place in hell,” someone responds.

The energy in the room is palpable, which is a sign of success because Taking Root is all about motivating people to get with the program. Jenny Gulick, a senior consulting urban forester with Davey Resource Group and one of the key partners in the campaign, puts it this way: “Yes, we want to plant 2 million trees by 2020, but underlying that is a commitment to raise awareness of the value of trees and the need for trees to make the tri-state livable. This is a message not only about tree planting, but about tree care.”

“In some ways, we’re a giant marketing campaign to drive the purchase and planting of trees,” Rhoads says as the chatter of the sessions continues. “We want to create the best possible results, to create quality green space and make up for what’s lost. We want to be known nationally as committed to sustaining our canopy.”

“If people 100 years from now can be talking about what we did,” Gulick says, “that will be an achievement.”

On another cold day in February, I venture out to Pattison Park, in Clermont County, where lanky and mustachioed Chris Clingman, director of the county’s parks, walks me across the snow to see the damage wrought by the ash borer. “Look up,” he says, pointing to the tall trunks and the dark, spidery branches streaking the sky. “That canopy is almost all ash, and it’s almost all gone.” He throws up his hands. At 45 acres, Pattison is not a huge park. “But that’s why the effects of what we’ve lost are most dramatic,” he says. “The natural system can’t compensate. It will take 50 years to regain this canopy.”

Because I didn’t see the park when the ashes he cites were standing, I can only imagine how it looked prior to their removal. Although new trees have been planted, they are small and don’t begin to make up for what’s gone. Those that remain, mostly maples, begin to feel lonely in context. Now, in mid-February, many have buckets attached to collect sap for maple syrup. It is one more symbol of the contributions trees make to our lives. And in their proximity to the quarantined tracts of Asian longhorned beetle infestations, it is a symbol of their fragility as well.

Ground Zero for the effort to contain the ALB is just a few miles away in Amelia, where the Clermont County Extension Office shares space with the local offices of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Ohio Department of Agriculture, and where 57 people are dedicated to the task. It is a sobering place. On the walls are maps of the local areas under quarantine. Specimens of the beetle, pressed beneath glass, compete for shelf space with wood samplings of trees they’ve destroyed by boring into their vascular systems and feeding on the arboreal tissue. On one desk is a gigantic carved beetle, black with white striping, complete with long, curving antennae. Were it not such a harbinger of destruction, it could be mistaken for passably good folk art.

Jonathan Shields, the plant pest inspection supervisor who is responsible for much of the activity of this office, explains: “What we’re setting out to do is eradicate it, to take advantage of the biology of the bug, who spends most of its lifetime in the tree.” That means taking down all the infested trees and some of the high-risk host trees—hardwoods such as maples, buckeyes, and elms—even if they aren’t yet infected.

As draconian as that sounds, it’s the best hope the state and Clermont County have of halting the beetle’s advance. The maps on the wall show 61 square miles under quarantine: no timber, wood products, or firewood from the host species can be removed from here and taken to a non-quarantined area. “We expect it to be kind of a long-term project,” Shields says. “It will be 10 years or more before we can declare eradication.” Here’s an important distinction among pests: he’s talking about a plan to contain and wipe out the Asian longhorned beetle. The emerald ash borer is already ubiquitous; it’s simply too late to eradicate it.

Like everyone talking about the ALB, Shields is circumspect. That’s because, in the critically important effort to defeat this interloper, the Ohio Department of Agriculture has removed more than 10,000 trees in Clermont County over the past three years. To the untutored eye, the landscape may still look pleasingly wooded, and substantial reforestation efforts are already in place. Even so, the eradication effort has generated some organized resistance by locals. ODA has the power to do what it must with the trees—even those on private land. If all goes well, Shields and his cohorts will ultimately be successful at stopping the pest, and the remaining trees will be better off. Still, removing healthy trees continues to be a hugely sensitive issue.

The ALB, which was first discovered in this country in 1996, came in on pallets from Asia. Today, such pallets have to be heat-treated before they can be opened, but in the mid-1990s, that was not the case. Where the insects got loose, they quickly established themselves as brutal threats to 13 different species of trees; their penchant for maples is particularly intense. The good news is that outbreaks of ALB infestation in Chicago, New York, and New Jersey were ultimately contained via techniques now being applied to Clermont County. Says Shields, “Because of these past successes, I’m pretty hopeful.”

On the sixth floor of University Hall, in Corryville, Len Thomas’s enthusiasm for Taking Root is so interwoven with his professional training that words like silviculture, taxonomy, homeostatic, and mesophytic almost obscure his message. Thomas is the senior planner/project manager for landscape design and construction at the University of Cincinnati. At 64, he is tall and thin, and has wide eyes that flash excitedly when issues of concern surface. Just ask him about the possibility of the Ohio Department of Transportation taking out valuable white ash trees to make way for the MLK corridor in Walnut Hills. 

“I said [to Dave Gamstetter], ‘That’s one thing we have to challenge,’” he tells me, launching into an all-out defense of the species and our responsibility to ensure it. “If we can keep them, it behooves us to do so, to perpetuate them even if they can’t survive on their own. Maybe we can be benefactors to trees in the way they have benefitted us. Trees don’t have self-determination, and for that reason, we have this obligation to help them. If they’re imperiled, we see if man can do something until there is a cure.”

As he keeps talking, Thomas touches on any number of tree-related topics: the frustration of dealing with invasives; the best candidates for use in reforestation; the “spectacular beauty” of the white ash in the fall; the fact that clothes go out of style and architecture goes out of style, but “trees never go out of style”; and the symbiotic potential of man and nature. Then he references a book, The Man Who Planted Trees, a French allegory by Jean Giono, published in 1953, about a shepherd who takes it upon himself to replant the forests of France after World War I. “[It’s] about our capacity to affect the future,” Thomas says. And suddenly, his message radiates clarity.

It is: To act.

It is to accept that while the challenges are daunting, solutions are obtainable, and that the only real crime is to ignore the signals and do nothing. The great green canopy that we have inherited from time immemorial is under siege. If we lose it, we are all diminished in ways now unimaginable. If we preserve it, we will have prevailed in a long and meaningful struggle. That’s what Taking Root is all about. That and, as Thomas puts it, “connectivity.” Working together.

“The green industry is not an industry of despair,” he told me. “It is an industry of aspiration. We look at the elements to which we can connect, and we realize: People need connectivity. I want to see Arbor Day and Earth Day part of our total community consciousness.”

Don’t we all?

Illustration by Teagan White
Originally published in the May 2014 issue.

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