City trees are worth millions of dollars

City trees are worth millions of dollars

Ever consider how much a tree is worth?

If you need an new oak tree, you could buy one today from Prairie Gardens in Champaign for $79.99. But not every city tree is an oak -- and they certainly aren't as young as the trees Prairie Gardens is selling.

The city of Champaign estimates that it owns at least 20,000 trees ranging everywhere between 2 inches to 60 inches in diameter. Their species and conditions vary on a diverse spectrum, too.

Altogether, city forestry supervisor Bill VanderWeit said, the city's trees are worth $30 million.

And that's a conservative estimate. He calculates the value of a tree roughly at $100 per diameter-inch. On average, a city tree is 15 inches in diameter -- multiply that by 20,000 trees, and you have yourself quite a valuable inventory.

The value of a tree is calculated with a complicated formula that takes into account a number of benefits, and "the whole is more than the sum of the parts," VanderWeit said. "It takes a long, long time to grow a large tree, and it can't be easily replaced."

Think about it: A living tree offers more abstract benefits to a city than the inherent value of its lumber. It provides wind control, shade and supports wildlife. It purifies the air and filters storm water. It adds value to real estate.

Not too long ago, VanderWeit said, the city asked for an appraisal of a 40-inch Burr Oak tree. The value of that single tree came to about $20,000 (sorry, it has to be living and rooted in the ground for this to apply, so don't go cutting down your trees and complaining that I misled you).

Now add the Emerald Ash Borer to the equation, and officials are looking at an extreme risk to the investment they've been building pretty much since the city itself came into existence. The invasive species will be here soon, as it's already been detected in Rantoul.

To illustrate the impact something like that can have, take for example Dutch Elm disease that hit Champaign-Urbana in the 1950s and 1960s. At the time, 30 to 35 percent of the city's trees were elm.

"It was very popular," VanderWeit said. "It was a nice street tree, it had that arching shape, so people would just plant it tree after tree after tree."

Then the disease killed most of those trees -- in today's dollars, that's about $10 million worth of city trees that were at risk.

Fortunately, city officials learned from the experience. Cities across the Midwest have been planting more diverse inventories of trees, and many have been systematically replacing ash trees, which will likely be killed by the borer (Ann Arbor, Mich., lost 99 percent of its ash trees in six years, VanderWeit said).

The ash inventory in Champaign is just above 10 percent of the overall tree population.

I bring this up now, because Champaign City Council members this week had a tough time deciding whether $90,000 worth of new software for inventorying the city's trees was an appropriate use of funds during a tight budget cycle (they voted 6-3 to approve of the new software purchase).

Most of the cost of the new software isn't the software itself: A contractor will go out and record every single tree in the city, its location, its species, its size and its condition at a cost of $3.45 per tree.

The city's current log is inefficient, and not always accurate, VanderWeit explained.

On its face, $90,000 for tree-tracking software might not seem a prudent use of taxpayer dollars, but it can create internal efficiencies, VanderWeit said. And it will give the city a better handle on the $30 million investment it is trying to maintain.

"If we have to remove something like 500 trees one year, we can prioritize" based on location, size, condition, and other factors, VanderWeit said.

What do you think? Should the city have spent that money?

Questions or comments? Please feel encouraged to post them below, email me or send me a message on Twitter.

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