It has been almost six months since worry was expressed about whether Fort Smith would be able to maintain its Tree City USA status, but as the city's Parks and Recreation Commission gathered Wednesday (Oct. 9) to plant a tree for Arbor Day, Parks and Recreation Director Mike Alsup said he had confidence in the city's ability to maintain its current status.
Even though across the board budget cuts have meant Alsup's department will no longer be able to have an urban forester on staff, he said the city was still meeting the the Arbor Day Foundation's requirements to be designated a Tree City.
"That's not one of the requirements to have an urban forester," Alsup said. "The requirements, there's a list of them, (but) we had to have a tree board, we had to have an ordinance related to that and then you have to spend $2 per capita (on community forestry) and I know that those are three of the things. And there may be some others, but we still meet the criteria for Tree City even without the urban forester. It would just be helpful if we had that position."
As for how the city maintains spending $2 per resident even during tight budgetary times (all city departments were required to cut expenses by 4% following a decline in sales tax revenues earlier this year), Alsup said it was not a costly as it might seem.
He said everyday activities by various city departments contributed to the level of spending on community forestry, on top of work done by his own department.
"What else counts is when, especially when a storm blows through, but the pickup of the (tree) debris when a storm blows through with sanitation, that counts towards that $2 per capita. Even their recycling of tree limbs and everything helps us towards that. And the street department, (when) a storm blows through and they're clearing the streets of trees, that kind of thing even helps us with that number. So within the city, it didn't really cost the city. It's not like we had a budget of $160,000 or anything."
Alsup said previous years had $25,000 in salary for an urban forester included in the spending formula, which made the city's designation less dependent on other departments.
"So the $25,000 counted," he said. "We were planting more trees than normal, so maybe another couple of thousand dollars that we were spending on trees than we normally would have, which would have also (meant spending) a little more in mulch. But that's not a great number, either."
With the absence of an urban forester, he said the city only budgets about $2,000 or $3,000 per year specifically tied to the Tree City USA status, which helps his department plant anywhere from "a dozen or two dozen" trees each year.
To make sure the trees stay alive, Alsup said his department researches and selects trees that can withstand weather extremes, including extreme heat.
"With normal years, you can plant your trees when the sap is down in the winter (or) the fall. They say they don't go through quite as much shock and typically you don't have to water them as much if at all, but the last – not this year – but the previous two summers, we had drought and extreme heat. So we lost a lot of threes. We lost a lot of adult, fully mature trees, too. And we just didn't have enough manpower to water them. We didn't have enough trucks with tanks to get around and water everything well."
As for how Fort Smith ranks with other Tree City USA communities across the country, Alsup said the city's tree canopy is considerably smaller than other cities of similar size at only 14%, while the Arbor Day Foundation would like to see a canopy of at least 40%. But he said a large portion of that was due to the high number of industrial facilities across the city, which do not have readily available land to allow for tree growth and maintenance.
City Administrator Ray Gosack said ideas have come up in previous years to increase the size of the city's tree canopy, but he said proposals such as requiring developers to plant a set number of trees to replace any trees lost during construction have gone no where.
"Actually, when the Unified Development Ordinance was being updated a few years ago, a tree preservation plan was one of the topics that was discussed during that update to the Unified Development ordinance, but ultimately was not included because of concerns from some of the development community because of the cost of complying with tree preservation requirements."
Instead of requiring planting, Alsup said his department encouraged residents to take it upon themselves to plant trees as a way to beautify not only their own property, but the community as a whole. It was a point Gosack made, as well.
"There's still things (that can be done). People can plant trees on their own and we encourage that. And there are other resources, such as the county extension agent can provide advice about what types of trees to plant in particular locations."