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

Wednesday, Aug 28, 2013 9:08 PM
Last updated Thursday, Aug 29, 2013 1:14 AM
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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.

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A vehicle moves along a tree-lined portion of Broad Street. A five-year drought followed by one of the wettest summers in recent history has taken a toll on Augusta's trees.  TODD BENNETT/STAFF
A vehicle moves along a tree-lined portion of Broad Street. A five-year drought followed by one of the wettest summers in recent history has taken a toll on Augusta's trees.

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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Little Lamb
Little Lamb 08/28/13 - 11:11 pm
Crape Myrtle vs. White Oak

From the story:

Also helping the recovery is Katherine Gomon . . . who is leading an effort to plant 300 crape myrtles . . . .

I have a beautiful crape myrtle in my front yard that is commented on by many of my neighbors. But one red oak or one white oak or one live oak is worth more than 300 crape myrtles.

The stories tell us that the red oaks downtown that are needing to be replaced were planted in the early 1900s. Please, please, please — replace these 90+ year-old red oaks with more red oaks. Don't subject us to crape myrtles, trident maples, and Chinese elms.

floridasun 08/29/13 - 07:50 am
I agree ....plant more oaks

Please plant trees that give a nice canopy over the street
I really wish Augusta would get serious about improving the appearance of this city
I would much rather have my tax dollars spent on planting street trees and keeping our city clean than funding a TEE center

corgimom 08/29/13 - 09:52 am
When those old trees were

When those old trees were planted, the streets weren't made of asphalt and there weren't any cars.

Between the car exhaust and the asphalt, it's really hard to find trees that will survive in a city landscape. Oak trees, especially new ones, would have a tough time surviving.

TrulyWorried 08/29/13 - 11:34 am
Planting new trees

May I ask - P l e a s e - when those new trees are planted, give them water, regularly - they need it all the time.
Two times that I personally know of, Augusta/Richmond County planted trees - once at the Wastewater Treatment Plant, huge cypress trees, 10 of them, at a cost of $600 each - then they were left to stand there and die for lack of water. I can testify to that - passing by daily to and from work I had to watch them wither away. A crying shame.
Oh, but that is not all, while Mayor Bob Young was still in office, young trees were planted on each side of the ponds on Gordon Highway, right next to the WATER!!! But they were not taken care of either! I wrote a letter to Bob Young and after that water bags were placed around each tree, the bags were green, but I don't think they were filled regularly, all those trees died also. Now that new trees should, and hopefully WILLbe planted where sick ones are now taken down, let us hope that the residents in those areas will keep their eyes open and the county watched so those trees will live and thrive for many years to come.

ritaham 08/30/13 - 08:30 am
Thank you for this coverage concerning our trees in Augusta.

The persons you mentioned in this article are instrumental in the health of our trees in Augusta. Thank you for pointing to their efforts. Thanks also for all the many people in Augusta, the CSRA and the state who lead the effort to place value on our canopy. We congratulate these efforts including the Chronicle and Wesley Brown for the focus placed on this important subject.

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