Pizzeria Toro team plans diner for Jack Tar, while developer says tower gets underway real soon now
Deep pockets and pocket neighborhoods: Should we be nervous?

It could take a village of children and their pick axes to save Durham's trees


Photo by Leslie Seaton, Creative Commons

The City's Urban Forester, Alex Johnson, has a dry sense of humor, as in desert-dry, arid. And he's minced no words in expressing his frustration that the city continues to underfund (and by extension, undervalue) his department. 

Durham needs to plant 1,600 trees each year just to keep up with the inevitable decay and death of the city's canopy (natural disasters, disease, accidents: The same things that kill people kill trees). Earlier this year, City Council, in responding to this grim news, suggested supplementing the department's efforts with volunteers.

OK, technically that's not impossible: A man in Jakarta spent 19 years planting trees to save his village from drought.

Johnson, obviously miffed at the powers-that-be's suggestion, wrote to the EAB in mid-August: "I’m still recovering from the shock of discovering that Council believes that I can fill the gaps in policy and resource allocation by appealing to church groups and Boy Scouts to pass the hat and roll up their sleeves.

"Had I but known, I wouldn’t have wasted my budgetary appeal last year on a mere trifle of a stump grinder and would have purchased a gross of child‐sized pick axes instead."

Johnson is scheduled to update  the Environmental Affairs Board on the tree report tonight at 6.



Bull City Rising

Interestingly, Alex already relies on volunteers in big numbers. In Trinity Park, and I assume other neighborhoods, local volunteers work with Alex to rouse community labor to plant trees. I believe the idea is to buy smaller trees, which require volunteers to do more work in terms of planting and watering (or raising watering-awareness) but allowing more to be planted.

So it's pretty much supplanted already, one would think?

Lisa Sorg

He does use volunteers but he told Council that is not a consistent source of labor. From what Johnson has said publicly and told me privately, his department is chronically underfunded, and volunteers can only do so much.

Bull City Rising

@Lisa: Oh yeah, no disagreement. I realize my last sentence didn't properly convey my bewilderment at the suggestion of "get volunteers." He's already gotten volunteers. Indeed, there are few people in the City administration that are as engaged with the community as Alex is.

The key is, as you note, volunteers aren't everything. There's gotta be real financial resources at play, too.

You know, we talk about the need for middle-class jobs and the need for opportunities for at-risk youth. Wouldn't tree-planting gigs play a role in both of those?

Cavett French

Take a look at www.treescharlotte.org--There's a city that values its trees, calling them the "most precious natural resource of our city". They use volunteers, but it is a hefty organization--two paid staff, solid Board, financial donations from companies.....They do not plant street trees with volunteers though--relying on their Urban Forestry for that. An effort to aspire to here......

Will Wilson

Penny-wise, pound foolish. Trees are cheap, urban heat islands are expensive, cardiopulmonary deaths are expensive, hindered childhood neural development is expensive, crime is expensive. Trees pay their way.


Thanks for bringing this issue to greater attention. The best way to inform staff and Council that the community supports this or has alternate funding ideas would be for you to come to one of our future meetings. The schedule is available here: http://durhamnc.gov/1368/Environmental-Affairs-Board-EAB.

Clifford Heindel


It's great having BCR back, thank you.

I've participated in the volunteer tree planting program and even spent two long days attending
training classes (they charged a fee for this too!)

Not too long ago I wrote to the Indy about a few of these things, maybe Lisa can access the thoughts I shared there (unpublished), but to re-offer an idea:
If Google Fiber is coming to Durham and digging up trenches everywhere why not bury all the powerlines that create so much of the conflict? Also, with all the emphasis on 'local' and 'startups'
perhaps a company developing and directing part of the stream of recycled plastics into sidewalk panels which could be easily removed for infrastructure repair/upgrade would be an advantageous to both the city, the company, and Duke Power.

