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Nonprofit Groups, Governments Aim To Preserve Area Trees

By Lynda Van Kuren, posted Jul 5, 2024
Dan Camacho, executive director of The Alliance for Cape Fear Trees, worked with volunteers to put mulch around newly planted trees just south of Greenfield Street in Wilmington. (Photo by Madeline Gray)
Part of Wilmington’s charm is its lush greenery. Stately and majestic trees line many of the city’s streets and grace properties throughout New Hanover County. The region, however, also has vast swaths of land devoid of the trees they once hosted, and some sidewalks are losing the trees that once provided beauty and shade.

Both the city of Wilmington and New Hanover County are working to curtail the loss of their trees due to development and other causes. But some fear that governmental actions won’t be enough. As a result, nonprofits and some individuals are advocating for and, in some cases, taking concrete steps to replenish the area’s tree population.

“If you speak to individuals, no one is against trees,” said Dan Camacho, the new executive director of the nonprofit The Alliance for Cape Fear Trees. “But when it comes down to reconsidering or passing ordinances, the support seems less effective. … Trees are tricky. There are a lot of things that come across the table in writing that seem harmless to trees, but people don’t realize the consequences when you drill down.”

While trees enhance the area’s aesthetics, they also fulfill other vital purposes such as providing shade and reflecting heat, serving as a buffer for hurricane winds, mitigating stormwater runoff, preventing flooding and cleaning the air, according to Camacho.

In recent years, Wilmington has lost a significant portion of its tree canopy (the percentage of land covered by trees). According to the city’s Urban Forestry Master Plan, from 2016 to 2020, Wilmington’s tree canopy decreased to 41.4% from 48.1%. Hurricane Florence, disease, natural mortality and development have contributed to Wilmington’s decreasing tree population, the report states.

Finding the balance between tree preservation and development is an ongoing issue, according to Rebekah Roth, planning and land use director for New Hanover County. Tree preservationists advocate for more stringent tree protections, while developers advocate for more leniency.

“I know the developers would like the trees (that are protected) to be larger, and local tree advocacy organizations want the trees to be smaller,” Roth said.

Officials intend city and county tree preservation ordinances to retain the tree canopy and individual trees of a certain size or species. To achieve those goals, the ordinances require developers to mitigate tree loss by replacing the tree inches they remove. Tree replacement is measured by the diameter inches of the tree at breast height.

If the developers can’t replant the trees on the property – perhaps because the property is too small – they pay a fee, and the city or county replants the trees on public property.

Trees identified as high priority are afforded more protection because of their species or size. Developers may be required to replace more tree inches for high-priority trees (i.e., planting 2-tree-diameter inches for every 1 inch removed) or pay more.

Developers, however, may balk at tree protection ordinances, saying they are barriers to investing in a property. Tree protection ordinances may also impact the cost of developing a property, driving up the ultimate costs to residents.

Local governments might address such concerns by creating incentives or authorizing administrative adjustments to protect trees and reduce property owners’ potential expenses. For instance, they may reduce the number of required parking spaces on the property or allow additional tree types to be accepted for tree mitigation.

Roth also pointed out that some properties being clear-cut are not under the county’s jurisdiction. They are forestry operations, and their owners grow trees with the intention of eventually cutting them down.

“The property can go from forestry to development,” Roth said.

While development might be a leading factor impacting the area’s trees, Mother Nature is also taking a toll on them. A case in point is the 18 laurel oaks lining Market Street, all suffering from heart rot – a disease that cannot be treated. The city recently began cutting down those trees and will replace them with large-maturing tree species such as live oaks.

Other city trees are hewn for safety reasons, according to Sally Thigpen, the assistant director for Wilmington’s parks and recreation department. They might affect a right-of-way or pose a hazard to pedestrians, she explained.

The city and the county have embarked on new efforts to protect the region’s trees. Wilmington is in the first stages of implementing its Urban Forestry Master Plan, which lays out a comprehensive framework to develop a healthy and sustainable urban forest, Thigpen said. Wilmington has completed a street tree inventory, which included tree species, size and an assessment of the trees’ specific condition.

“That’s the first step to truly understanding the asset that we’re managing,” Thigpen said. “That inventory and all of that information feeds into how we can most effectively maintain, manage and replant and sustain our trees over time.”

The county is also taking additional steps to preserve and protect trees. It recently commissioned a tree canopy study that Roth said would set a baseline for the county’s current tree population and provide information the county will use to establish future tree preservation goals. In addition, the county is considering a tree canopy ordinance to help curtail clear cutting and provide more guidance on the types of trees that need to be planted to replace what is lost, Roth said.

“We’ve been trying several different things over the past few years (to preserve the county’s trees), and we’ll continue to have these conversations,” Roth said.

Local nonprofits such as the Alliance for Cape Fear Trees are also taking concrete actions to preserve and increase the area’s tree population. Camacho, for example, has worked closely with the city and county to help them develop ordinances that protect and preserve the area’s trees.

But Camacho said there is much still to be done.

Some ordinances need to be strengthened, and the ordinances that adequately protect trees need to be enforced, he said. Furthermore, mitigation to replace a lost tree is often far from the value of a large tree that was lost, he added.

Meanwhile, the alliance is doing its part to restore trees to the area. Since its inception in 2015, the organization has planted 3,000 trees and given away 14,0000. It has distributed 500 trees since January, and this past fall and winter, its volunteers planted 225 trees, according to Camacho. Many of the alliance’s volunteers also serve as tree stewards, watering and tending to young trees so they get off to a good start and have a better chance of surviving in a tough urban environment.

Individual residents are also taking up the mantle of tree protection and preservation. Michael Warner, Ogden resident and leader of the Ogden Preservation Group, has played an instrumental role in saving several live oak trees. To do so, he has taken it upon himself to contact developers.

In Warner’s personal “save-the-tree campaigns,” he also called on residents to bombard developers, their board of directors and their staff with heartfelt emails and phone calls asking them to save specific trees. As a result, several live oaks still stand sentinel throughout the Ogden area.

Ultimately, saving the Wilmington region’s trees will take a concerted effort by government and residents alike, according to Camacho.

“We in the city and all the citizens in the county,” he said, “we all need to advocate to stop destruction of these trees.”
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