Residents fight to save Augusta's 'deficient' tree population

A five-year drought, followed by one of the wettest summers in recent history, has Augusta facing a deficient tree population with groundskeepers removing more public trees in Summerville, Forest Hill and downtown than it has planted, officials said Wednesday.

The latest casualty are downtown dogwoods, which in 2013 began to die off at an inordinate rate after excessive rain and wood-boring insects saturated the district’s dense soil and suffocated the trees’ shallow root systems, said Roy Simkins, a certified arborist and the chairman of the Augusta-Richmond County Tree Commission.

Before this year, Simkins said, the victims included the Japanese Zelkovas along Reynolds Street and the red maples dotting downtown’s parking lots, which were lost after receiving too much reflective heat from asphalt.

The tree commission is revising its tree recommendations for commercial and industrial developers, but with only $5,000 budgeted annually for planting and pruning, officials say the measure is outstripping private efforts to save the population.

“This is the first time we have ever had to deal with anything like this,” Simkins said of the tree problems. “We are really in unchartered waters.”

According to the National Drought Mitigation Center, the area has received 15½ inches of excess precipitation in 2013. This time last year, it was at a 10-inch deficit.

The sudden change has shocked Augusta’s creek beds and downriver swamps, which Simkins said went from being bone dry to having soggy bottoms.

“That’s a heck of a swing,” Simkins said. “Anytime you experience that kind of a change in an area’s root zone, you are going to have a lot of fatality, some species a lot more than others.”

In 2011, the tree commission amended the tree ordinance – designed to eliminate heat islands, increase canopy, and improve water and air quality – to recommend developers plant more trident maples and American and Chinese elms because their heartier root systems tolerate weather better and are thriving in heavy soil regions.

The maintenance standards kept under the ordinance – adopted in 1993 – does not specify when and how the canopy must be treated in residential areas annually.

City groundskeeper Sam Smith said he manages the $5,000 that the Augusta Commission budgets for tree planting and pruning each year. He said he
typically plants in the fall and winter to increase survivability.

Smith said he plans to look this year at areas of denuded trees surrounding Greene and Broad streets.

He has yet to decide on which species to plant, saying costs vary on type and size, but added that “there are a million places across the county that need trees” and that in his opinion, more funds are needed.

“As a horticulturist by trade, I want lots of trees, but I am at the mercy of the commission,” Smith said.

Since February 2010, Smith has worked with Trees for Augusta Inc. to plant more than 80 trees along Jones and Henry streets, on James Brown Boulevard, in Hickman Park and near the intersection of Meigs and Central avenues.

Most of those trees remain in good shape, but in Forest Hill the problem got so bad the neighborhood brought in a certified arborist to take inventory of the fallen stock, said Diane Sprague, a resident, tree commissioner and Trees for Augusta member.

The survey found 30 trees needed removal, 200 needed pruning and 120 spaces needed planting. The city removed the bad trees, while the neighborhood raised funds to plant between 50 and 60 trees.

“In this neighborhood, we are definitely in the deficit and in the next 10 to 15 years, we are going to lose some of our older oak trees,” Sprague said.

Sprague said that tree preservation is an issue and that as a result, Trees for Augusta plans to contract an arborist to inventory Harrisburg and downtown.

Also helping the recovery is Katherine Gomon, a member of the Augusta Woman’s Club, who is leading an effort to plant 300 crape myrtles and red maples near Gate 5 of Fort Gordon, the Savannah River Port Authority and along the Columbia County Greenway at Grovetown Trails, possibly as early as next spring.

Sprague advocates that the city evaluate its tree population yearly and preserve the plants that bring in wildlife, recharge ground water, prevent erosion and street flooding, reduce crime and slow traffic and overall increase property values.

“It’s important that we have more in our city,” she said. “It is really a tough life being an urban street tree.”

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