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Sitka takes stock of city's wealth in trees

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Posted: Saturday, November 10, 2012 9:37 am | Updated: 11:54 am, Mon Jan 21, 2013.

SITKA, Alaska - Is it possible to put a price tag on the value of trees?

As a matter of fact, it is, says Stephen Nickel, community assistance forester from the state Division of Forestry.

To that end, the city is working with Nickel to inventory the city's tree supply as a way to properly value and maintain as many as 1,000 trees on municipal land.

Nickel said these trees have economic as well as environmental and social values.

"Trees are the only city infrastructure that increase in value as they age," he said.

And by the same token, failure to maintain them turns them into liabilities, Nickel said.

"The reason we're doing this is because trees are a very important piece of community infrastructure, just like police cars, fire trucks, buildings and all community infrastructure," he said. "Like all community infrastructure, they need maintenance as well."

The city Parks and Recreation Department and Tree and Landscape Committee applied for a $26,000 state grant to inventory the trees on city land.

"From that the city will have a really good picture of what needs to be done on all these trees," Nickel said.

Nickel, from Anchorage, is working on the project with Shawn McLeod, parks and ground maintenance supervisor, who is also a certified arborist. The grant also covered the costs of hiring Spokane contractor Jim Flott, a consulting arborist, to provide training and software, and ultimately an urban forest management plan.

Nickel estimated that he and McLeod inventoried about 300 of the 750 to 1,000 trees on city land during Nickel's week here. The focus was on the downtown area, where the city targets its maintenance efforts. Nickel noted the most popular tree in Sitka is the European mountain ash, of which 47 had been counted as of Friday. Right behind is the Sitka spruce, with a total of 46 counted. Sitka also has a number of crabapple trees in its inventory.

The invent ory process includes looking at the species, size, condition and maintenance needs, and attaching a value to the trees in an "industry-accepted way of appraising trees," Nickel said.

As an example, an American linden tree with a 23-inch diameter next to Centennial Hall has an appraised value of about $1,600, which is what its replacement value would be. Given the tree's value and condition, the city can decide what resources need to be allocated to properly care for this particular piece of infrastructure.

"By knowing what needs to be done, the city can develop a plan to maintain these in a cost-effective manner," Nickel said.

The information about the trees and their condition is entered into a GIS system. McLeod was trained on the software for continued use of the inventory.

Nickel described the inventory as a "living, breathing document" that should be of use to the city for years to come.

McLeod said he was pleased with this addition to his toolbox.

"We have hundreds of trees on city property," he said. "Because of restraints of time and money, we jump around a lot. This will give us a road map for maintenance. That's how it's going to help us."

"This is about maintaining city infrastructure, and putting together a program that's a good use of city funds," Nickel said.

Nickel said that although trees have an enormous value, it's easy to get carried away on the tree-planting side without setting aside maintenance funds.

"That's a message we should get across: don't plant more if you can't maintain them. We want them to provide all the benefits they can provide," he said. "If you don't maintain them they can become a liability, not an asset."

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