Where Have The Trees Gone?

Jul 29, 2015

Reno was designated a Tree City by the Arbor Foundation nearly 33 years ago — a distinction held thanks to its healthy, mature canopy. But the city’s tree population is disappearing — by as much as 20 percent over the last two decades. Reno Public Radio’s Julia Ritchey investigates the city’s shrinking tree cover. 

“This is an example on St. Lawrence and Gordon Avenue in the old Southwest neighborhood where we have five mature 60-year-old Green Ash trees that the Western Ash Bark Beetle has just destroyed,” says Steve Churchillo, the city's urban forester.  

Churchillo is sitting in his work pickup pointing to three graying trees with sickly limbs and patchy leaves.  As the city's head arborist, it’s his job to pay attention to the city’s oldest residents. His assessments are blunt.

“Not a lot we can do about it," he says. "The trees have been maintained by the owner, they’re being watered, but the beetle is so aggressive it’s killing all of the Green Ash trees.”

More on those beetles later. Bugs are mostly a symptom of a much larger set of problems threatening the city’s trees, including prolonged drought conditions and an understaffed, under-budgeted forestry department.  

Churchillo and his staff are wrapping up an official inventory of city-owned trees, the first to be completed in almost 17 years.

“Since 1998, when the inventory was first collected, it appears that the tree removal rate exceeds the tree planting rate," he says. "In other words, we’ve taken out more trees than we’ve replanted.”

After meticulously documenting the location, size and species of every tree on public right-of-way, the results are stark.

Churchillo estimates the city now has 20,000 trees, a net loss of about 5,000.

"Well, the biggest challenge, and this is ongoing, from year to year, is not getting enough water to trees," he says.

This is true for trees on private property, too, which are facing similar issues. In fact most of the trees that make up Reno’s canopy, about 79 percent, are residential trees, not city owned.

Churchillo says he saw a lot of mature trees suffer neglect during the Recession when homes were abandoned or foreclosed and the water shut off, affecting both private and public trees.

On weekdays, the city's three-person maintenance crew goes out to remove the trees that are in worst shape. They use chainsaws and chippers and turn the dead tree into mulch.

Right now, they’re struggling to keep up.

“We’re more in a response mode because trees are declining and dying so quickly," he says. "Right now on the list we have over 60 trees backlogged to take out, and these are substantial sized trees.”

That list will continue to grow as the hot and dry summer wears on. According to Churchillo, the city’s budget for this department has remained the same, at less than half a million dollars, since spending cutbacks several years ago. He says education is a priority.

That’s where Rod Haulenbeek comes in. A longtime member of the Reno Urban Tree Commission and self-described tree enthusiast, he gives informal nature walks in Idlewild Park.

"Ok, this tree that we're seeing here is a Freemont Cottonwood; it is not a drought tolerant species," he says. "That things sucks up water. The thing right next to it is a Juniper; well, they're quite drought tolerant. There's a contrast right there within 20 feet."

He and the other members of the commission work with Churchillo to inform the public on the benefits of trees. Besides their aesthetic appeal, they guzzle less water than turf and provide natural shade and cooling for the desert environment, an important part of water conservation.

“Think about Reno with no trees," he says. "It would be totally different. We are terraforming Reno, if you will.”

Now, back to those beetles from before. Without regular watering, some trees have become more vulnerable to these insects and other diseases.

Jeff Knight is the state's entomologist and says the Western Ash Beetle wasn't a problem when trees were healthier.

“It’s only become a problem in recent years and about the last 10 or so years as Ash trees have started aging in Reno and we’ve gone through these series of droughts," says Knight. "It’s really an insect that hits primarily drought-stressed trees.”

The city has already lost more than 10 percent of its 900 Green Ash trees.

Churchillo, the city’s arborist, says his department replants trees in neighborhoods where residents agree to help the city keep them watered, with the goal of introducing more diversity. He also hopes private citizens will plant more trees on their own.

“We want to expand the urban canopy," Churchillo says. "Right now Reno and the Truckee Meadows has about a 4.9 percent canopy coverage. We’d like to see that number get to 7 or 8 percent if possible.”

Ultimately, Churchillo can’t do it alone, nor can replanting trees keep pace with removals at this point. It will take more education and more community involvement to preserve Reno’s shade providers.  In the meantime, keep watering those trees. 

[For our follow-up conversation with Councilwoman Naomi Duerr on her plan to save the city's trees, click here.]