Tuesday, April 23, 2024

A dead sapling seen in Danehy Park on Aug. 12. (Photo: Charles Teague)

Kent Johnson, an unpaid volunteer, used the city’s public geographic information systems database to create this Cambridge Sapling Planting and Removal Report 2016-2022. He examined seven years of data testing for sapling diameter, planting method, planting location, planting organization and species. His conclusion? Nearly 1 out of 4 saplings experienced “infant mortality” and died.

It is clear that the city can and should make three easy fixes immediately:

Plant a lot more trees. The Urban Forest Master Plan says to “plant 1,000 street trees each year” in addition to planting aggressively in parks. In the years since the plan was released, the city has planted, on average, less than 70 percent of the street-tree goal. We need to plant according to the plan plus even more to cover the failures.

Plant bigger trees. According to the report, “Saplings larger than 2 inches in diameter have dramatically improved removal rates [due to death].” This is the single-most-effective improvement. The cost increase per sapling is ostensibly only “a few hundred dollars,” while the benefits are adding years of canopy growth otherwise lost by failures and saving the out-of-warranty replacement expense.

Remove dead or dying saplings promptly. Delay falsely increases the survival-time data of some saplings, while prompt removal may yield more clues for the cause of death. Data should be handled more carefully. The 2022 database reports 982 total plantings, but the city’s January press release claims 1,385, a more than 40 percent discrepancy.

Kent Johnson shows the power of volunteering. Cambridge has a vast resource of people who care about the environment. Volunteers can provide a wide range of skills and resources beyond watering a tree in front of their home.

Finally, the city should actually follow its own Urban Forest Master Plan. The plan requires annual reports and “an expert advisory committee” to conduct an annual review. But there are no annual reports, and there is no expert advisory committee. A volunteer conducted a review on his own.

What can you do?

Tell city management and the City Council to fund the Urban Forest Master Plan, especially at the Jan. 31 city budget hearing.

Sign up to join with other tree advocates at Cambridge4Trees.org. Fill out the volunteer form as well!

Charles Teague, North Cambridge

Charles Teague has been advocating for preserving the tree canopy and Linear Park since 2016.