Commentary: Dover should do right by all of its trees

By Kathleen M. Doyle and Susan Yost

In his State of the Union address, the president announced plans to plant one trillion trees. Governor Carney recently announced his plan to have one million trees planted throughout Delaware over the next decade. Last year, Dover celebrated its 30th year as a Tree City — an Arbor Day recognition — and planted over 30 trees in city parks.

We applaud these efforts and ask that in addition to planting new trees, the city, the county, and private citizens do what they can to save existing trees.

Planting and taking care of trees is one of the easiest and least expensive ways to address the impact of increasing levels of CO2 in the atmosphere.

Trees take in carbon dioxide, release oxygen, provide shade, and release moisture through their leaves. The larger the tree and its canopy of leaves, the more benefits it provides.

The right trees planted in the right places are even able to reduce flooding in flood-prone areas. Trees can lower cooling and heating costs, reduce harmful UV radiation, increase property values, and even reduce crime.

Unfortunately, locally, we are losing far more trees than are being planted. In recent months, we have witnessed many instances of tree removal and tree neglect.

The city arborist retired several years ago, and that position has been eliminated. There remains an arborist on staff, but that job is a lower-level position that falls under the Department of Public Works.

Wilmington, Newark, and Rehoboth all have city arborists, and yet the second-largest city — the most beautiful city in the state, the capital city — does not.

In addition, more than a dozen Delaware cities have committed to increasing or maintaining their tree canopies with the help of GIS software that has been developed by the Delaware Forest Service, yet Dover does not appear on that list.

Dover is home to thousands of beautiful, mature trees. The largest elm tree in the state is located on The Green. Several of the smaller elm trees on The Green are showing early signs of elm disease – a preventable disease – which is no longer being treated. This disease will kill these trees if they are not treated. The city arborist used to take care of these trees.

We are also concerned about plans for Loockerman Street. A new streetscape design calls for the removal of all of the healthy, native willow oak trees that currently line the street. These trees, which have a life span of at least 100 years, are now close to 50 years old, and healthy.

Willow oaks are wonderful urban trees. They tolerate poorly drained soil, and are pollution and drought tolerant. They are essentially trouble-free, needing only to have their soil tested periodically, which a city arborist would do. In addition to cleaner and cooler air, these trees, according to University of Delaware Professor Doug Tallamy, “are the quintessential wildlife plant” hosting hundreds of species of butterflies and moths, and providing abundant food for birds.

Reasons given for removing the willow oaks in downtown Dover range from buckling sidewalks to panhandler hiding places. There are less drastic ways to address sidewalk and panhandler problems while remaining in compliance with ADA requirements. In fact, very few downtown businesses are experiencing problems with their sidewalks.

Fortunately, this new streetscape plan is on hold – for now.

Lastly, as one walks around the beautiful city of Dover, one cannot help but notice the hundreds of trees on private, commercial and public property that are being slowly strangled by English ivy.

There was a time when vines of ivy crawling up trees and buildings were viewed as pretty. Now we know more about this invasive species’ destructive capabilities. Young vines are easily removed. Old vines require more effort, but they can – and should – be removed if property owners wish for their trees to survive.

Sometimes it is necessary to cut down an old tree when it is diseased or posing a danger. When a tree must be taken down, or allowed to die due to neglect, new trees need to be planted. Many places have laws that require a minimum of a 1:1 replacement, depending upon the size of the tree that was removed. If the city were to follow Kent County’s tree mitigation ordinance which outlines the rules for developers, each tree in downtown Dover that has been cut down should be replaced by five trees.

In this era when many cities and states are committed to doing everything in their power to mitigate some of the effects of a changing climate, we encourage our city to do the same, and one of the easiest and most effective places to start is with the trees. Substantial urban grants and technical assistance are available from Delaware’s Urban and Community Forestry Program.

We ask the capital city to re-commit to the trees, share its plans with the public, and reinstate the position of City Arborist before any more trees are removed or allowed to die. We also encourage private citizens of Dover to pay attention to the health of the trees on their properties.

Kathleen M. Doyle, M.A.T., retired social studies teacher, has lived in Dover for more than thirty years. Susan Yost, PhD, has lived in Dover for close to thirty years, and taught botany courses at Delaware State University for 20 years.