City forestry completes 7-year project of hazard tree trimming
A late freeze in 2009 and an early freeze in 2010 damaged a tremendous number of the city’s green ash trees, which make up about 70 percent of the 13,000 boulevard trees.
Because the city forestry department had a detailed inventory of those trees and the damage done, the city was able to file a claim with Montana Municipal Interlocal Authority, the city’s insurance provider, to cover the cost of replacement trees for those that couldn’t be saved.
That’s not an inventory most cities have, City Manager Greg Doyon said, and trees aren’t cheap.
There were about 1,400 trees removed and replaced after that weather event, according to city forester Todd Seymanski. His division falls under Great Falls Park and Recreation.
MMIA covered those costs, but not the cost of trimming the damaged, but salvageable trees. That was a list of 1,667 trees on what became known as the hazard tree list.
On Dec. 15, Seymanski and his crew crossed the last tree off that list.
Completing that list required shifting some tasks that had crept into the forestry division back out so they could focus on tree trimming.
Seymanski said proper tree trimming on a regular schedule makes for healthier trees, a better shade canopy and reduced risk to the community from falling limbs.
A properly trimmed tree can also withstand more wind, insects and disease, Seymanski said.
Seymanski took over as city forester around the time of the weather event that damaged so many trees and said he went to Doyon with his concerns. Doyon, he said, listened and gave them the flexibility to reset the priorities for the forestry division.
“We decided we really had to focus on mature trees, the canopy,” Seymanski said. “We weren’t giving them the time and the care they needed.”
They also focused on the hazard list. If residents in the boulevard district requested tree trimming, Seymanski’s crew would look at it and if there was a safety issue, like cracked trunks, touching a roof or hanging limbs, they’d take care of it immediately. If not, it went on the requested trimming list.
There’s 650-700 trees on the requested trimming list and since it’s been awhile between trimmings, it can take a two-person crew 4-5 hours to get it done properly, Seymanski said. But the next time, they come through for trimming, it won’t take as long, he said.
The city has contracted out some tree trimming for those within transmission lines and it can cost up to $700 per tree, Seymanski said.
The forestry division has experienced tighter budgets like many city departments and currently includes Seymanski, four full-time arborists and three to four seasonal workers during the summer.
Some things have been cut or reassigned from the forestry division, such as Christmas lights on Flag Hill or the Civic Center Christmas tree, though they still support that effort. They’ve also reduced their landscaping tasks around city facilities.
Doyon said the community has stepped up efforts for Christmas festivities and some of their other tasks have been reassigned to other Park and Rec sections or other departments. For example, the Planning and Community Development department oversees the landscaping around the Civic Center.
Going forward, Seymanski has broken the boulevard district into eight work zones and they’ll rotate through those zones to complete all the requested trimming in one before moving to the next zone.
They also trim or remove trees after storms, but Seymanski said the post-storm damage is reduced as more trees are trimmed.
On average, Seymanski said it’s best to trim trees once every seven years and they’re hoping to get to that schedule as they’ve refocused their division.
They’ll also start planting new trees since they’ve freed up time by completing the hazard list and also now have a water truck since “watering is so essential in Great Falls for the establishment of that tree for the first two years. There’s no sense planting a tree if you’re not going to water it.”
But the new trees will be planted at a slow pace. “We won’t plant more than we can take care of,” he said.
On top of isolated weather incidents, the forestry division is also combating Dutch elm disease, which has caused the lost of about 8,048 American Elm trees in the boulevard over the last decade. That’s roughly 20 percent of the canopy, Seymanski said.
Seymanski said that in the boulevard district, they try to replace those damaged or lost trees with larger ones, though their more expensive, to combat vandalism since the smaller ones are more easily broken.
The city maintains and plants trees within the boulevard district, since those residents are assessed annually for that work. Outside the district, property owners are responsible for their own trees.
During the last budget cycle, the city approved a seven percent increase for the boulevard assessment, which is $0.010575 per square foot, or $79.31 annually for an average lot size of 7,500 square feet. It was a $5.18 annual increase for the average lot size.
Within the boulevard district, Park and Recreation maintains the trees, as well as leaf pickup and streetscape design.
To determine the assessment rate, the city calculates actual and anticipated expenses, future projects, goals and objectives of the department.
The boulevard district assessment increase 10 percent in fiscal year 2016. The district was created in 1946.
The forestry budget is blended between the boulevard assessment and the general fund, Seymanski said.
Seymanski said that if someone in the boulevard district wants a new tree planted right away, they can call his office to get a free tree planting permit, then purchase and plant the tree. Then they call Seymanski’s office to come inspect the tree and the city will reimburse the property owner for 75 percent of the tree cost. Seymanski’s office has a list of recommended trees and the permit helps property owners get the tree in the right spot, he said.
There are more than 33,000 trees in the city inventory located in the boulevard district, parks, golf courses and other public places.
A study conducted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency determined that every urban tree contributes an average of $350 per year to the community in direct environment benefits. These benefits include reduced heating and cooling costs, greatly reduced stormwater runoff, less erosion, reduced pollution through carbon sequestering, and others. Based on this report, the 33,000 public trees in Great Falls provide $11.5 million per year in direct environmental benefits, according to the city.
Paris Gibson and other settlers planted thousands of trees in the 1890s in Great Falls, according to the city, and now the public forest is valued at more than $77 million.