Traverse City needs trees, but it’s not as easy as just planting more
Traverse City has been a designated "Tree City USA" for about 30 years. But a study shows it only has about a third of the tree canopy possible. Now, there are efforts to change that.
Nobody alive today in the Grand Traverse Bay region remembers the state of the area’s trees prior to the arrival of European loggers to Northern Michigan in the early 19th century.
Back then, dense forests were interspersed with small farms maintained by the area’s indigenous people. Now, of course, a drastically different landscape exists as the region continues to rapidly develop.
And when commercial growth is on the line, trees are often the first to go.
But in Traverse City, a joint effort between city government and private developers is beginning to see some progress in restoring the tree canopy to even a fraction of its former glory.
Urban tree canopy is a top priority for many environmental groups in Northern Michigan. As the region develops at a pace faster than most areas in the state, practices like the clear cutting of trees are common, especially in Traverse City where newer, larger commercial buildings spring up every few months.
In order to combat the loss of tree canopy, the city has adopted a change in zoning ordinance language and has increased efforts to plant and maintain trees on public land.
HOW MUCH IS ENOUGH?
Traverse City, which has been recognized as a Tree City USA for 30 years, commissioned an assessment of its public trees by the natural resource consultant Davey Group back in 2018. The results of that survey concluded that the city had 33% of the tree canopy it could support, and that the government would need to plant 400 new trees each year to maintain even that percentage. However, tree canopy restoration relies on more than just planting new trees, and maintaining mature trees is a costly undertaking.
“Day to day, what adds up is making sure that the staff has running chainsaws, running pole saws, good chains on their chainsaws and also a water truck,” said Michelle Hunt, superintendent of Parks and Recreation in Traverse City. “All the safety equipment that they need, that adds up. You have to have state of the art good equipment. You have to have training. And then all the other trucks we drive too, those are pricey.”
And while the city is increasing its capacity to plant more trees each year, Hunt said they’re still falling short of the recommendations made in the 2018 Davey report.
The city also employs an arborist who cares for individual trees and assesses any damage or diseases among the city’s trees. Hunt said that volunteers and concerned locals offer help as well, from donating to the city’s tree fund to caring for the public trees that are planted near their homes.
“We’ll send out a flier and say ‘Hey, congratulations, you have a new tree in front of your home,” she said. “Please take care of it, these are the steps that you can take to take care of your tree,’ and then people will call us and ask us how to support the new tree in front of their home or business.”
According to the Department of Parks and Recreation, there were 300 trees planted in 2021, an improvement from 2020, when 228 were planted, and 2019, when 156 were planted.
An additional assessment of the city’s trees by the Davey Group is planned for this August, in hopes of having updated information on where new trees are most needed and how the trees planted in the last few years are faring.
ZONING RULES FOR TREES
As the parks department works to install new trees in parks and right-of-way areas, questions often arise about how tree canopy can truly be restored when public land only makes up so much of the city’s area.
In the last few decades, as Traverse City sees more and more massive building projects, commercial developments often come at the expense of trees. Clear cutting is a common practice, especially on lots in town.
The city’s planning commission is targeting this issue by enforcing a zoning ordinance requiring developers to maintain a certain percentage of tree canopy depending on the size of their property.
“When you’re talking about building a $20 million building, and we’re saying ‘Hey, you need to plant five 300 dollar trees.’ They say okay.”Shawn Winter, Traverse City zoning administrator
Heather Smith, who serves as a liaison between advocates, municipalities, and developers for the Watershed Center Grand Traverse Bay, said that the new zoning language, passed in 2019, could make all the difference when it comes to large construction projects in the city.
“Our region is facing unprecedented development, unprecedented growth. We’re a tourism destination, we’re a retirement destination, we’re a recreation destination,” Smith said. “We have probably the quickest rate of growth of anywhere in the state. It’s just really happening fast in this region, and I think the more zoning tools that we have in place that can help protect our urban canopy, the better off we’ll be.”
The zoning language applies to any project larger than a one or two family dwelling, which in Traverse City includes condo or apartment complexes, hotels, and commercial buildings. In areas like the West Bay waterfront, where trees are often clear cut from properties to ensure water views, developers can skirt the tree requirement if they pay into the city’s tree fund.
Zoning administrator Shawn Winter said that developers are usually happy to comply with the tree ordinance and that the planning commission faced little pushback from landowners.
But there can sometimes be resistance from developers, including over aesthetic concerns, Winter said.
“There have been times when people have said, ‘Well, I don’t want to plant the trees. I'd rather pay into the tree fund just because I want more visibility to our building,’ and we’re like, sorry, you’re able to plant the trees, you have to meet that requirement,” Winter said.
“When you’re talking about building a $20 million building, and we’re saying ‘Hey, you need to plant five 300 dollar trees.’ They say okay.”
In the fight for tree canopy restoration, advocates often have to play the long game — planting new trees knowing that it will be years or even decades before they’re mature can make it difficult to see progress as it happens.
Nonetheless, the combination of zoning tools and increased public planting and maintenance seems to be working, and environmental groups like the Watershed Center are optimistic that it can be replicated in other towns hoping to restore their tree canopies.
“There are a plethora of different zoning tools that communities can use,” Smith said. “Any tool where we can start protecting vegetation and mandating either preservation or replanting is a step in the right direction.”