The Conversation

Seeing the Forest

How urban forester Aaron Reese views preserving Wilmington’s legacy of trees

By Dana Sachs

Aaron Reese: Forestry Management Supervisor,
City of Wilmington

What’s the goal of forestry management in a city?

To preserve, maintain and enhance the urban forest. “Urban forest” is a term that groups all the trees in the city — public and private.

What does that mean in terms of what your team does day-to-day?

Our department runs the tree crews in the city. And I work with other departments — planning, stormwater, streets — to review tree protection measures.

Tree protection bleeds into many of the development issues now being debated in the city.

It does. It’s closely tied with development right now.

I think about recent commercial developments, like the Pointe at Barclay, which used to be a large tract of woods. Now it’s buildings, a parking lot and a few small trees. How do you see the city responding to these debates in regard to the preservation of trees?

The city is working on rewriting the land development code. There may be some drastic changes, there may be some small changes. We don’t have a final draft at this point.

Can you give any examples of what might change?

Not specific examples. Groups such as the Wilmington Tree Commission and the Alliance for Cape Fear Trees are doing a pretty good job of educating the community on the benefits of retaining trees. And the Green Infrastructure Center is completing a six-state study on urban tree canopies that includes Wilmington. That’s shown what we can do, what’s been done in other areas, and how we can use trees to help mitigate the effects of stormwater runoff and flooding.

In a recent article about that study, The Port City Daily reported that runoff from pavements is 36 times higher than runoff from forests. For example, an inch of rainfall would produce 750 gallons of runoff in a forest and 27,000 gallons of runoff in a parking lot. That’s significant.

It’s a big difference. But that study is not saying we need to completely forest the city and have no new development whatsoever. It’s saying that there are ways to reduce the amount of runoff and you can use trees to help with that.

What else has the city learned from the study?

We’re not sure how we’re going to use the information yet, but we’ve learned about measures we could take on tree retention standards on private and public property. And using trees as green infrastructure. Your gray infrastructure within a city is all your hardscapes and streets and buildings and sidewalks and all that. Trees are the living part. They do take up an impressive amount of stormwater. They are actually cleaning and filtering stormwater, so you don’t have to dump all of that into the system.

Can you name a local development project that has been innovative in terms of preserving trees?

I’m trying to think of anybody that’s gone above and beyond code requirement. Live Oak Bank (on Tiburon Drive in Wilmington) does a very good job of working around trees. They’ve actually pushed retention of trees. Their new buildings blend in with the natural setting. And with their landscaping components, they bring in quite a few trees that are much larger than what’s required, and they also bring in more, just to help out and get almost instant maturity back into their landscape.

It’s more typical for developers to plant much smaller trees?

Yeah. The minimum required size for shade trees is 2 to 2 1/2-inch caliper. That’s typically a 9- or 10-foot tree. It varies a bit with species.

If we’re talking about tree canopy, we have to talk about Hurricane Florence. Do you know how many trees Wilmington lost?

We don’t have an accurate count yet, but upward of a thousand, for sure. Just street trees. The number of trees lost on private property — right now we don’t have an accurate way to measure that.

What does that mean to the city to lose that many trees?

In terms of stormwater mitigation, it’s significant, to say the least. Not only that, but losing the tree canopy coverage: You’re driving around and you see areas that are in the sun that were not in the sun this time last year. There are severe gaps as a result of the storm. It will take years to regain that. So, yes, it’s not just stormwater. It impacts aesthetics, and sometimes even a sense of place. You go to a place and it doesn’t quite look the same. It can be disorienting at times. A lot of people use trees for landmarks and don’t even realize it.

Did any tree come down in your yard that felt like a particular loss for you?

You mean a single tree?

Yeah, like, I lost a plum tree that I really loved.

Well, the only really large tree that I have in my yard is a maple that will have to come down as a result of damage. It’s a loss, but I’m not completely heartbroken.

Are there specific trees in Wilmington that, when they’re gone, it’s a blow to the whole community?

The Sonic Oak, the large live oak on Market Street by the Sonic restaurant, had to be taken out as a result of the Department of Transportation project there. We looked into relocating that tree and re-establishing it at the new fire station on Cinema Drive, a move of about 900 or 1,000 feet, but just ran into monetary issues. The cost of the move and all the residual costs — relocation of utilities, traffic control on Market Street to dig up the road — would have run close to $300,000. The money was not there.

Honestly, driving through Wilmington, it sometimes feels like I’m watching trees come down every day. Is there something that local people can do to promote preservation?

People can reach out to a developer to work with them. The Publix supermarket out in Ogden is a good example of that. The community got together and worked with the developer, who actually changed the plans to save a lot of the trees. The developer paid to have one large tree, a 70-inch diameter live oak, moved in order to protect it.

But there are still so many examples of the opposite, like on Airlie Road, a huge wooded property that’s just a dirt patch now. You know that property?

I’m familiar with it, yeah. There’s a lot going on with that that I would not feel comfortable talking about.

So, when you think about Wilmington’s cityscape, say, 10 years from now, what’s your worst-case scenario in terms of trees?

Going backward is off the table completely, so I think our worst possible scenario would be to keep our standards as they are currently.

What will you plant to replace the maple in your yard?

I’ve actually not decided yet, but it will probably be more than one tree. My neighborhood has lost a lot of trees through the last several hurricanes. I’m trying to do what I can.

Dana Sachs’ latest novel, The Secret of the Nightingale Palace, is available at bookstores, online and throughout Wilmington.

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