And, to share a little of the dynamic I observed which Alex seems to be dealing with: a Mr. Lilley (Jim, maybe?) repeatedly asserted his enthusiasm for cutting down trees. He also offered a strong endorsement of the city's great relation with Duke Power. It might be a good start to balance Alex's budget with the budget Mr. Lilley has/provides to the crew removing trees.

Thanks for your work, Alex. -Cliff


Google Fiber's webpage indicates that a big part of their planning process is surveying the infrastructure so it seems a good time for Duke Energy to plan for savings in the future. Plus, Alex's job would get a lot easier. Shouldn't someone with savvy and political contacts (Kevin Lilley apparently has friends at Duke Energy?) get these two working together?

Frank Hyman

Given the extent of the existing tree canopy (having seen Durham from the top of the CCB building--now 21C Hotel--from which the canopy Totally blocks the view of any neighborhoods) it's going to be hard to get folks excited about spending money to plant trees.

Two steps that would help:

1) Find a graphic artist who can show us what the underfunded tree canopy will look like in 10, 20, 30 years. Seeing is believing. Number just don't tell the story as well as pictures.

2) Ramp up the marketing for the option of having a few bucks voluntarily added to one's water bill to pay for tree planting, as was done when Lorisa Seibel was on city council. Similar to the money one can add to your electric bill to help subsidize renewable energy. Not a silver bullet, but a move in the right direction.


Hello Mr. Hyman

Thank you for the response and suggestions, however, I reject both your assumptions and conclusion. Planting trees saves money as I assume you know. Duke Energy spends money to perennially trim trees. Google will be digging up to lay lines anyway, using the removable sidewalk panels that could be developed at the Entrepreneurial startups (using recycled plastics which fill the oceans), bury all the overhead lines in collaboration with Duke Energy, and everyone saves. Of course, PR, marketing and a bubble machine... let me think....

Stephen Hren

Ok, for the sake of a good argument, I'll take the anti-tree position, and by anti-tree I mean against planting large trees in an urban environment.

1. Trees cause lots of damage to infrastructure like sidewalks and roads and building foundations, greatly shortening their lifespans.
2. Trees cause damage and death to people and structures and power lines in storms.
3. Trees are mutilated by Duke power becuase they are too tall and end up looking grotesque.
4. Trees block access to solar energy on rooftops and gardening in yards.
5. The monculture of pin oaks has caused a canker worm explosion every spring.

I personally dont think we should be planting trees taller than 30' in an urban environment. Fortunately this includes a huge number of trees, including all fruit trees and most nut trees for edible landscaping. Keep the big trees in the woods where they belong. And btw burying all of the power lines would cost an absolute fortune. Thus is highly skilled work and must be done to a much greater depth than fiber optic cable.



thank you Stephen, that's very good.

i'm probably not really into for argument's sake but would be very happy if the mid sized trees were used to keep the city forested and added an aesthetic beyond the purity of an 'urban' environment you idealized. i'm not sure how residents of Paris, Rio, or Palo Alto (doesn't Stanford have a tree in it's standard?) feel about 'big' trees in their cities. in my admittedly optimistic vision, i'd hoped the modifications to the infrastructure would prevent the damage you cite. and, when big trees become one of the top ten obstacles to broader application of solar power and home gardening i'll agree to #4. i'd love more variety and if the elm and chestnut hybrids that are now available survive look forward to having them return to the landscape.

having read a little about the costs I think durham's would fall on the lower end, but that was part of the reasoning in that both Google and Duke would share the expense on a limited trial. 10 feet deep doesn't seem to qualify for 'much greater depth' and i'm not sure how the technical aspects would vary from doing it 30 feet in the air.

and, for your key qualifier about 'big' trees, having large mature trees is one of the South's most reliable indicators of expensive neighborhoods (so create wealth in a sense), for instance the several block stretch of Franklin Street in Chapel Hill and Club Boulevard (at least before Durham started their current tree panic) and Savannah, more broadly.

The comments to this entry are closed.