Charlottesville’s tree community will celebrate Arbor Day in Forest Hills Park on Friday by gathering around one of the city’s most majestic trees.
“It’s a beautiful white oak and it’s obviously very old,” said Tim Hughes, the city’s arborist.
Members of the Charlottesville Tree Commission will place a plaque near the tree at a 10 a.m. ceremony to commemorate its status as a landmark tree.
“We think it’s very important as our city celebrates its 250th birthday to bring greater attention to our very special landmark trees,” said Elizabeth “Bitsy” Waters, a former mayor and chairwoman of the tree commission.
The nine-member tree commission was created in late 2010 to oversee management of the city’s urban forests.
“We’ve learned that we already do a lot to preserve and plant trees in Charlottesville , but there are many opportunities to do more,” Waters said. “We look forward to identifying places that will benefit most from having additional trees, including corridors and neighborhoods with limited tree canopy.”
A study in 2009 indicated that the city has a tree canopy that covers 47 percent of Charlottesville’s 10.4 square miles. That helped the city obtain a “growth award” from the Arbor Day Foundation in 2010.
“The American Forestry Association is looking for tree canopies higher than 40 percent on the East Coast,” said Doug Ehman, manager of the city’s parks division. “The big thing is, though, you have to maintain that and actively manage that canopy.”
To do that, the city employs Hughes to inspect trees on city land, answer questions from the public and implement the urban forestry management plan. That includes planting and tree work such as pruning and removal.
The city allocated $48,925 for urban tree preservation and planting in the fiscal year 2013 capital improvement program . The city’s operating budget allots more than $200,000 annually for tree maintenance.
One of the trees Hughes has inspected is the white oak that will be commemorated Friday. The tree’s root system was damaged when the parks department renovated Forest Hills Park in 2009.
“The tree is showing classic symptoms of some root damage, but it made it through last summer,” Hughes said. “It has leafed out this year except where you see the dieback.”
Hughes said a tree can take up to eight years to recover from construction damage, depending on the amount of roots that were lost and how much rain has fallen.
“Trees are like people,” Ehman said. “They get old and die. When the tree gets to a point where it’s no longer structurally safe, we have to deal with it and put replacements in.”
No one contacted knew how old the Forest Hills white oak is, but Hughes said it could be well over 150 years old.
Another step in management is to ensure diversity among the city’s tree population.
“A monoculture is always an issue,” Hughes said. “If there is a problem in one of those trees, such as a certain insect that likes that tree … it’s very likely it’s going to create a problem for all those trees.”
For instance, insects and disease have largely eliminated American elms and chestnuts over the past several decades.
Hughes and other arborists in Virginia are bracing for an onslaught of the ash borer, which could destroy ash trees. So far, none of the insects has been reported in the area.
“Sooner or later it is going to be here,” Ehman said.
Hughes’ scope as city arborist is limited to trees on public lands, and not on private property.
If someone wants to develop private property by-right, the city has no authority to stop trees from being removed. However, if they need a rezoning or a special-use permit, the city Planning Commission and the City Council can put conditions on tree replacement.
One member of the tree commission recently tried another strategy.
Robin Hanes was arrested in early April while trying to save a Norway spruce from being felled on private property in the Woolen Mills neighborhood. The tree was removed because the property owner was told it would not survive construction of a house on the currently vacant lot.
Hanes declined to comment on the incident, but said she would issue a statement after her May 22 court hearing.
The city is also served by the Charlottesville Area Tree Stewards , a group of volunteers founded in 2008 that seeks to educate the public about the value of trees. Group members will spend Arbor Day planting trees in the Fifeville neighborhood.
In the fall, the tree commission will organize a massive tree-planting throughout Charlottesville in collaboration with the parks and recreation department.
“Fall is the best time to plant public and private trees,” Waters said.
Waters briefed city councilors on the status of the tree commission earlier this month. Many councilors said they were pleased with the commission’s efforts to date.
“What really pleases me is that this idea of preservation is now becoming institutionalized in our community,” Mayor Satyendra Huja said. “That is a very healthy thing in my mind.”