In 2019, news that city trees are dying at increasing rates due to rising temperatures and pests made it clear that Santa Fe's trees are in trouble.
In 2020, the Santa Fe Municipal Tree Board hopes to combat the worrisome trend by harnessing the potential of information technology and citizen science to modernize the city's tree management practices.
But new data, strategies and technologies are only as useful as the city's ability to put them into practice.
Members of the tree board unanimously agree that if Santa Fe is to have any chance of beating the odds, the city must hire an urban forester to navigate a complex maze of city bureaucracy. At a board meeting Jan. 10, members discussed the progress of the last year and goals for 2020, and finalized a list of recommendations for core objects for the city.
"The city hiring a city forester is the top thing they can do to get the ball rolling with everything else we discuss in this white paper," board member Jacob Pederson tells SFR at the meeting.
"Ultimately it comes down to expertise and leadership who focus solely on bringing everybody in the city to focus on trees. Unless that happens I don't think there is a lot of hope for any of the other things on this list," he says.
Since 2016, the tree board and a group of dedicated volunteers have been working to inventory the trees in public parks and in front of public buildings. This data is intended to give the city insights that will help managers create a strategic citywide plan for protecting the trees that are already part of the "urban forest" and that are currently struggling to survive, as well as a plan for where and how to plant more trees that increase the forest's overall resilience to quickly changing temperatures, weather conditions and disease outbreaks.
That includes, they say, designing roadways, buildings and parks so that trees are positioned to absorb storm water runoff instead of the city's current practice of irrigating trees with potable city water. Another suggestion centers on the need to amend soil to provide nutrients and hold water for young tree roots, and planting trees far enough from buildings and sidewalks that they can grow to full maturity and provide shade to cool the city in increasingly hot summer months.
The city has purchased access to the Tree Plotter app that accelerated the tree inventory's progress in 2019. Volunteers trained by a Santa Fe Extension Master Gardeners' program to identify tree species and common pests can now add trees using smartphones in a matter of minutes. As of November 2019, volunteers have inventoried 16% of the city's trees, or 1,791 trees.
The tree board also worked last year with the city IT department on a pilot project to integrate the data from Tree Counter into the city's new processing software, ArcGIS.
The data collected has numerous short and long-term uses that could revolutionize how the city manages its urban forest, says Athena Beshur, the principal urban forestry designer for Seeds of Wisdom, LLC who spent three years on the board and is still a volunteer.
Information about each specific tree becomes immediately available to city staff as soon as it is uploaded through Tree Plotter, which greatly increases the efficiency with which staff are able to detect and address problems such as pest outbreaks, says Beshur.
She explains that with ArcGIS, the city can create maps that overlay tree data with information about other city infrastructure to better understand where to plant trees so they have the best chance at survival.
In the long term, Beshur says, the inventory will allow the city to track changes over time and accurately assess which trees are proving most resilient to climate change and which treatments are working.
But without a city forester, Pederson and other board members worry that the information won't help in time.
John Muñoz, director of the city Parks and Recreation Department, says he plans to include the position in budget proposals for the next fiscal year. "It is a key position, a leadership position. One that is needed," he tells SFR. The job and benefits would cost about $85,000.
Multiple city departments are involved in tree panting and maintaining city trees, he says, and this can make things complicated.
Trees planted in parks are the responsibility of the Parks and Recreation Department. But the department doesn't have a say over how trees are planted in other public spaces, along roads, in front of public buildings, or in new private developments that may fall under the authority of the Land Use Department or Public Works. General irrigation and water use might fall to the Water Division, while redirecting storm water runoff from streets to the roots of trees might fall under the Streets and Drainage Maintenance Division.
"We need to have a congruent strategy," Muñoz says.