2017 State of Our Environment Report

Urban Forest

Importance

Figure 1.  Austin celebrated Arbor Day with a family friendly event at Austin Nature & Science Center. Photo by Jennifer Chapman, Austin Nature & Science Center.
Our community recognizes that the urban forest provides social, ecological, and economic benefits that enhance the quality of life for Austin residents. Just like the parks where we play and the bike lanes we use to commute to work, our urban forest is a community asset. It is an important part of Austin’s infrastructure, but it is not static. The forest’s health can change due to insect and disease infestations, invasive plants, aging trees, population growth, and land development.
To maintain the health and integrity of our community’s urban forest, the City strives to preserve and maintain trees and vegetation during land development; promote the many benefits trees provide our community; offer information about tree care; and replant trees and vegetation.

Status and Trends

Figure 2.    Five year tracking of tree impacts in Austin provided by the Community Tree Preservation Division in the Development Services Department
For more than 25 years, our city has followed tree preservation and replanting ordinances to balance land development with protecting trees and green space that bring so many people to our community. Keeping Austin’s tree canopy intact is important for our community’s quality of life.
Protected trees: Thanks to the City’s tree preservation ordinances, we have protected hundreds of thousands of trees from being removed or damaged during development.  
Tree Removals: Trees are removed every year for a number of reasons, including land development and declining tree health. In 2017, more than 80,000 inches were removed because of development (12 percent decrease from 2016) and almost 42,000 tree inches were removed this year due to declining health (8 percent increase from 2016).
Tree Planting: The City tracks tree planting that happens on development sites and on city-sponsored initiatives. Trees planted through the development process totaled more than 30,000 inches in 2017. Tree planting on park property, riparian areas along creeks, rights-of-way, and private property has remained consistent over the past 5 years, averaging 6,600 new tree inches per year (6,400 in 2017). The majority of these trees are provided to Austinites free of charge through the City-sponsored NeighborWoods program (http://www.treefolks.org/nw). Tree species are chosen for ecosystem function and site suitability, and include large shade, small ornamental, and fruit and nut species. 

Annual Focus

Figure 3. Flyover view of downtown Austin, Texas
Austin’s tree ordinance, established in 1983, has provided tree protection for more than 34 years. This protective ordinance is one method the City uses to support Austin as a livable community. Trees are valued and recognized for their ability to provide shade during hot summer months, reduce energy use, and make outdoor spaces more comfortable. They also provide millions of dollars annually in ecosystem services through reduced energy use, flood risk reduction, and cleaner air and water. (Austin’s Urban Forest Report, 2014, www.tinyurl.com/2014UFReportATX)
At the State Capitol this year, during the 85th legislative session and special session, local tree protection ordinances received considerable attention by the legislature.  During the regular and special session, legislators filed bills that would have prevented cities from protecting trees in their communities. Texas has more than 100 cities and towns with some form of tree protection ordinance. Hours of testimony by engaged citizens from across the state resulted in the legislature passing only a bill that affects tree mitigation fees.  
Figure 4.  The Lorax Storytime on capitol grounds under a historic live oak. Photo by Michael Embesi, Community Tree Preservation Division.
To raise awareness of the issue at the special session, local singer-song writers collaborated with environmental partners to host a Music Tribute to Texas Trees. State representatives Carol Alvarado (D-Houston) and Wayne Faircloth (R-Galveston) read “The Lorax” on capitol grounds under one of the historic oak trees. Key legislators received copies of the book to raise awareness of the public’s support for tree protection.
At the end of the special session, House Bill 7 passed and the governor signed it. The new law does not impact the City of Austin’s tree protection ordinance, but it does affect how tree mitigation fees are assessed. The law requires that once the maximum number of replacement tree inches have been planted on a development site, any remaining tree inches must be accounted for and may be satisfied through fees. These fees are held for future community tree planting and care activities. The community may access this fund through the Urban Forest Grant (www.austintexas.gov/ufgp) for tree planting and care projects.
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