Chicago TreeKeepers Raise the Alarm About ‘Cemetery of Saplings’ to City’s Urban Forestry Advisory Board

Trees awaiting planting as part of the Lawrence Avenue streetscape project in Lincoln Square, December 2023. (Patty Wetli / WTTW News)Trees awaiting planting as part of the Lawrence Avenue streetscape project in Lincoln Square, December 2023. (Patty Wetli / WTTW News)

In early December, Mayor Brandon Johnson helped ceremoniously plant Chicago’s final street tree of 2023.

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It was a significant milestone, one that made good — and then some — on former Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s pledge to plant 15,000 trees per year for five years through the Our Roots Chicago program. The 23,000 parkway trees added in 2023 bring the Our Roots total to 41,000 trees in just two years.

But not everyone is universally applauding the city’s efforts, with criticism coming from a surprising quarter.

Just days after Johnson’s press event, more than a half-dozen of the city’s volunteer TreeKeepers corps brought their concerns to Chicago’s newly constituted Urban Forestry Advisory Board, which was meeting for the third time since its members were appointed in January 2023.

In a free-flowing exchange not typically encouraged by government bodies, the TreeKeepers presented a laundry list of complaints, chief among them the lack of care for new trees.

“The city does OK at planting trees but a very poor job of making sure they reach maturity,” said Marjorie Isaacson, who identified herself as “TreeKeeper No. 4.” (Openlands’ 30-year-old TreeKeepers certification program has had 2,400 “graduates,” all of them given a number. Isaacson would be Chicago’s fourth-ever Treekeeper.) 

“It’s like a cemetery of saplings,” added TreeKeeper Amy Abramson. “It’s demoralizing and a waste of taxpayer money.”

A newly planted parkway tree in 2022. (Patty Wetli / WTTW News)A newly planted parkway tree in 2022. (Patty Wetli / WTTW News)

Saplings lack the established root systems of mature trees — meaning they typically require more watering — and, particularly in urban settings, are also more affected by the very environmental stressors they’ve been planted to combat, including poor air quality.

The trees are under warranty for two years, and the contractor hired by the city to plant the trees has it in their job description to water during that period as well, especially in the event of drought, said Malcolm Whiteside, who oversees the Bureau of Forestry as deputy commissioner of the Department of Streets and Sanitation.

But, Whiteside conceded, the real onus of caring for new street trees falls on residents and business owners.

That policy isn’t effective, said Abramson and her fellow TreeKeeper Kitty Hannaford.

Worst case, people have no interest in tending to the tree in front of their home or business, or, more likely, they’re unaware of their responsibility to the tree, which indicates a need for increased education, TreeKeepers said. The door hangers left with residents when a new tree is planted — telling them to water weekly — can easily be mistaken for junk mail or tossed aside and ignored, they said.

In many instances, Abramson and Hannaford said, they’ve walked through a neighborhood and come across trees planted outside vacant storefronts — “You’re planting trees where there’s no one to care for them,” Abramson said — or the building has no outdoor spigot, so there’s no water source. (Spigots only became a requirement for new developments in 1991, officials said.)

When saplings fail to thrive, the cost is greater than just the price tag of a replacement. The maturation clock gets set back to zero, which means an even longer lag until the point at which a tree can provide maximum environmental benefits. Studies have shown, for example, that large, healthy trees with trunk diameters greater than 30 inches remove approximately 70 times more air pollution annually than small, healthy trees with trunk sizes less than 10 inches in diameter.

The bottom line, Abramson said, is that having merchants and property owners responsible for saplings’ survival isn’t working. “I feel like it’s a fail,” she said, and she called on the advisory board to develop a proactive plan.

And Another Thing

(Patty Wetli / WTTW News)(Patty Wetli / WTTW News)

Chicago hasn’t inoculated any of its parkway ash trees against emerald ash borer since 2018, and plenty have gone un-boosted even longer. The city has budgeted $1 million to treat 5,000 of its remaining ash in 2024, a plan that’s grossly insufficient to address the need, Nancy Wade, co-chair of Save Your Ash, told the advisory board.

All ash left in Chicago — an estimated 43,000 — are considered infected, Wade said, and they’re in the last three years of what she referred to as an “eight-year death curve.” 

“Once infected, ash are untreatable or die within eight years,” she said.

Any ash trees that aren’t inoculated in 2024 will have effectively received a death sentence, said Wade, meaning only 5,000 will be saved assuming ongoing treatment. By contrast, she noted, Milwaukee hasn’t lost a single one of its 26,000 ash trees since it began inoculating them in 2008.

Whats Wrong With This Picture?

TreeKeepers would also very much like city workers, contractors and utility crews to stop treating trees like signposts.

Yes, But ....

(Patty Wetli / WTTW News)(Patty Wetli / WTTW News)

Whiteside provided an update on the city’s tree trimming progress since shifting to a grid-based system rather than relying on 311 requests.

“The numbers are phenomenal,” he said, citing 69,000 trees trimmed since April, a 173% increase over the prior year. “Lots of wards, we didn’t do any service the last few years and this year we did thousands.”

The downside, Isaacson pointed out, is that there’s no longer an option on the 311 platform to request trimming or to report an issue. The dropdown menu only allows for “remove tree,” she said. “There needs to be a ‘tree inspection’ request.”

Last Call

When the city loosened sidewalk cafe restrictions during the pandemic, trees became collateral damage, TreeKeepers said, a complaint Whiteside echoed.

In supporting businesses, people forgot about the environment, he said.

In one case, according to Whiteside, a tent was erected over a patio, smothering the tree underneath, cutting off sunlight and air.

“People think they can do whatever they want,” Whiteside said. “We did call BACP (Department of Business and Consumer Protection) to see how we can better protect trees.”

Down to Business

In addition to all the concerns raised by TreeKeepers, the advisory board has created a to-do list of its own.

— Education surrounding trees is a priority, and Ald. Maria Hadden (49th Ward), advisory board member and chairperson of City Council’s Committee on Environmental Protection and Energy, offered to play point person, using her platform for subject matter hearings.

— Hadden will also take the lead on ushering a proposal through City Council that would curtail a longstanding aldermanic perk, one which allowed a council member to order the removal of a tree at will.

— The advisory board is also taking a hard look at the city’s existing landscape ordinance, which hasn’t been revised since 2000.

— Finally, the board set its calendar for 2024 and vowed to do a better job promoting the dates and times among the public. The next meeting is scheduled for Feb. 1, 2-4 p.m., likely at 2 N. LaSalle St.

Contact Patty Wetli: @pattywetli | (773) 509-5623 |  [email protected]

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